SALT LAKE CITY — Even after the Cavs went 0-3 on their road trip, even after they dropped their fourth game in the last five, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue was upbeat.
“We’re in good shape,” Lue said after a 104-101 loss to the Utah Jazz. “I like where we (are) at the end of 2017. We’ll be fine.”
That was in direct contrast to LeBron James, who bluntly said, “This trip was trash.”
Lue looks at the 24-12 record the Cavs have compiled with three rotation players, including their starting point guard, sidelined with injuries. Two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas has yet to don a Cavs uniform because of a torn labrum in his right hip, 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose is out with a sprained left ankle complicated by a bone spur, and Iman Shumpert is rehabbing after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Yet after the setback Saturday night in Vivint Smart Home Arena, there was a sense that the Cavs are at a point where they need the injection of energy Thomas will provide.
“You always look forward to having a great player back on your team,” Lue said.
Thomas participated in a scrimmage Friday at St. Helena (Calif.) High School that Lue said was one of their best practices of the year. Yet it didn’t carry over to the game against the Jazz, the Cavs doomed by a 16-point third quarter in which they shot 21 percent from the field.
After losses at Golden State and Sacramento, Lue talked Saturday morning about how the offense’s pace had slowed. In his observations of Thomas after the scrimmage, Lue mentioned the pace Thomas brought.
Against the Jazz, LeBron James brought the ball upcourt some in the first half, a task usually reserved primarily for the second. Jose Calderon, handling the point without Thomas and Rose, continued to be a pest on defense, but failed to score.
With shooting guard J.R. Smith totaling just 23 points on the road trip, that boosted by 15 at Sacramento, the Cavs need more offense at the point. They lost two games by a combined 10 points and three by a total of 24.
Lue insisted Smith “is OK.”
“Defensively he’s playing hard. Shots come and go through a long season,” Lue said. “But we need him to take those shots when he’s open.”
They also need Kyle Korver to stress less.
Korver went scoreless against the Jazz, missing all five of his attempts, all from long range, and scored 12 in the three losses. Some of that is because of increased attention from opposing defenses, but Lue said some is mental as well.
“He has to realize when he’s on the floor, he’s done his job. If guys are going to stay next to him and be there, then Bron and those guys have got to be able to get downhill and score,” Lue said. “He can’t rush shots and things like that. When you’re on the floor, guys are going to stand next to you and that’s all you need.”
Thomas will scrimmage again at practice today, like Friday another session that might not have been scheduled if not for the need to get Thomas ready. This will be only his third such scrimmage — the first was with members of the G-League’s Canton Charge at the Cavs facility on Dec. 21 — and the team is closely monitoring how Thomas comes out of each.
A home game Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers will be the first night of a back-to-back, and the second at Boston on Wednesday starts another trip to five cities in 10 days. Thomas said he would love to play against the Celtics, who traded him in the Kyrie Irving deal Aug. 22, but some of that is tempered by an inevitable minutes restriction.
There are problems to fix, even without Thomas. On the road trip, the Cavs shot .388 from the field (well below their .478 for the season), hit .364 from 3-point range (as compared to .381) and their reserves contributed 32.3 points (down from 39.9).
Asked why the scoring efficiency has dropped and how they can get it back, Jeff Green said, “Just ball movement, trusting the pass, believing in each other.”
Tristan Thompson said there are communication issues, a problem early in the season.
Asked what needed to be fixed first, Thompson said, “Just improving our multiple efforts. I think at times we’re on a string and having each other’s back, but sometimes we’re just not communicating, and that’s on the bigs, our guys on the backline defense. We all gotta be better and we gotta talk. Like talking amongst each other, but we gotta do the same thing on the court. I gotta be better at that.”
James took the same approach as Lue. He looks at the Cavs’ 5-7 start and the franchise record-tying 13-game winning streak and said he believes the Cavs will straighten out the problems.
“I think it’s just the season of ups and downs,” James said. “Hopefully we can figure it back out. I don’t know where it kind of went wrong, but we have to figure it out like we did the first time.”
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