The first sign of trouble came three games ago when J.R. Smith decided to take a stroll over to the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench to say hello to Bucks guard Jason Terry.
Smith will never be described as a world-class decision-maker, and there were three things wrong with this decision:
- At the time, there was a game going on.
- Terry wasn’t in the game.
- Smith was.
The predictable result: Smith’s man scored on an uncontested dunk, while Smith was busy “guarding” a player who was sitting on the bench.
Since then it’s been all downhill for Smith and the Cavs, who suddenly look less like the reigning NBA champions and more like a bunch of guys standing around wondering when the next parade starts.
“The honeymoon is over,” said LeBron James on Friday, after the Cavs’ embarrassing loss to the Bulls, which followed an embarrassing loss to the Clippers, which followed an embarrassing loss to the Bucks.
Making matters worse: all these shenanigans came at a time when Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was named NBA Coach of the Month for November and James was named the winner of Sports Illustrated’s prestigious Sportsman of the Year Award.
Making matters better: Smith has since played two consecutive games in which he’s defended only players who are in the game.
So the Cavs have that going for them.
What they don’t have going for them right now, alarmingly, is the will to compete. This from a team that competed ferociously and historically in coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals.
OK, look. Bad games happen. Shots don’t go in. You don’t get some bad calls. The other team has a hot night. It happens. For bad teams, it happens a lot. For the NBA champions, it happens, but only very rarely.
For the NBA champions, it shouldn’t happen three times in four nights, twice on national television. In truth, those three Cavs losses weren’t strictly bad games. They were bad effort. Borderline no effort.
That can’t happen.
Once? Maybe. Two in a row? Ehhh. Three in a row? Absolutely not.
You can play hard and still lose, but if you don’t play hard you WILL lose.
Three times in four days the Cavs chose not to play hard, and they suffered three consecutive embarrassing losses. With their next game Monday at Toronto, they are in danger of falling out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
All that said, however, the sky is not falling.
This is still a very good team. Prior to last week’s clunkerpalooza the Cavs were 13-2. Even with those three obnoxious losses they still have a winning percentage of .722. They still have the best player in the game, and the Cavs’ Big Three are playing better together than they ever have.
Talent isn’t the problem. Effort is. Effort and the realization that for the first time in franchise history, the Cavs are the hunted, not the hunter.
A championship hangover seemed likely at some point this season. Maybe the last three games was it. Maybe the last three games will help remind the Cavs that they are the NBA’s big dogs. They have the trophy to prove it — and they also the bull’s-eye on their backs to prove it. They have been getting, and will continue to get, every opponent’s best shot.
It’s hard to become a champion, and even harder to continue to play like one, once you are.
The only thing more difficult than winning the championship is defending that championship. In the last 14 years only two teams have won the NBA title in consecutive years: LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2011-12 and 2012-13, and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Ask the Warriors how hard it is to win two in a row. Last year they lost only nine games in the entire regular season, then lost nine games in the playoffs.
The Cavs are 13-5. After their first 18 games in their title defense season of 2012-13, LeBron’s Miami team was also 13-5.
So the sky isn’t falling on the Cavs. It’s just gotten a little cloudy in the last week. What we need to find out, and will, about this Cavs group is how they respond to being the hunted.
LeBron and James Jones have both been there and done that. They have won a championship and then won it again the next year. But none of the other Cavs have been in this position. The Cavs as a franchise has never been in this position.
They are the defending champions. What they accomplished last year was really hard. What they hope to accomplish this year will be even harder.
They are permitted to have a bad game now and then. But playing three games in a row without championship effort?
That’s a bad look.
- Cavs snap three-game losing streak, lose Smith to injury
- Truth teller: Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue is confident leader who can challenge stars while also earning their trust
- Cavs manhandled inside by Bulls, lose third straight
- Cavs notes: LeBron joins select company with SI honor
- Cleveland suffers second straight lopsided defeat, 113-94 to the Clippers
- LeBron 'honored' to repeat as Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year
- Focus is key for Cavaliers: Coach Tyronn Lue says team got wake-up call in blowout loss to Bucks; J.R. Smith got a talking-to
- Bucks build big lead, bury Cavs in the fourth quarter