Game Night Observations: A lack of intensity and figuring out the rotation
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham. The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a number of bad losses this season. Friday night’s 136-119 loss to Atlanta is pretty close to the top of the list.
The first half, in which Cleveland gave up a startling 81 points and trailed by as many as 32 points to an Atlanta team that entered the night below .500 on the season after firing its head coach during the All-Star break.
There are going to be nights when the Cavs miss shots on offense. It happened against the Nuggets on Thursday, and it happened again on Friday in Atlanta. Teams go through offensive funks sometimes. It just sort of is what it is.
What’s more than mildly concerning is how poorly the Cavaliers played on defense. They didn’t have anything close to resembling the level of intensity they need to succeed on that end of the floor. They entered the night as the NBA’s top ranked defense and allowed a middle of the pack offense in Atlanta torch them repeatedly, in every single way.
It was so unlike what the Cavs have been this season. On nights when they haven’t had great offense, they’ve been able to stay in the game by being great defensively. When it mattered on Friday night, they were bad on both ends, and arguably worse defensively.
It’s difficult to pinpoint another time when the Cavs were this bad defensively. The 81 points in the first half is the most they’ve allowed in a half all season, the 49 points allowed in the second quarter alone is also the highest.
It’s not fair to write a team off because of one bad game. But it’s also unwise to throw this game away as meaningless. Sure, it was the second night of a back-to-back and the Hawks hadn’t played in over a week thanks to the All-Star break. The Hawks also may have gotten a bit of the “interim coach bump” in their first game since firing Nate McMillian, as well. But looking past this as just an off night seems irresponsible, too.
What makes this even more concerning is that it comes after talk about building the right habits and building up for a playoff run.
“It's time to start ramping up for playoffs, it's time to switch your mode into every game counts,” center Jarrett Allen said at shootaround on Thursday before the game against Denver. “Not that it didn't before, but these games have extra meaning.”
Friday night’s game in Atlanta looked like anything but that. These games are important as the Cavs look to hold off any teams chasing them for home court in the Eastern Conference and possibly track down the 76ers for a top three seed. That couldn’t be seen on Friday. The Cavs didn’t look like a team that thought that was a very important game. The intensity that would’ve surrounded that was missing.
How the Cavs respond to this, with a handful of big games remaining this season, will be important. Either way, this is a game that certainly raises some red flags.
The other thing that has stood out over the last two nights is that the rotation for the Cavs doesn’t seem as solid as it did prior to the All-Star break. On Thursday night, Lamar Stevens saw meaningful minutes for the first time in a few weeks, while Dean Wade’s minutes were lessened. Newcomer Danny Green is still being integrated while the Cavs search for the proper role that fits him.
With 19 games left in the season, the Cavs don’t have a ton of answers. One of the things that worked for them during the recent seven-game winning streak was that the rotations were tightened down a little bit. Out of the break that hasn’t been the case for whatever reason.
Maybe head coach J.B. Bickerstaff will go back to a shorter rotation, or maybe things will get figured out shortly as far as that goes, but it isn’t something the Cavaliers have a bunch of time remaining to get straightened out.
Figuring out who plays, when they play, and how much they play is something that is relatively important. There are always going to be minor tweaks here or there depending on different in-game situations. But right now it feels like the Cavs are searching a little bit for answers.