CLEVELAND, Ohio — The good vibes that surrounded the Cavaliers after appointing Larry Drew “acting” coach lasted five quarters.
One game after routing the hapless Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland got off to a magnificent start Thursday night, able to carry that repaired confidence into the first quarter while building a 12-point lead against the lethargic Denver Nuggets. But as has been the case for seven of the eight games during a drama-filled and gloomy season, the Cavs couldn’t sustain that level of play.
It vanished quickly, as the Cavs lost 110-91.
“We just could not recover,” Drew said. “And as I told the guys at halftime, I mean looking at that second quarter, you would’ve thought if you had known who played last night, you would’ve thought we were the team that played last night because we just, we could not sustain the energy we did in the first quarter.”
Playing against the stingy Nuggets, who entered the night ranked fourth in defense in the NBA, the ball movement from Tuesday’s win stopped. The Cavs had 18 assists.
The mid-range jumper, the most inefficient look in basketball, was the shot of choice. Too often the Cavs aimlessly hoisted late-clock jumpers — stymied on their initial drive attempts. It led to shooting 34-of-83 (41 percent) from the field, including 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) on triples.
“That’s where I think we got a little hurried, we got a little out of ourselves,” Starting forward Sam Dekker said. “Good teams are the ones that can get out of those funks and correct the ship. We’re not there yet.”
The Cavs looked indecisive and untrusting, throwing the ball away repeatedly and fueling the Nuggets’ ruthless fastbreak game. The Cavs committed 14 turnovers, which the Nuggets converted into 19 points.
Denver also finished the game with 16 fastbreak points.
Rodney Hood’s breakout game turned out to be nothing but a tease. Hood’s streak of double-digit scoring games ended at seven. He tallied just eight points on 1-of-9 from the field and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc.
It wasn’t much better on the other end, as the defense was leaky, looking like Tyronn Lue was back putting an ill-conceived plan together.
The Nuggets whipped the ball from side to side and repeatedly bludgeoned the Cavs with open shots and long-range bombs. The Nuggets ended the night shooting 10-of-26 on 3-pointers. They sliced through Cleveland’s paltry pick-and-roll defense and left players scrambling to recover, with poor communication once again a problem.
“With this team, even though it shouldn’t be, guys offensively if they’re not getting in a rhythm sometimes take a step back defensively,” Tristan Thompson said. “I think that’s just the nature of the NBA, the nature of basketball.
“For our team, like LD said, he hit it right on the head, the margin of error is so small that we can’t have those kind of screwups. We’ve got to be sharp every night just to give ourselves a chance to be in the ballgame.”
When the game started to slip away, during another lackluster second quarter, there was finger-pointing and eye-rolling. At one point, veteran point guard George Hill slammed the ball out of frustration, bouncing it all the way across the Quicken Loans Arena hardwood to a waiting official.
On Thursday night, just 48 hours after celebrating their first win and toasting to a new era, the Cavs reverted to old habits — the flaws that led to that horrible 0-6 start and eventually Lue’s abrupt release.
“We’ve got some bad habits, we’ve got guys that have got some bad habits,” Thompson said. “That’s fine, it’s a learning process at the end of the day. They don’t have enough wins on their resume to know what (a bad habit) looks like. Some guys win 25 games and think it’s a good season. That’s terrible. Guys just have to learn how to break bad habits and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
The honeymoon ended before it really started.
The Cavs looked like the team playing their third game in four nights and the second of a back-to-back while losing an hour coming from Chicago. That was the Nuggets, by the way.
With some circumstances in Cleveland’s favor heading into the night, it was an opportunity to take another step forward.
For Drew, it was a chance to send a message once again, to put more pressure on the front office during these back-and-forth contract negotiations that are said to be progressing.
Instead, it was another blowout loss, their fifth of that kind this season.
The coaching change didn’t fix everything. Bad habits are tough to break.
Lousy second quarter
It’s been their vulnerability all season. Firing Lue hasn’t corrected it. The Cavaliers produced a sloppy second quarter, which was as bad as the first quarter was good.
The Cavs scored 15 points on 5-of-22 from the field to go with six turnovers. By the end of it, the Nuggets had turned a 12-point deficit into an eight-point advantage, winning the quarter, 35-15.
From the 5:26 mark until the end of the period, the Cavs made just one basket, a putback dunk by Larry Nance Jr. to beat the quarter buzzer.
Part of Cleveland’s issue is its bench. The second unit has been scoring in bunches this season, ranked second in the NBA heading into the night. But scoring numbers can be deceiving. Three of the team’s second unit mainstays — Nance, Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton — rank in the bottom six in net rating.
That stat helps illustrate their effectiveness. Or lack thereof.
Support for JR Smith
Chants of Smith’s name echoed through the mostly-vacated arena late in the fourth quarter, as fans wanted Smith to get some playing time. It never happened.
Smith was one of two players not to see action. Channing Frye was the other.
Smith, who said early Tuesday morning that he was hoping for a trade and felt unwanted, hasn’t played in the team’s last two games. He is not expected to get back in the rotation unless something unforeseen happens.
The Cavs will hit the road for a pair of games. Their first stop will be Charlotte for a matchup against the Hornets on Saturday night.