CLEVELAND, Ohio — Following their most disappointing loss of the Larry Drew era, getting blown out at home by the nine-win Chicago Bulls, there was a pointed message passed around the locker room. It started with the coach and trickled down to the players.
“We’ve got to man up,” Larry Nance Jr. said.
The Cavs have spent most of the season brushing off losses. They get it. The players recognize what this season has turned into.
They know it will be a constant battle just to stay out of last place in the Eastern Conference, especially with Kevin Love weeks away from returning. Winning games is a chore. They’ve only won back-to-back contest once. Even after squandering an opportunity against short-handed Toronto to cap the road trip Friday, the Cavs were able to point to a few positives. They weren’t demoralized.
That changed Sunday.
“Not learning. Lack of growth. We’re not using our losses as lessons,” Nance said. “It’s tough to keep doing so. At the beginning of the season, it’s easy to go, ‘All right, we lost that game and here’s what went wrong and now we have to fix it.’ We’re kind of at the point where it’s like, ‘What was it this time?’ We’re trying to fix things on the fly whereas we have a couple of days off, we can regroup and mentally get ready to go on this second half stretch.”
There were lots of problems against Chicago. The Cavs finished with more turnovers than assists. They fell into the Bulls’ defensive trap, relying too much on isolation basketball against a switch-heavy defense. They played way too slow, getting bogged down in the halfcourt.
Still, the most pressing area of concern, the one that has been there from opening night, showed its ugly face again. The Cavs are the NBA’s worst defense.
One year after coasting through the regular season, building horrendous defensive habits and looking incapable on that end of the floor, the Cavs have actually gotten worse.
The Bulls came into Sunday’s game ranked last in offensive efficiency and points per game. They ranked 27th in field goal percentage, making just 44.1 percent, and 3-point field goals, averaging 9.4.
No problem. Just play Cleveland. That makes everything better.
Chicago scored 112 points on 55.1 percent from the field — second-best this season. They hit 11 3-pointers, finishing 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, who didn’t play in the first meeting against the Cavs, tallied 31 points on 11-of-18 from the field.
“There’s very few aspects of defense that we are good at right now,” Nance said. “The league knows that. We’re last in points allowed and last in a lot of different things. That’s something that doesn’t get better with technique, that doesn’t get better with…it’s heart. It’s will. It’s something where we are letting guys have career nights on us. That’s something that we have to take personally.”
Drew said after the game it’s been tough defensively given how often the personnel changes.
The Cavs used their 14th different starting lineup, with two-way player Jaron Blossomgame in Rodney Hood’s spot. Hood is currently hobbled by a sore Achilles.
David Nwaba, Cleveland’s best perimeter defender, has been on a minutes restriction and then reinjured his ankle in the second half.
Tristan Thompson, the anchor and voice of the team, has missed the last seven games.
“We’re still having to learn one another and get a true feel for one another out on the floor,” Drew said. “I don’t know how many games we’ve played, it takes time and you have to continue to do it until you find a good mix or a good jell, to where it works. It’s gotta be working. Everybody has to do their parts. It has to be working on all cylinders and thus far that has not been the case. We’re still searching and we’re still trying to do some things that will help us defensively.”
There is no one player to blame. It’s a team-wide issue. But it starts at the point of attack. That weakness leads to the rest of the team over-helping and scrambling to cover holes. According to NBA.com stats, Cedi Osman is the team’s worst defender. But rookie Collin Sexton is right there with him.
Opponents boast an offensive rating of 123.0 and an effective field goal percentage of 56.6 with Sexton on the floor. With him off, it drops to 114.5 and an effective field goal percentage of 52.0.
It’s also getting tough to overlook Cleveland’s messy numbers against opposing point guards.
The Cavs entered the night ranked 27th in points allowed to the point guard position. The only teams worse: Atlanta (Trae Young), Washington (John Wall, who drifts in and out of caring on that end) and Detroit (Reggie Jackson).
That’s Sexton’s responsibility, especially if he is going to continue to log the bulk of the minutes there.
Kris Dunn became the latest to slice the Cavs’ defense. He scored 17 points on 8-of-11 from the field to go with seven assists. Ryan Arcidiacono, who also shared those duties with Dunn, tallied 12 points and eight assists.
That duo, along with Markkanen, helped lead the Bulls to their largest win in more than a calendar year.
“We have not been a good defensive team as far as defending off the dribble, and that’s where a lot of our problems do lie,” Drew said. “Once you’re beaten off the dribble, it breaks your defense down. And that’s just something that we’ve got to get better at. We’ve got to take more of an individual challenge, we just have to accept the challenge.”