Cavs Need Tweaks, Not Overhaul

With the NBA Draft occurring this past week and the beginning of the free agent period dawning next weekend, there has been a lot of talk about what the Cleveland Cavaliers should do this off-season.

Most of it comes from the uncertainty surrounding the franchise because LeBron James’ contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 campaign.

In our opinion, whoever the new Cavs’ GM is, probably Chauncey Billups should tweak the roster, making the bench younger and more athletic because that’s where The Finals were lost, when James was off the floor.

Look, most people, especially the national media have painted the Golden State Warriors as this unstoppable team, which we don’t buy into.

They are a great team without a doubt, with two titles in the last three years, and in between a record setting 73 win team in the regular season.

But we can’t help but think what would have happened if Kyle Korver (and we aren’t blaming him) makes the corner three in the last three minutes of the third game of the championship series.

If he does, Cleveland wins that game and is trailing 2-1 with the fourth game at The Q.

We believe even the smug Steve Kerr would admit the wine and gold outplayed his team for the majority of the third and fourth games of the series.

You do not break down and reconstruct the roster for several reasons.

First, as long as you have James, you have a chance to win the title.  That’s how good he is.  So, any talk of trading him (even though he has a no trade clause) is stupid.  You ride it out with him.

Second, remember that the Cavs went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs and one of the East’s best players, Jimmy Butler, went to the West.

Our point is that there is no team in the East challenging Cleveland right now.

Oh, what if Boston signs Gordon Hayward?  Here are the Celtics three best players:  Isaiah Thomas, Hayward, Al Horford.  We rest our case.

The Celts are trying to build to be the best in the East when James finally slows down, retires, or leaves.

In The Finals, we believe we can all agree Tyronn Lue received no help from his bench, outside of Richard Jefferson.  Korver, Iman Shumpert (who played three minutes in the last game), Deron Williams, and Channing Frye were non-factors.

Taking a non-emotional look at the Cavs, the five players mentioned need to be replaced, although we would understand keeping one or two for experience.

We would also look to move Tristan Thompson, who after six seasons still makes you cringe when he is taking a shot from longer than five feet.

Thompson is making a ton of cash ($16.4 million next season), and we believe you could get a similar player AND someone else who can help for that amount of money.

Look around the NBA, there are a lot of players who do what Thompson does.  He’s an very good defender and he’s an energy guy who grabs a lot of rebounds.

We say take emotion out of it because these guys won a title here, the first seen in northeast Ohio in 52 years.  Of course, we love them for that.  But you have to think about the upcoming season.

And whoever is running the Cavaliers has to make the roster better.  And to do it, you don’t move your three best players, all of whom are all-stars, you fix the rest of the team.

Break up the Cavs?  That’s just stupid sports talk conversation.

JK

Blaming Lue Is Lazy Way Out

With the Cavaliers losing the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, there is, of course a lot of scrutiny on the organization, and what the Cavs will do going forward.

There is the matter of whether or not GM David Griffin will stay on in that capacity, and what changes in the roster will be made for the 2017-18 season.

One of the things the lazy fans and media have talked about is the possibility of a coaching charge, which we find ridiculous.  You cannot point to anything Tyronn Lue did in The Finals to cost the Cavaliers the series.

Is this to say Lue is the greatest coach in the NBA?  No, but we would put him in the upper tier of head coaches in the Association.

He was hamstrung against Golden State because his bench contributed basically nothing, so he was manipulating his reserves in order to get his starters some rest without the game getting out of hand.  That causes him to be in a defensive coaching style.

On the other hand, a criticism of Lue was that he didn’t develop some of the players on the bench during the regular season.  The Cavaliers played very well in February and Derrick Williams was a solid contributor during that month, yet he disappeared in March and throughout the playoffs.

We don’t go to practice, so we don’t know if something happened to cause Williams to fall out of favor, but he is the type of player who it seems could have helped against the Warriors.

Again, just because we think Lue is one of the NBA’s better coaches, doesn’t mean there aren’t things he should do differently next season.

The first is to establish more of a defensive mindset from the start of training camp.  After the calendar switched to 2017, the ability to stop opponents from scoring fell greatly.

Once the playoffs started, the Cavs used some different schemes and the defense improved, that worked, but it shouldn’t come down to that.

And it has been reported that the head coach himself takes more of a role in the defense once the regular season ends.  It starts with the individual, but perhaps there should be more of a mindset on that side of the ball right from the get go.

The second change that needs to be made is monitoring minutes, especially for James, who will turn 33 years old during next season.

In conjunction with this, the coaching staff must come up with a plan to play better when James isn’t in the game.

Even when James is on the bench, Lue still has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor, and it shouldn’t be difficult to make sure those two are on the floor when James isn’t.

The ball movement that is present when James is on the floor seems to stop when the best player in the game isn’t on the floor.  The coach has to insist the same style of play occurs no matter who is on the court.

That was also evident in the playoffs when Irving was playing iso ball, and his shot wasn’t going down.  That isn’t pretty basketball, in fact, it is conducive to the other team going on a run.

The point here is Lue was good enough to guide the Cavs to a title a year ago, and this year, some of his moves didn’t work because his bench didn’t help him out.

So save the hot takes to get a new coach.  Tyronn Lue is the man for the job.

JK

Cavs Need To Try Something New Now.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have given no indication they can win the NBA Finals based on the first two games.

The Golden State Warriors won both the first two games rather easily, winning by 22 points in game one, and 19 on Sunday night.

This makes Wednesday night’s game three a must win for Tyronn Lue’s squad.  Lose that one, and it looks like a sweep for the Warriors, not only in The Finals, but an unprecedented undefeated run throughout the playoffs.

Can the Cavs win game three and get back into this series?  Of course, no team is unbeatable, but it will be very difficult for the wine and gold if they continue to play at they did in Oakland.

First, we believe they cannot continue to play at the Warriors’ pace.  We understand Lue normally wants the Cavs to play fast, up tempo, but Golden State is better at it than Cleveland, so you must try something else.

That is not to say never run.  When the Warriors miss a three and it develops into a long rebound, grab it and go, and get an easy hoop.

We said in the middle of the regular season that no team’s defense is more dependent on its offense than the Cavaliers.  That is because, by and large, their transition defense is poor, maybe because they have some age on them.

So, if they don’t have a fast break opportunity, slow the game down.  Take as much time as you can on the shot clock and still get a decent shot.  Keep the number of possessions down, and perhaps you can frustrate Golden State with the slow pace, forcing them to take quick, bad shots.

Second, you must take care of the basketball.  You simply can’t turn the ball over, giving the Warriors easy looks.

The wine and gold also need to continue to attack the basket.  Steve Kerr’s team doesn’t really have a rim protector, particularly when they go small, and you have to take advantage of that.

LeBron James and Kevin Love have done a good job around the rim.

By the way, speaking of Love, hasn’t he laid to rest the theory that he can’t play against the Warriors?  He had a 21 rebound game in the first contest, and scored 27 points on Sunday.

They also need Kyrie Irving to play like an all-star.  Irving has shot just 40% in the first two games, and made curious shot choices both nights.  It was odd to see Irving trying to drive on Kevin Durant in game two.

The Cavs have to do better from three point range.  In the regular season, the wine and gold actually shot better than the Warriors from beyond the arc, but have hit just 31.7% from distance thus far in the series.

That seems to be a lot that has to change, but outside of changing the pace, which is difficult and takes discipline, all of the others are possible, because it was done in the playoffs.

This isn’t last year, and there is nothing to indicate the Cavaliers will be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit again this year.  They have to win on Wednesday, or this series will be ending much quicker than anyone in northeast Ohio would like.

They have to take it game by game.  Win game three, and you are back in the series.  Forget about the rest of this series, do whatever needs to be done to win on Wednesday night at The Q.

JK

 

 

Previewing Cavs-Warriors III

Well, it’s finally here.

Tonight, the NBA Finals start and the rematch everyone expected prior to the playoffs starting has arrived, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors doing battle for the third straight year.

And better yet, each team has won a title, making this the rubber match.

Make no mistake, the Golden State Warriors are a great team.  They won 67 games in the regular season and have swept through the Western Conference playoffs.  And their statistical resume is outstanding.

They led the NBA in field goal percentage, steals, and blocked shots.  They are also number one in defensive field goal percentage and three point defensive field goal percentage.

They are also third in shooting the long range shot, but one of the teams are rank behind are the Cavaliers, who were second during the regular season.

If they have a weakness, they only rank 7th in the Association in rebounding and they are prone to turn the ball over, 9th in the league in that department.

However, we believe the Cavs have a solid chance to repeat as champions if they control the tempo, and are patient on offense.

We thought this before the San Antonio Spurs executed this in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard got hurt, and that performance early in that series just confirmed it.

There is no doubt that the Cavs will do what they did in last year’s Finals, that is, running pick-and-rolls with LeBron James and whoever Stephen Curry is guarding to get the matchup of Curry on James.

We understand many people think Curry is a good defender, but the metrics show the opposite, and besides he is five or six inches shorter than James and probably a good 70 to 80 pounds lighter.

Golden State is a solid defensive team, but we feel some of that comes from teams trying to place their style and at their pace.  That leads to poor shot choices and poor passing, which accounts for their outstanding defensive field goal percentage and their steals.

We also think most NBA teams are intimidated by the Warriors.  We said most, because most assuredly the Cavaliers are not.

We also have to bring up the way the games will be officiated.  We have long contended that the Warriors are coached to foul each and every time down the floor, knowing the referees will not call them all.

If Golden State defenders are allowed to hack away at James’ arms when he takes the ball to the basket, that’s a huge advantage for them.  The same with Curry and Klay Thompson on Kyrie Irving.

On the other hand, the Cavs want to be physical too.  They will try to run Curry into picks, bumping him around hoping it will take its toll at the end of games and if the series goes to six or seven games.

One thing we don’t understand is the coaching edge everyone gives the Warriors if Steve Kerr is on the sidelines.  Kerr is a fine coach, but we simply don’t see anything that gives him a decided edge over Tyronn Lue.

Lue has shown an ability to take away an opponents’ strength offensively.  This ability will be tested in this series.

We believe the Cavaliers can win this series, and the Warriors shouldn’t be an overwhelming favorite.  We understand they are favored, but it shouldn’t be a 90% chance.

As for a hero if the Cavs pull it off, besides one of the big three?  We think JR Smith comes up big in a Cleveland repeat.

JK

 

 

The Transformation Of JR Smith

It has been said many times that no player on the Cleveland Cavaliers have had to sacrifice more than Kevin Love.

Love was a star in Minnesota, the guy the entire offense ran through.  He was a high scorer too, averaging over 26 points per game twice in his Timberwolf days.

With the Cavs, Love became a “third wheel” behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.  His scoring dropping to around 16 points in Cleveland, before climbing to 19 this season.

Many people say Love became a glorified stretch four, a spot up three point shooter.

That’s crazy, of course, but we guess people figured he was going to continue to average 26 points a game with the Cavs, which would be almost impossible.

However, another member of the wine and gold has sacrificed greatly, and it largely goes unnoticed.

When GM David Griffin made the three way deal early in 2016 with Oklahoma City and New York, it was thought Griffin had his eye on Iman Shumpert, a wing defender, who was also athletic enough to run the floor.

Smith was regarded as a throw in on the deal, a player put in to balance the salary cap ramifications, basically (it was said at the time) if you want Shumpert, you have to take Smith.

JR’s reputation was that of a troublemaker.  He has tremendous talent.  He was sixth man of the year in 2012-13 when he averaged 18.1 points for the Knicks, a season in which New York won their division and lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

As the Knicks fortunes went south, so did Smith’s concentration.  He liked the NYC nightlife, his scoring average and shooting percentage dropped, and the Knicks management wanted to unload him.

His reputation on the court was that he never met a shot he didn’t like, and fired the ball up at times to make his coaches grimace.

We remember NBA writers saying at the time of the trade, that when JR is on a good team, he is fully engaged, which will help him with the Cavs, they were a team ready to make a title run.

In game one of the Eastern Conference finals vs. Atlanta, Smith stole home court from the Hawks with an incredible shooting display, scoring 28 points by hitting 8 of 12 from beyond the three point line.

Smith can still knock down shots, but he is the guy Tyronn Lue turns to in stopping the opponents best wing scorer.  He did a great job on Paul George in the first round, and gave DeMar DeRozan fits in the conference semifinals.

He had a thumb injury which required surgery this season so his scoring average dropped to under 10 per night (8.6) and his three point shooting fell from 40% to 35.1%.

But he is still a key member of the Cavs because of his defensive prowess, and it doesn’t hurt that fans around northeast Ohio love him.  People here don’t care about your past, they judge you on how you treat them.

His emotional reaction to winning the NBA title on Father’s Day a year ago is something we will never forget.  He thanked his dad for always standing by him.

So, while Love has certainly subdued his game in order to win, don’t forget how JR Smith has went from a player considered undisciplined to one his coach trusts to do a great job on defense against the top scorers in the NBA.

Sacrifice and unselfishness.  Lue and LeBron James always talk about it and Smith is a grand example of what they mean.

JK

Cavs Keep On Rolling

Another series, another sweep for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Tyronn Lue’s squad is moving on to the Eastern Conference final for the third straight season after taking care of the Toronto Raptors in the minimum amount of games.

And save me the Kyle Lowry excuses, Raptors fans.  Yes, he is your team’s second best player and an all star. But outside of Cleveland, no one cares the Warriors won The Finals in 2015 because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were out.

Also, no one cares outside of northeast Ohio that Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar couldn’t start in the World Series.

It’s a loser’s lament.  We get it, it has happened to our teams, but in the end, people won’t remember.  Besides, the Cavs were dominating the Raptors (sorry, Dwayne Casey) before Lowry sprained his ankle.

So, as a result of the sweep, the veteran Cavs will probably get another week off before they take on the winner of the series between the Celtics and Wizards.

Just think how good the Cavaliers can be if Kyrie Irving ever starts shooting the ball well.  Irving shot under 40% from the floor in this series (37.5%), although he was better from three point range in the conference semi-finals.

It was another incredible performance by the sport’s best player, LeBron James.  The King averaged 36 points per game against Toronto, shooting 57.3% from the floor, hitting 48% of his long range shots.

He complemented the scoring and shooting by adding 8 rebounds and 7 assists in the series.  It has taken the post-season for everyone around the country to appreciate the greatness of LeBron James.

During the regular season, all basketball fans heard about were Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and to a lesser extent, Kawhi Leonard.

All three had tremendous regular seasons, but since the playoffs have started, James is reminding everyone who the best player in basketball still is.

Another thing this series showed is the transformation of JR Smith.  Smith came to Cleveland with the reputation as a shooter without a conscience, but now can be put on the opponents’ best wing scorer, and put him in check.

Smith’s defense of DeMar DeRozan in the first two games of the series was a big key.  Add that to the job he did against Paul George in the first round, he is a huge for what Cleveland wants to do defensively.

Back to Irving, he did a great job passing in this series, averaging 8.5 assists in the four games.  When Irving gets seven assists or more in a game, the Cavs are 23-6 for the season, including the playoffs.

And when Irving is being rested, Deron Williams has played very well.  He was on the floor when Cleveland busted open game three in Toronto, just as he was in the big comeback win over the Pacers in round one.

Finally, Kyle Korver was huge in the last two games of the series, hitting two huge three on Friday and going crazy in the second quarter today with 16 points on four three pointers.

And the defense continues to improve too, which was a huge concern going into the post-season.  When Toronto missed shots, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love gathered up the misses.

So, the Cavs are back in the NBA Final Four, the conference finals.  Even if Boston wins the series in five (the quickest it can be over), it will probably be the upcoming weekend before the next series starts.

That’s the biggest benefit for winning early.

JK

 

 

 

Cavs-Raptors Set To Do Battle…Again

Last season, the Toronto Raptors were the only Eastern Conference team to win a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They won both games three and four in Toronto to even the Eastern Conference finals, before the wine and gold won the next two contests to advance to the NBA Finals for the second straight year.

We all know what happened there, right?

This year, the two teams meet one round earlier, in the conference semi-finals, and they finished the regular season with the same record.

The Cavs have home court advantage by virtue of winning the season series, 3-1.

Toronto is a top ten defensive team, so it will not be a picnic for the Cleveland, who like to win by outscoring their opponents.

In defending the Raptors, they are a team, much like Indiana, that doesn’t shoot a lot of three point shots, ranking 22nd in the NBA in attempts and 13th in percentage from beyond the arc.

Where the Cavs should have an advantage in on the boards.  Toronto is one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, so Tristan Thompson should be able to buy Tyronn Lue’s squad some extra attempts, and they defending champs must control the defensive glass when they force a miss.

The Raptors also take care of the ball very well, 4th in the Association in least turnovers.

Toronto holds opponents to 44.9% shooting, slightly better than Cleveland’s 45.8%, but they are slightly ranked lower in defending the three pointer.

Remember last year, Dwayne Casey was so afraid of the Cavaliers three point barrage against Atlanta in the conference semis that he placed too much emphasis on that and let the Cavs parade to the basket in the first two games.

It will be interesting to see how the Raptors play it starting tomorrow night.

No doubt the Cavs have to defend Toronto’s high scoring backcourt of DeMar DeRozan (27.3 PPG) and Kyle Lowry (22.4).  They account for 43% of the Raptors’ field goal attempts.

DeRozan doesn’t take many three point shots, less than two per game, so the Cavs may give him that shot, which he is not comfortable in taking.

Serge Ibaka, who came over at the trade deadline, likes to shoot from out there and he can make them too, shooting at 40% since arriving in Canada.

The Raptors also have a solid big man in Jonas Valenciunas, at 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.  Lue will likely combat him by using Channing Frye to draw him out of the paint, and perhaps off the floor.

Casey started using Norman Powell instead of the big man in the first round series win over Milwaukee.

Toronto also picked P.J. Tucker at the deadline, presumably to guard LeBron James, but he shot slightly over 40% with Toronto, which means the Cavs don’t have to honor him on defense.

Offensively, the Cavs need Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to make shots, which they struggled doing in the first round.

Irving shot 42% from the floor and just 22% from the three point line.  Hopefully, the time off allowed him to rest his legs and get them back into his shot.  He also needs to average more than three assists per game, even if the offense is running through LeBron James.

Love also shot just 42% from the field, although he was much more successful from beyond the arc, knocking down 41%.  He needs to continue to attack the basket when he gets the ball near the basket, and also has to be a force on the defensive boards.

This doesn’t figure to be an easy series if both teams play well.  Keeping DeRozan from having big nights is probably the key to the series.

If the Cavaliers aren’t playing well, and don’t continue to improve defensively, they could be pushed to the limit.

JK

 

 

Was Cavs’ Defense Better Than You Think Vs. Pacers?

The Cleveland Cavaliers wrapped up another first round sweep in the NBA Playoffs, taking care of the Indiana Pacers in just four games.

It was the 10th sweep in LeBron James’ great career and he has now won 21 consecutive first round games.

The Cavs had defensive issues throughout the regular season and the analytics had Tyronn Lue’s squad as the third worst in defensive efficiency in the four game sweep.

Statistics have the Pacers having the shortest distance per field goal attempt of the 16 playoff teams, showing Indiana didn’t have much of an issue getting into the paint.

On the other hand the wine and gold’s field goal percentage against ranked in the bottom of the top half (7th) of the teams that qualified for the playoffs.

Cleveland did some good things against the Pacers, though.

Although Paul George averaged 28.0 points per game in the sweep, he did it by volume shooting.  A 46% shooter in the regular season, the Pacers’ star shot just 38.6% against the Cavaliers, as Lue threw several defenders at George, including JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, with James helping on double teams.

And the All Star really struggled from the middle of game three throughout the completion of the series.

The other player the coach mentioned in terms of limiting before the series was C. J. Miles, who torched the Cavs in the regular season for 17.0 points per contest.

Miles was stifled by the Cavaliers, scoring just 7.3 points per game in the series, and he shot just 31% from three point range.

Lue’s defensive philosophy is to identify the opponent’s strengths and try to take them away.  It seems he did just that against the Pacers in this series.

In order to do that, the coach is willing to give something up, and to this point, it’s hard to argue with his success.

So basically, if the Pacers were going to emerge victorious, it was going to have to be because Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, and Lance Stephenson had huge performances.

Those four combined for 56 points per game on 49% shooting.

However, out of those four players, only Stephenson, who played only six games for Indiana this season, has the personality to be the lead dog.  The rest are complementary players, forced into a big spot.

Not everybody can handle that situation.

That’s Lue’s philosophy, but opposing players into situations that they aren’t comfortable in.

As the playoffs go on, it will be more difficult to do this because the better teams have better options and more players capable of producing under the bright lights of the post-season.

Luckily for the Cavs, they have veterans who have stepped up in these situations throughout their careers.  Channing Frye was huge a year ago for the Cavs.  Two years ago against Atlanta on the road, the wine and gold won because Smith got hot in game one.

One of the new veterans acquired by GM David Griffin had a huge impact in this series, and that is Deron Williams.

Williams seemed to not be sure of how he fit when he first arrived in Cleveland, but he gave Lue some very good minutes in the second half of game three and in the second quarter of the deciding game.

There is no question that Cavs can be better on defense than they were vs. the Pacers, but they did accomplish some of the things they set out to do in the series.  That’s something to watch in round two.

JK

 

 

 

Cavs Biggest Opponent Now Is Themselves.

The probability of the Cleveland Cavaliers losing their first round series wasn’t very high at the start of the matchup.

However, someone forgot to tell the Indiana Pacers that, because they almost won Game 1, and recovered from a 19 point deficit in the second half to make the second game closer than it should have been, but the wine and gold prevailed, 117-111 to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

So, the Pacers have the daunting task of having to be a LeBron James led team four out of five games to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

While publicly James says it doesn’t matter how many points the Cavs win by, as long as they win, the point is in a first round match up, style points do count, especially if the team struggled the way Tyronn Lue’s squad did over the last month of the regular season.

In game one, Cleveland had trouble on the defensive glass and shot just barely over 50% from the free throw line.  That’s not a good recipe for winning in the playoffs.

Last night, the Cavs won the battle of the boards, but only because the three frontcourt starters (James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson) all had ten or more boards, because no one else had more than two rebounds.

And the home team hit 20 of 23 from the charity stripe, with the only three misses coming from James, who is working on a new free throw routine after a career low percentage from the line.

Again, only three players took free throws, with Love and Kyrie Irving making all 17 of their shots.

Iman Shumpert provided a lift in the second half after JR Smith left with a hamstring problem.  Shumpert seemed focused after getting a DNP-CD on Saturday, playing solid defense on Paul George, and chipping in with five points.

The bench still isn’t providing a lot of scoring.  Deron Williams had nine, but in total, the subs only scored 21, compared to the Pacers, who had 32 points off the bench.

Don’t blame Kyle Korver though.  Although the veteran has only taken five shots in the two games, he has captured the attention of Indiana, because his man isn’t helping off him.  That leaves the lane open for James and Irving to get to the basket.

Cleveland was +10 with Korver on the floor.

We understand it is early in the playoff chase, but the defensive issues which plagued the wine and gold recently haven’t been totally cured.  Indiana shot 51% in game two.

Nor have the issues with a fourth quarter lead disappeared.  The Cavs move the ball very well to get the lead, and then revert to isolation sets, which are resulting in long, missed shots on offense.

This allows the opponents to get back in the game.  And the culprits are usually James and Irving.

The Cavs only had 19 assists on 42 made shots in game two.  James had 7 assists, but Love was the only other Cleveland player with more than two.

Look, we don’t want the Cavaliers to be playing at their best right now.  Hopefully, they will get better incrementally as the playoffs move on, so they are playing at peak efficiency when and if they return to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately, they can’t play poorly enough that they don’t win the Eastern Conference.

The best thing for Lue’s team is to make short work of the Pacers, and get plenty of rest before the second round matchup.  The quest for that begins Thursday night in Indianapolis.

JK

 

 

Trust In Cavs’ Playoff Hopes Are Based On LeBron

Since the first of March, we don’t know what to make of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They went through that month sleepwalking on defense for the most part, and their three point shooting, a staple of their offense, began to get hit or miss.

Then, last Wednesday, they hammered the Boston Celtics, their rivals for the best record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, in Boston no less, and it looked like they were on the right track.

But Friday night, the wine and gold was basically run off their home floor by an Atlanta Hawks’ team that gave their starters the night off.

It was similar to a year ago when Memphis was without many of their regulars and knocked off Cleveland at Quicken Loans Arena.

After the game, Kyrie Irving revealed that his knee was very sore on Thursday, yet Tyronn Lue played him Friday with a two game lead in the Conference standings.

Tristan Thompson is already out of the lineup with a sprained thumb, and Kyle Korver has missed several games recently with a foot issue.

Put all these factors together, and it doesn’t seem like it’s the formula for defending the NBA title the Cavs won last June.

In fact, there is only one reason for optimism.  LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers.

Yes, you can talk about Russell Westbrook and James Harden for MVP, and we know Stephen Curry has won the award the last two seasons, but everyone knows that James is still the best player in the sport, and still its most dominant force.

For all of the talk about how Cleveland came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors a year ago because Curry was banged up, Andrew Bogut was hurt, and Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5, no one talks about how James took that same Warriors’ squad to six games the year before without Irving and Kevin Love.

With Matthew Dellavedova and Thompson as his primary wingmen, he actually had the Cavaliers with a 2-1 lead in the series.

So despite the Cavs’ struggles over the last six weeks, we pin our hopes on James.  And quite frankly, he’s earned that respect.

Lue should be called into question for some of the struggles.  He has played James too many minutes, and Irving too, which many be a reason for his sore knees.

And after integrating the new players seamlessly a year ago, Deron Williams still seems lost, and Derrick Williams, who played well when he first came to Cleveland seems to be a forgotten man.

Deron Williams seems to defer way too much to LeBron and Irving.  Let him do what he has done throughout his career, run the offense.  He’s not a good defender anymore, but he is almost in a shooting role, and he’s not making shots.

The bench has been struggling lately, and it has been missing youth and athleticism, both of which Derrick Williams can provide.  And he showed he could defend when he arrived on the north coast.

Lue needs to give him some minutes, probably at the expense of Iman Shumpert, but with a lot of age on the bench, maybe just use the extra body and play the 30+ year olds a few minutes less per game.

A win on Friday night and a win today in Atlanta would have allowed Lue to rest his key players until the playoffs begin next weekend.

The most important thing for the post-season run is having James, Irving, and Thompson rested and ready to go.  We would include Kevin Love too, but he missed six weeks recently and probably needs the court time.

Pinning hopes on James is a tried and true method of winning, and based on recent events, it’s the only hope fans should be putting any credence in.

JK