Talent gives way to tiredness as Cavs collapse in Biscayne Bay

201302242007724424767-p2Ask most NBA players when the second night of a back-to-back stint rears its ugly head and they will tell you that it is halftime that opens the floodgates of fatigue and flatness. The legs slowly slip into states of wobble, the mind desires an alternative path rendering the simplest of instinctual motor skills a voluntary chore. Arms raise slower, lateral steps are a process.

During a late-December stretch that leaked into the flipped calendar, Cavaliers reserve guard CJ Miles — a veteran presence despite being just 25 years of age — waxed poetic on how he felt a lot of the ankle-knocking and heavy heads were mental; players come equipped with pre-existing thoughts of impending struggles that tend to manifest that into poor play. It’s about breaking down those mental barriers and letting God-given talent take over.

In Miami, one night after thumping the Orlando Magic, the Cavaliers appeared ready to buck this trend — what with head coach Byron Scott’s perennial emphasis on conditioning — with a third-quarter run that resulted in 36 points and a complete erasure of a 22-point deficit. Tyler Zeller and Kyrie Irving meshed jumpers with lay-ins. The Cavaliers attacked, getting to the free throw line  times. Miles erupted for 11 points in the quarter’s final two minutes adding in the ever-rare five-point play1. Then the bottom fell out.

Missed assignments on defense collided, full speed, with lack of execution on offense. In the middle of a timeout amidst the game’s crucial minutes, Scott drew up a play that would ultimately result in Miles, as well as teammate Alonzo Gee, being on the wrong side of the floor. Firmly directed to switch on all picks, it would be Gee who would stick alongside Heat small forward LeBron James, allowing an unabated dunk from a rolling Dwyane Wade. The Cavaliers quickly went from leading by one point with the clock ticking down to finding themselves a four-point loser to the world champions — the second such collapse against the Heat this very season.

Games like these are a gentle reminder to Cavalier fans that while the Wine and Gold may be able to shock championship contenders as they did a few weeks ago when the Oklahoma City came to town, this young team needs to play flawlessly in order to do so — strong finishes, high levels of execution, and a complete lack of mental miscues. Just as the Cavs allowed Ray Allen to break free and hit a three-pointer earlier this season, they allowed another sharp-shooting veteran2 in Shane Battier to hit a three-pointer in transition, right on the heels of an otherwise huge 20-footer from the hands of the continually progressing Dion Waiters.

“As a basketball player, you’ve got to be totally focused on everything we’re talking about doing,” said Scott. “You can’t come out there not knowing that we’re going to switch, not knowing what we’re going to run on the offensive end. Those breakdowns are unacceptable and they can’t happen.”

Its these breakdowns that completely remove the safety net; the ones that allow the more talented teams to shine through when the scrappy, hard-nosed hustle of the opposition evaporates. Its also these breakdowns that Scott says cannot happen against this season. One night earlier, he was a part of a group who called out center Tyler Zeller for his lack of rebounding totals — ideally, this message carries the same weight to the 15 men who let yet another game slip out of their grasp in what has been a 2012-13 season full of almosts and what-could-have-beens.

Quietly, the Cavaliers have been one of the better offensive teams in the NBA over the last several weeks. Since trading Jon Leuer to Memphis in what turned out to be one of the best pre-deadline deals in the league this season, the Cavaliers have the fourth-most efficient offense and the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. For the month of February, they’re averaging 112.2 points per 100 possessions3. They have one of the best players in the league in Kyrie Irving, a progressing off-guard in Dion Waiters — who is shooting 51 percent during the month of February — and a second-year power forward in Tristan Thompson who has a higher PER (16) that everyone’s shoe-in for this season’s Rookie of the Year in Portland’s Damien Lillard (15.7).

If this young core and veteran reserves can in fact limit the mental mistakes as challenged by their head coach, these numbers should remain relatively sustainable — it is, after all, the defensive end that has been the perpetual struggle for this 14-man unit. The loss to the Heat is by no means a benchmark for where this Cavaliers team is as much a sign of what this Cavaliers team could be when the wrinkles become ironed. The schedule does not get any easier with games against Chicago, the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks all in the coming days. This does not even factor in the back-to-back stint that will test their wills again this Tuesday and Wednesday.

The gauntlet has been laid down by Byron Scott. It will be up to the team to let talent triumph over tiredness.

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  1. Miles sank a 25-footer while being fouled. The Heat were subsequently whistled for a technical foul, leading to two free throws. []
  2. Who also happens to be bald… []
  3. High five to Fear the Sword’s Conrad Kaczmarek for extracting these bad boys. []

  • Harv 21

    No prob with this game – Cavs played as well as they could against a far more talented and experienced team and wouldn’t have been close at any point but for Miles getting off for about a quarter and a half.

    But respectfully disagree with your second half fatigue analysis. Cavs didn’t fall apart after halftime – they were pretty ineffectual from the start until the latter part of the third quarter and played awfully hard from that point through the end. Miami was also on the second game of a back to back, and looked to me like they lost interest after a couple of 20-point leads and that let the Cavs back in until Wade decided enough was enough.

    Thought Waiters had another nice game, again looking like he wants the ball in big moments almost as much as Kyrie. Realized last night that he’s just not going to make real strides as a defender this year, it’s too much to expect. But wish we had a great defensive assistant coach. See the Heat hired Ron Rothstein, which seems like overkill. Wonder if Byron is secure enough to hire an assistant with that sort of rep.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Cavaliers hung in there and just ran out of gas the last few minutes when Miami turned up the Heat. If there was such a thing as a good loss this would have seemed to be it. Obviously there are still plenty of things to work on like defense both individual and team but at least the Cavaliers are once again entertaining.

  • typo

    Cavs Bench> Heat Bench

  • dawgy

    It looked to me like Waiters, Miles, and Speights had plenty of leg left in them… at least on the offensive side of things. Waiters kept us in this one as well as the last game against the Spurs. Half Waiters’ misses were on poor no-calls, to boot. I put the fall on Kyrie and Byron. The ball needs to be in the hands of the hot shooter. Kawhi Leonard won it for the Spurs and Wade for the Heat – neither their team’s best player, but at that moment they were. I don’t know if it’s trust issue with Waiters. At some point Byron needs to look at Kyrie and realize that he is being manned by Lebron (or Parker), has a sore knee, is visually exhausted, and is having an overall off night.

  • mgbode

    we played well for a young team but defensive lapses down the stretch did us in. I feel like I’ve seen this film before.

  • mgbode

    we played well for a young team but defensive lapses down the stretch did us in. I feel like I’ve seen this film before.

  • cmm13

    so yeah… nobody looked fatigued to me.
    the play that lost that game was the defense that allowed Wade to stroll down the lane and almost crack the rim dunking with 6 seconds remaining. Tristan sagged too far out of the lane and never recovered. Nobody came to help for fear of leaving Allen or Battier open in the corners again.
    We get the stop there and we are still down only two with the final shot in hand.