Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
I hope all my fellow WFNYers (WFNYans?) are off to a great start this week, I know I am. Well, everything is great as long as we’re not talking about Cleveland sports. Oh. Right. This is a Cleveland sports site. We have to talk about Cleveland sports this morning, don’t we?
Well, let me tell you something. Last week I was feeling great. I was confident. Things were looking up. The Cleveland Indians swept the Texas Rangers in their opening series with a couple dramatic wins that made it feel like they were picking right up where the postseason ended. The Cleveland Cavaliers, after an embarrassing month of March, had won four in a row including a thrashing of the Boston Celtics in Boston to put what felt like an unbreakable grip on the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Like I said, I felt great. I felt confident. Cleveland sports were ready to rise once more. So I sent out a tweet.
Are the Cavs and Indians doing that thing again where neither team ever loses for a long time? I sure hope so. That was fun last year.
— Andrew Schnitkey (@RockWFNY) April 6, 2017
The Cavaliers and Indians are a combined 0-6 since I tweeted that. If anyone would ever like to hire me for my jinxing skills, shoot me an email and we’ll talk. It’s uncanny how much ability I have to dictate outcomes just by publicly stating my opinion on things.
Ok, ok, so no, I don’t really think I had anything to do with this. The Cavs and Indians would both be 0-6 since then had I not tweeted anything. These teams simply are who they are and we are here to observe and to root for a favorable outcome. But the cause of whatever outcome occurs is the sole responsibility of the players and coaches themselves.
I’ll tell you what, though, this year’s Cavaliers team has me feeling awfully bipolar. A week ago I thought the Cavaliers were on the road to figuring everything out and getting back on track for their playoff run. Today I’m not sure how they get out of the first round. That’s joke. I think.
Look, the Cavaliers should still be fine. They should still get out of the East. They are easily the best team in the Eastern Conference. Nothing that has happened in 2017 has changed those facts. If the Cavaliers don’t make the Finals it won’t be because they simply ran into a better basketball team. It will mean they played a team who was playing better basketball right now. There’s a distinction there. It’s small, but it exists and that distinction is important.
It is important because that distinction is typically what determines who plays in the NBA Finals. Basketball is probably the closest thing to a meritocracy that we have in sports. In a best-of-seven series, the best team almost always wins. Why is that? Well, it’s for the same reasons that people have been spouting as justifications for their beliefs as to why the Cavaliers will be fine. In the postseason there are fewer variables. There’s more rest between games, the substitution patterns shrink and the best lineups play more minutes together, the game slows down into a half-court measure of efficiency.
If you want reasons to hope and/or believe that the Cavaliers are going to be fine in the playoffs, those are your reasons. Cleveland still has LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love and only a fool would count out LeBron in the playoffs. There is no reason why the Cavaliers should lose before the NBA Finals.
Still not convinced? Want some real-life examples of a team having the best talent, coasting through the regular season, and then turning it on in the playoffs? The most obvious example is the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant era Los Angeles Lakers teams. In 1999-00, the Lakers had a monstrous regular season. That team, which in addition to Shaq and Kobe also had Glen Rice, Ron Harper, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox, went 67-15 in the regular season. They struggled a bit throughout the playoffs and had to orchestrate their memorable comeback win against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, but they eventually won the NBA Finals.
The next season, the Lakers frustrated the hell out of their fans and the media alike. They stumbled to a 56-26 record (expected W-L of 51-31) and the #3 seed in the West. They were 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency and 23rd in points against. No matter how much they struggled, the team insisted they were fine. “We don’t care about the regular season, we’re waiting for the playoffs to turn it on” was their motto. And that’s what they did. They ended up sweeping their way through the West before dropping only a single game to the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals.
This example is important because one player who was actually on the roster on both of those Lakers teams was Ty Lue. So when we hear Lue keep insisting that he’s not worried about his team, that he’s not going to chase the #1 seed in the East, that the only thing he cares about is having everyone healthy and rested for the playoffs, this might be why. Lue has seen this before and he knows how it can be done.
It’s a dangerous game, but there’s also something to be said for a team just trusting themselves and sticking to their plan. This was supposed to be a fun season. We were going to celebrate the Championship all year long. The banner-raising ceremony was incredible. The Cavs were fantastic in 2016, culminating in that incredibly fun win on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors. It seems like after that, the Cavs decided they had made their point and proven all they needed to prove. They shut their season down and they haven’t been the same since.
It was right before Christmas when JR Smith hurt his thumb and was ruled out for three months after needing surgery. It’s almost like the Cavs held on long enough to beat the Warriors and then decided to pack it in. Defense was no longer a requirement, effort could be reserved and withheld in spurts. Everything was focused on just making sure everyone was ok for the playoffs.
But along the way, did they lose their focus altogether? Is it possible to reclaim that sense of urgency? Can they really just turn it back on next week? We’re about to find out. The Cavaliers have one more game, a game in which they are again going to rest starters. Then it is on to the playoffs where they will look to prove to everyone else that the regular season is truly as meaningless as Cleveland has insisted it is all along.