The most dysfunctional sounding team at Verizon Center Sunday doesn't call Washington. That's not said cavaliery either.
While the Washington Wizards improved to 5-2 since the All-Star break with a resounding 113-99 win over Cleveland, the Cavaliers looked like a squad searching for answers. Obviously, the absence of LeBron James played a factor. The All-Star forward was given a maintenance day in the midst of a stretch where the Eastern Conference leaders play three games in four days.
James sitting alone doesn't explain what transpired Sunday afternoon. Cleveland went flat from the middle of the first quarter until deep into the second half with Washington leading 111-81.
James sitting also meant the chance for others to take control.
“You would think so," said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, whose tone postgame reeked of annoyance following Cleveland's second straight loss and third in four games.
Down 63-54 at halftime, Cleveland opened the third quarter watching Otto Porter drain not one, not two, but three 3-pointers inside the first two minutes. When the deficit reached 19 midway through the period, Lue sat four starters.
“The stars didn’t give the effort we wanted or we needed, so we got them out and brought the other guys in," explained Lue, who fell to 11-6 since taking over as head coach in late January following the dismissal of David Blatt.
Three starters -- Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith -- never returned.
“I wasn’t surprised," Smith said off the early benching. "We weren’t playing the way we’re supposed to play. We weren’t executing our offense. We damn sure weren’t playing defense. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Going with the second unit didn't help. With Porter's 15 points in the quarter nearly matching Cleveland's 16, Washington entered the fourth leading 96-70.
"I thought [Richard Jefferson] played hard, and I thought [Timofey Mozgov] kept playing hard and playing tough," Lue stated. "That’s about it."
The players concurred with the overall indifference.
"Our top leader isn’t playing tonight. It’s another opportunity for guys to step in and relish that opportunity," said Kyrie Irving, who scored an empty calorie 28 points. "But our intensity level just wasn’t there.”
Smith believes the level of concern "should be extremely high. We can’t play basketball like this going down the stretch."
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For all the whiffs of panic, the Cavaliers (41-17) remains the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. That could change if the inconsistent and weak-minded pattern continues. Certainly more is needed if Cleveland faces the likes of Golden State or San Antonio in the NBA Finals.
"There’s 24, 25 games left in the year and you talk about contending or being a championship contender and you’re blown out by a team in their building, early game, after losing a game to the No. 2 team in the East and then you come out and get trashed, make it look good at the end," Smith said. "We can’t do that. If we’re serious about who we’re supposed to be, we can’t do this.”
The issues Sunday weren't simply self-inflicted. John Wall blazed the trail for the Wizards with an efficient 21 points and 13 assists against the James-less Cavaliers.
“It hurts us offensively," Lue said of playing without James. "And with him being out offensively, it also hurts you defensively because you don’t have any more floor balance, you’re not scoring to make John want to take the ball out of the baskets instead of pushing it up every time full speed. He hurts you on both ends."
The lack of James and energy hurt the Cavaliers Sunday. We'll see what state of mind Cleveland finds itself in when Washington visits Friday. That matchup represents a opportunity for the playoff-seeking Wizards and the title-hoping Cavaliers. We'll see who takes advantage.