It was not the time or place – especially the time – to discuss airy-fairy offensive or defensive concepts; to wonder whether one of the worst beatdowns administered to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers 2.0 was evidence that the Toronto Raptors are in the process of figuring out an opponent Dwane Casey calls “our last hurdle.”
No, it was ‘agendas’ that Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lu wanted to talk about.
As in: “We need to continue to be better offensively and defensively and get on the same page and if guys have agendas … we need to get rid of them.”
Pressed on it, Lue remarked: “I don’t know.”
And that was it. Off to see James, then. Off to see what he is seeing in a team that followed up a 127-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 133-99 humiliation at the hands of a Raptors team without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka; a Raptors team that is now 3.5 games in front of a club that beat them so badly in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals that the Raptors decided to re-wire themselves culturally, both on offence and defence.
James raised his eyebrows when Lue’s comment about agendas was relayed.
“I would hope not,” he said, dismissively. “I don’t … I … at this point? Three and a half, four years into this thing? I hope not. I don’t have them. I don’t have agendas. I just want to win, to get guys involved and play ball the right way.”
This was an abysmal showing by the defending Eastern Conference champions, who shot a shocking 38.2 per cent from the field to fall to 11-11 on the road and were hammered in every statistical way imaginable.
“Got our ass torn … excuse my language,” James said.
Drama has, of course, been a characteristic of this Cavaliers team since James’s return and often it seems to be the byproduct of, well, boredom. As James himself noted before the game, there is a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to this group and despite the Cavaliers usual habit of figuring things out – often at the expense of the Raptors – he denied this was simply a team stopping to smell the flowers knowing they can hit the “switch” at any time.
My god but they were horrible on Thursday night.
Down 59-36 at the half, the Cavaliers had a 12-2 run in the third quarter that made life slightly interesting – but that flicker was effectively snuffed out in the final two minutes of the third when the Raptors Norman Powell and OG Anunoby heaved up three-point air-balls – only to have the Cavaliers miss shots at the other end. Anunoby and Fred VanVleet then hit consecutive treys to slam the door shut and DeMar DeRozan tossed away the key when he drained back-to-back threes.
There was little fight from the Cavs, to the point where TNT analyst Reggie Miller yelled “unbelievable,” on the telecast as Delon Wright weaved his way down the middle past four stagnant Cavaliers for a blow by that made the score 73-42. Jae Crowder yanked the ball out of Jonas Valanciunas’s hands and James appeared to square up to VanVleet after he was shoved to the ground but it was for show.
Perhaps the lingering image from the game will be James down on one knee in his own key on Valanciunas’s fourth personal foul. Valanciunas turned his back on James and walked away shaking his head, flicking a dismissive wave in the direction of James.
James raged against his teammates during a timeout, and was halfway towards the locker room before the final horn sounded. He argued with assistant coach Phil Handy during one timeout – footage of it making social media and, as noted by the Cleveland media, among the ‘likes?’ None other than former Cavalier Kyrie Irving. James spent much of the fourth quarter looking on bitterly, stroking his head and frowning. James, as he noted himself, is not used to not playing in the fourth quarter.
It will be interesting to see whether this is some kind of season-defining moment for the Cavaliers. James has been on teams that have turned a season around playing a game against the Raptors, particularly in 2012-2013. That’s when a Miami Heat team driven by internal tension that put in jeopardy head coach Erik Spoelstra’s job went on a 27-game winning streak after Spoelstra gave in to his players and agreed to postpone the team’s return flight to Miami after a 100-85 win to allow the Heat to rent out space at Real Sports to watch the Super Bowl even though it meant the team would be arriving back in Miami at 3 a.m. and play a game 16 hours later. Spoelstra won over his club that weekend, the Heat won that game at home, and 25 in a row after it en route to the title.
The Heat are in Indiana Friday night, agendas and all.
“I thought we tried to play harder tonight,” Lue said, comparing his team’s effort to what he’d seen in Minnesota. “But I thought they were faster in getting by us. I thought offensively they were physical, into our bodies, no freedom of movement. That’s all I can say.”