CLEVELAND, Ohio — It took just one minute for an incensed JB Bickerstaff to make his feelings abundantly clear following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ incomprehensible loss to the undermanned Golden State Warriors Friday night.
It was short. To the point. Anything but sweet.
“We didn’t respect the game. It’s that simple,” the Cavs coach said in the aftermath of the 120-114 slip-up. “They’ve got champions over there, and we thought some of those guys were out, so we were gonna take it lightly and we got what we deserved.”
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Nearly six hours before tipoff, the Warriors released their lengthy injury report. Playing the second night of a back-to-back, following an overtime loss in Boston, on the final day of an eventful road trip that featured a Finals rematch, an unforgettable White House visit and the historic game inside San Antonio’s Alamodome, the Warriors made the decision to rest many of their regulars.
No Stephen Curry. No Klay Thompson. No Draymond Green. No Andrew Wiggins. Four of the usual five starters. Each member of the appropriately named Core 4. Veteran Andre Iguodala and youngster James Wiseman were also unavailable. So short on bodies, Golden State recalled rookie guard Ryan Rollins from G League affiliate Santa Cruz.
It was a gift for the suddenly slipping Cavs, who are in the midst of a grueling portion of their schedule and were without both Donovan Mitchell (strained left groin) and Ricky Rubio (left knee injury maintenance).
… or not.
“We’ve been in this situation before and more often than not we’ve had to fight as hard as we possibly can to get a win or we overlook teams when they don’t have some of their main guys,” Kevin Love told cleveland.com inside a quiet, somber locker room. “That’s on all of us to step up and prevent that. We have so much talent on this team, we feel like if we just go out and play extremely hard and get our concepts right that we will give ourselves a good chance. They played out of their minds tonight. They played like they had nothing to lose and shot the s— out of the ball. But it was a major disappointment on our end.
“I think the basketball gods are a real thing and these types of letdowns will bite you in the a– at the end of the season just like it did last year. These kinds of losses were why we ended up in the play-in game. We can’t continue to have lapses like this. We have to win these games. We have to grow out of this habit.”
Since their sizzling 8-1 start, the Cavs have gone 20-18. They are looking — and playing — like a .500 team.
They’ve lost on the road to the rebuilding Spurs, thrown away a victory in Los Angeles, almost got tripped up by hapless Detroit, have three losses to underachieving Toronto and squandered a fourth-quarter lead last weekend against the Rudy Gobert-less ( for the second half anyway) Minnesota Timberwolves. That one prevented their first winning road trip of the season. There’s also been a double-digit loss in Milwaukee that led to a postgame heart-to-heart and lineup changes, bumping Caris LeVert and inserting Lamar Stevens.
Strange things happen over the course of an 82-game grind. But Friday night was the worst — and most baffling — loss yet. It’s the kind that raises questions about everybody. The kind that provides detractors with more ammunition. The kind that makes people wonder whether the contender label was premature. The kind that leads to another round of soul-searching.
No one is immune from criticism after such a disconcerting performance.
“It’s everybody. We all need to step up. We all need to bring it in and say, ‘Who do we want to be?,’” Love said to cleveland.com. “I don’t like to say we need to grow up, but I think these are times when we need to take control and ask that question. I want us to be great. I’m in Year 15. Whether I play just one more year or four, my clock is ticking. I’m not harsh but I’m critical. I want us to grow. It’s part of caring. My intent is I want these guys to be great, I want us to be great.
“I can see something special with this group and I think you can too. We have the makings to be a special team. We can’t skip steps though. We have the talent. We have everything in this locker room to get to where we want to go. But we can’t skip steps and games like tonight, if we are going to be that team, we need to win games like tonight.”
Love, the lone remaining member of Cleveland’s 2016 title team that dethroned the Warriors, knows what great teams look like. He can recognize those traits. Understands what it takes to win at the highest level. He sees the talent, camaraderie, unity, mental and physical toughness and potential — even when miserable, inexplicable nights like Friday threaten to blur that picture.
“We have developed a great culture here. We have developed a number of guys who are going to be in the core and be great for this team for a long time, but we have to win games like this,” Love reiterated. “These are teaching points. You have to play to your standard, our standard, every night. Tonight was a major letdown.”
The history between Cleveland and Golden State is well documented. The Warriors coming to town still generates a buzzworthy environment. They only make one visit each season — unless the two storied rivals meet for a fifth time in the NBA Finals. Friday’s dynamic ticket pricing was the second highest at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse all season. Curry jerseys flooded the arena. Blue and gold was sprinkled throughout the sellout crowd.
But those starry absences sullied the anticipated showdown.
LeVert, filling in for Mitchell once again, said he doesn’t remember how he reacted when hearing Golden State’s best were out. He prepares the same way every night, no matter the opponent. Originally planning to guard Wiggins, LeVert shifted his focus, cramming for a different matchup. He did not agree with Bickerstaff’s stance about disrespecting the game but admitted there was a natural letdown when the Warriors chose to rest four starters.
Darius Garland wouldn’t even go that far. He doesn’t believe the Cavs disregarded the short-handed Warriors.
“They are in the league for a reason,” Garland said. “I don’t think they were overlooked.”
The on-court evidence showed otherwise. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Cavs couldn’t get on the same page afterwards. For 48 minutes on the court, it was the same.
The only agreed upon point: The league’s second-ranked defense was not up to standard.
“We came out giving up 3s, laying on screens, not helping one another,” Bickerstaff said. “They’re good basketball players, and if you’re gonna disrespect them, they’re gonna make you pay and we came out of the gate soft and disrespectful and they were out there shooting warmup shots with no contest, no challenges, nobody in their space. They gave us what we deserved.”
“Got to close out harder and force some baseline instead of to the middle,” Evan Mobley said when asked about Golden State’s 3-point barrage. “We didn’t make the game as difficult for them as we should have and we waited to do that in the end. We tried to treat the game like every other game and came out with the same intensity. I don’t think we did that tonight.”
Jumpers splashed through the net as if Curry and Thompson were the ones hoisting them. With their best players in street clothes, the Warriors exploded for 15 points in the first four minutes — and kept pouring it on. Golden State made a season-high 14 3-pointers in the first half — tying the most ever by a Cavs opponent for a half — to take a five-point lead at the break.
“I think you could probably guess what it was,” LeVert said when asked about Bickerstaff’s halftime message. “Coach was not happy with our effort. We weren’t happy with our effort either.”
The Cavs had 24 minutes to turn it around while trying to do something, anything, to limit Golden State’s vigorous outside attack. Guys didn’t get the message. The short-handed Warriors canned five triples in the first five minutes of the third quarter, opening up a game-high 20-point lead. The Dubs finished with 23 long-range bombs, just two away from matching their season best and four from the franchise mark.
In all, eight players made at least one 3 while shooting 53.5% from deep. Sixty-nine of their 120 points came from beyond the arc. Twenty-one of the 43 triples were uncontested. Jordan Poole made five. Ty Jerome drilled three, including the backbreaker with 1:39 left that helped give Golden State a seven-point cushion in the face of a furious late-game Cleveland rally.
“Too little, too late,” Love said.
Terms like disrespectful, embarrassing, disappointing, troubling and demoralizing were correctly used by various members of the organization late Friday night. There’s no justification for losing to Golden State’s B team, let alone trailing for nearly 43 minutes. Not when the Cavs pride themselves on being one of the Eastern Conference elite. LeVert said he wasn’t sure whether this type of defeat would require a player’s-only meeting. It’s now five losses in the last eight games.
But there are no do-overs. All they can do is own this latest clunker and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We didn’t play our best, didn’t play hard, let them get going in the first quarter and that was the game after that,” Garland said. “Look yourself in the mirror. Go back and watch the film, see what we did, get ready for tomorrow.”
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