With LeBron and Kyrie on cruise control, Cavs show all signs of NBA playoffs ambush victim
I’m calling my boss to ask for a rest day tomorrow.
I don’t want to take an actual personal or vacation or sick day. I don’t want it to count against my quota. And I want to get paid.
Nothing is really wrong with me. I just feel like I need to rest my brain for the Blue-White Game and the NFL Draft coming up later this month. Is that OK?
Gee, I wonder how he’ll react to this. How do you think your boss would to such a request?
Well, if you’re the biggest star in the National Basketball Association, you don’t even have to ask. Your boss sets up such rest days for you. You don’t have to play when everyone else does. Doesn’t matter if the game has playoff implications. You just sit and watch and laugh.
Consider this now: The Cleveland Cavaliers played a game last night in Miami that had playoff-seeding and home-court implications for them and meant everything to the host Heat – whether they even still had a chance to get in the playoffs.
Miami won 124-121 with a late surge and overtime rally and that kept them alive for the postseason with a single regular-season game remaining. Cleveland’s loss meant they sank into second place in the East and will give up home-court advantage to the first-place Celtics if the standings remain the same through Wednesday’s regular-season finales.
This all happened with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving resting. I cannot recall anything like this ever happening in any sport ever before. And it calls into question the very integrity and brand of the NBA.
Some doubt exists about Irving’s health. Yet, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said as recently as Friday that he only planned to rest either James or Irving when or if the team wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.
I guess he changed his mind. Or maybe it was changed for him.
Not only have the Cavs not clinched the top seed, but the Celtics now are the No. 1 with a game to go. The Cavs have basically given away the top spot in the last week and have only an outside shot at it now after blowing three straight games in bizarre fashion – one to an Atlanta Hawks team playing a virtual replacement lineup because they wanted rest.
And it’s already been reported by Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon that James will sit out Wednesday night’s game with the Raptors.
We’ve all heard of “healthy arrogance.” To me, this is unhealthy arrogance. Cleveland now is on an 11-14 slide over the past six weeks. Their defensive metrics are ugly. They show all the signs of a team cruising into an ambush, maybe at the hands of the hungry young Raptors now that they’ve acquired savvy playoff vet Serge Ibaka.
You can rationalize that Cleveland is not remotely frightened by the prospect of Boston owning a seventh game on its home court, especially after the Cavs drilled the Celtics in their last meeting. Or third-place Toronto or fourth-place Washington, for that matter.
But to me, that’s not confidence, it’s smug complacency. And I know nobody gives any of those teams in the East a shot at the Cavs. But that’s just when upsets have occurred in the past in the NBA playoffs – when the favorite isn’t taking the early rounds seriously. And if you’re not taking the home court seriously, you’re not taking the opponent seriously.
Which gets to the root of all of this: If the league’s best players don’t value the regular season – even April games that could shape playoff venues – why should the fans value anything that happens during the fall and winter?
You simply would not see this in the other three pro sports, two of which are played more physically.
NHL playoff teams will occasionally rest players in April – as the Rangers and Blue Jackets just recently have with their spots locked up in the East. But never if home ice is on the line.
The NFL has had several notable situations through the years where coaches rested several key starters in week 17, sometimes causing controversy when opposing teams had playoff spots in the balance. But never with home-field advantage on the line for the clinched side.
Baseball has a notoriously long 6-month regular-season schedule – nearly twice as many games as either basketball or hockey – so you occasionally see key players rested in September. But not with a home-field playoff advantage at stake.
The defending NBA champions simply look like a team that doesn’t think any of this pre-playoff action matters. The culture is set by the leaders and those are James and Irving.
It was interesting, then, to see the reaction of newcomer Deron Williams, signed as a free agent six weeks ago to be Irving’s back-up. The former Illinois guard and 12-year NBA veteran is a 3-time All-Star at the end of his career at age 32. He clearly did not anticipate this back-in attitude from the champions when he signed in February. He implied as much after playing 46 minutes and going for 35 points, 9 assists and 7 boards, along with 10 turnovers – in the loss at Miami last night:
“I thought we’d be playing a little bit better – a lot better, actually – than we’re playing and things would gel. But there’s been a lot of variables. A lot of injuries, lot of incorporating guys in, guys resting at times. So, the rotations haven’t been steady and substitution patterns have been off.”
Williams also expressed the confidence that Irving and James and the rest of this team know how to turn it off and turn it on at playoff time.
I wonder. Yeah, it’s all about April to June for the teams who matter in the NBA. But if don’t feel you need to do the job for which you’ve been paid – that the fans have paid to see – what, really, have you become?
No one has been more critical of Russell Westbrook than I have, particularly his penchant for not seeing teammates and playing selfish “hero ball” at crucial points in the most important games.
But in this instance, I have to give him props. Compare what James and Irving are doing now to what Westbrook has done all season – grinding through 80 straight with a nonstop motor and relentless energy. And his Oklahoma City Thunder are competing in the playoffs, too – as a 6-seed against the Houston Rockets, no less.
You don’t see Westbrook resting. He’s played in every OKC game this season, never fewer than 23 minutes, this after losing his partner Kevin Durant to the Warriors. When the fans come to see the Thunder, they know Westbrook will be out there in full force. And his numbers speak for themselves, especially his eclipsing of Oscar Roberston’s triple-double record.
And yet the icon of the entire league feels he needs to lean back on the bench in April and miss eight entire games over the course of the season like some executive gone soft on resort pampering.
When James does play, he plays a lot — a league-leading 37.8 minutes per game including 51 in a win over the Pacers on April 2. That doesn’t matter as much to me as his AWOL status for entire games when seeding is on the line.
I think it puts the entire reputation of the business in jeopardy. Commissioner Adam Silver has suggested as much. But I don’t see him doing anything about it, either.
It might not hurt the NBA’s bank account now. But down the line, this sort of blase attitude has the potential to sink the league into a malaise it has not seen since the bad old days of the 1970s.
Nobody in the current generation remembers those times. But they might be bringing on a duplication sooner than anyone thinks.
DAVID JONES: email@example.com