Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bizzaro Cavs are back

Is it any wonder the Cavaliers don't have a lot of believers in the national media?

Simply show LeBron James and Co. the ESPN or TNT logo, and it seems they want to curl up in a ball under the scorer's table.

Sunday, yet another nationally-televised game went by the boards as the Cavs treated an ESPN audience to another one of their patented fourth-quarter brain cramps, losing 105-93 to the Nuggets.

It was the Cavs' third loss in four games, and the second in four that should fall under the heading of "inexcusable in late March."

Granted, Denver is a far better team than Charlotte, which shamed the Cavs last week. But Sunday's contest was at home, where the Cavs had lost just nine times all season heading into the game, and Denver was only one game over .500 and battling their own inconsistency issues.

This was a game the Cavs had no business losing, not with a roster at full strength, not with the calendar turning to April at the start of next week, not with Detroit one-and-a-half tantalizing games ahead of the Cavs, bearing the best record in the conference.

Yet with all that firepower and motivation, the Cavs, purportedly one of the best defensive clubs in all the land, still managed to let Denver go off for 105 points, led by Carmelo Anthony's 27.

I think it's safe to call it a trend: The Bizzaro Cavs are back, chucking 20-foot jumpers, missing defensive rotations, tripping over themselves in the fourth quarter and bungling their way to sluggish, disinterested losses.

Ben Cox, among others, has noted that the Cavs are not a mentally-tough team. The showing in three of the past four games is proof positive.

The overtime loss to the Bobcats last week was a splash of cold water that the Cavs have yet to recover from. It took them from the euphoria of an eight-game winning streak where everything was grooving and yanked them back to reality. And the reality is, if you want to win consistently in the NBA, you have to slug it out even when things aren't running smoothly.

The next night, Cleveland hung tough with Dallas for most of the game, but the Cavs were once again doomed by horrible offensive possessions and defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter. Outside of LeBron, no one was really giving the Cavs any offense with consistency.

The 90-68 win over the Knicks was nice, but it might have been a case of a slumping team running into ... well, the Knicks.

Sunday's loss against Denver was the direct descendant of the losses to Charlotte and Dallas, in which the other team simply wanted it more than the Cavs with game on the line. Which is confusing, given how wide-open the East is and how late the date is.

But, then again, maybe that's why the East is so wide-open. Every team, with the possible exception of the Pistons, has glaring weaknesses. Chicago has their offense, Washington has their defense, Cleveland has their attention span.

The East might be very forgiving to a faltering club this year. The way things are looking, it's entirely possible that Detroit will be the only 50-win club in the conference, and even then just barely.

But losses like Sunday's still have a great chance of hurting the Cavs come playoff time. If Miami continues to chug along and Chicago stays on the Cavs' heels as Cleveland treads water with a .500 record over the season's final three weeks, it could be the difference between the second seed and the sixth seed, between drawing Orlando or New York in the first round, or drawing Miami or Chicago and having to open up on the road.

It's late March. The time for feeling your way along is over. It's winning time. Every team needs to make strategic adjustments, but if you are where the Cavs are, with the second-best record in your conference, all the wrinkles should have been ironed out of your mental approach to the game long ago.

As the past week has shown, the wrinkles are very obviously still there for the Cavs. Nevermind offensive and defensive game planning for a moment. It's the Cavs' coping skills that need work.

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