The Cavaliers don't like being predictable. If watching 91 combined regular season and playoff games to this point has taught us anything, it's that.
In retrospect, we should have seen coming the team's putrid effort in Game 5 Wednesday night, if for no other reason than the end of Game 4 and the response it elicited around Northeast Ohio.
The Cavs gutted out an ugly 87-85 win over the Nets that was touted as "real playoff basketball." In the Tuesday and Wednesday editions, The Plain Dealer declared the team to be playoff-mature, embracing their coach's defensive gospel and, above all, achieving a new standard of mental toughness.
Then came Wednesday night's 72-point effort in which the Cavs managed to hold the Nets to six fourth-quarter points on 1-for-15 shooting and still lost by 11.
See? The defense was there. The offense ... eh, well let's be honest. Kent State's defense could have stymied the Cavs' offense Wednesday. It's not that difficult to do when Larry Hughes insists on jacking up jumper after jumper on the way to 3-for-17 shooting while LeBron James keeps finding himself receiving the ball 40 feet from the basket.
Wednesday night, LeBron might as well have added to his extensive tattoo collection with some ink that said "Trap Me Against The Sideline, I'm 25 Feet From The Nearest Teammate" across his forehead.
So are we to assume that the Cavs regressed from playoff-tough to JV-sloppy in the span of 48 hours? Probably not.
If you've sat through all 57 wins and all 34 losses this team has produced since the start of the regular season, you'd know that mysterious stretches of inexplicably bad basketball are in this team's DNA. I used to want to chalk it up to Mike Brown, but despite the offensive lapses, I wonder if I can.
Fingering Brown and his purported inability to grasp offensive basketball lets Hughes, LeBron and their rim-clanging cohorts off the hook. On nights when they insist on hoisting a barrage of 20-foot jumpers and miss 80 percent of them, LeBron and Co. very much deserve the blame when the Cavs lose. And that's where I'm placing the blame for Wednesday's debacle.
The Nets worked hard to stay alive in the playoffs Wednesday and deserved to win. The Cavs should have expected that, but maybe they didn't. Maybe they thought the series was over when they stole Game 4 and took a 3-1 lead. Maybe they forgot about all those playoff games that Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter have played.
The Cavs simply got worked over by a team that wanted it more. There are plenty of examples to point to on that front, including home losses to the Knicks and Hawks and a couple of road losses to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats.
If you DVRed any of those games and are still fuming over Wednesday's loss, watch one of them. You'll see a familiar pattern of settling for outside jumpers, standing around on offense and watching LeBron, and lethargic defense. Afterward, you won't be so surprised that the Cavs laid an egg.
And you'll be one step up on the Cavs players, who were surprised not only by the Nets, but by their fans' reaction to their sluggish effort. Hughes called the fans' booing "a bad way to go." Donyell Marshall, who is barely even a factor in games anymore, was so shocked and hurt that fans would boo his 0-for-5 shooting performance that he gave the fans a return shot thinly-disguised as a "no comment":
“If I say something, it’s not going to be the right thing to do,” he told The Plain Dealer.
Well, yes Donyell. Unless you were going to say "I now realize the error of my ways. I am not, in fact, a good enough three-point shooter to constantly camp out on the arc and wait for a kickout pass. From this point on, I vow to earn my paycheck fighting for rebounds down low," it probably wasn't going to be the right thing to do.
Fortunately for Marshall, he was just one of 15 players who seemed to have a hard time understanding what was going on Wednesday.
Following Monday's Game 4 win, Bill Livingston, the PD's resident basketball connoisseur and sometimes elderly crank, declared these Cavs to be worlds different than the Lenny Wilkens Cavs of 15 and 20 years ago.
Those Cavs, he said, stood around contemplating their shoetops after Charles Barkley pummeled Craig Ehlo in a pre-flagrant foul rule playoff game. No one retaliated.
These Cavs, on the other hand, learned something when Rasheed Wallace laid open Zydrunas Ilgauskas' head last season, he said. These Cavs are tougher. They stand up for each other and don't cower in the face of bullying. They have not, nor will they ever, take flack from Mikki Moore.
Good for them. They shouldn't take flack from Mikki Moore. And if Mikki Moore was even close to the the most ominous threat facing the Cavs heading into Game 6, it would be a noble pursuit.
Unfortunately, it appears the Cavs' greatest adversary is once again between their own collective ears. That is an enemy that needs to be defeated right now, otherwise we're going to be in for a far-too-exciting Game 7 showdown on Sunday.