Nothing is ever simple for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They beat the Denver Nuggets by a final of 124-91 Monday at Quicken Loans Arena but made bigger news earlier in the day when head coach Tyronn Lue told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com he'd prioritize rest over playoff seeding down the stretch.
"I think health going into the playoffs is more important than the seeding," Lue said. "If we're fortunate enough to get the No. 1 seed, it will be great for us. But if not, then we just got to play through it."
We praise the San Antonio Spurs for things like this. We laud the foresight, the grasp of the big picture and the shrewd triage of regular-season concerns. It's now widely understood that player fatigue and injuries are linked, and the league's sharpest teams do what they can to mitigate risk by limiting minutes and having players skip games.
Against Denver, LeBron James looked pretty healthy in notching 33 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for his 41st career triple-double. But that's not the point.
This is smart! Lue's stance shouldn't be controversial—especially after this same Cavs team cruised to the Finals last year as a No. 2 seed.
Maybe it's just the price Cleveland pays for having James on the roster, but no comment, Twitter follow (or unfollow) or statement of strategic intent goes unscrutinized. Most of the time (and all the time when it's got something to do with James' social media activity), the scrutiny is silly. But in this instance, there's real cause to worry about the Cavs coasting at the possible cost of their top seed.
Consider: This team has been inconsistent under Lue, posting a 20-9 record and appearing no more cohesive or united than it was under deposed head coach David Blatt. Shouldn't Lue worry about the effects of taking a foot off the gas when the team's basically been idling since he took over?
The notion within the locker room is that the situation is tolerable, because it isn't permanent. If the Cavaliers were dealt the misfortune of playing without James for an extended period of time, this locker room would be boiling over.
Players are growing tired of Irving's inability to not only register a proper amount of assists at the lead guard position, but also to just move the ball.
A potentially fractured locker room is just one of Cleveland's issues. There's also disjointed thinking.
For example, the Kevin Love-at-center experiment is over just days after it began. Love didn't play because of illness against the Nuggets, but Lue told Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com the Cavs would move away from the tactic—another decision in a string of reversions to Blatt-era concepts. Defensively, too, Lue said the Cavs will go back to the schemes they employed in the season's first half.
With lagging performance, persistent infighting and so little hammered out strategically, isn't this a team that should be using these final few games to pull itself together? And what about relinquishing some kind of mental edge to the Toronto Raptors, who are only a game-and-a-half back of the top spot and have played better than Cleveland since Jan. 1? Shouldn't that be a concern?
It's true the Cavs aren't treated fairly. We pay more attention to them than we do to most teams, and we pick apart their decisions more critically. We make them more convoluted by running their every word through the 24-hour-news-cycle ringer. We're doing that right now!
But it's also true Cleveland contributes to its own complicated nature. Earlier this year, Lue said seeding was more important than rest, per McMenamin—even when it came to James. If you want to go way back, you'll find James tempering championship expectations in his original homecoming letter, saying his team wasn't ready, that it'd be a long process...and then spearheading a title-or-bust organizational mindset immediately afterward.
This has been the story in Cleveland for two seasons now. Lineups change, harmony comes and goes and aims shift. Adapting to circumstances is a good thing, but the Cavs' operating mandate feels more panicked and capricious than considered. See: Firing a 30-11 head coach on Jan. 22.
As a result, this is where the Cavaliers find themselves with only a few weeks left: doing the smart thing by prioritizing health, yet still exposing themselves to real risk and earned questions in the process. That must be exhausting.
Maybe the Cavs shouldn't worry about physical fatigue. Instead, it might be better to focus on the mental toll of two seasons under an unforgiving microscope.
The Hornets Are Good Enough for Nelly
There is no higher compliment.
After scoring just seven points in the first quarter of what looked like a certain blowout loss, the Charlotte Hornets produced 84 points in the ensuing 36 minutes to stun the San Antonio Spurs, 91-88. Nelly, part owner, was understandably enthused.
Seriously, things were dire for the Hornets in that first period. San Antonio was absolutely destroying them, per NBA analyst Nate Duncan:
This is an absolute evisceration. One of the most dominating quarters of the year.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) March 21, 2016
Fifth airball of the first Q for the Hornets— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) March 21, 2016
Jeremy Lin was a monster off the bench, leading the 23-point comeback by scoring a game-high 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting. This was stunning stuff, per Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press:
If you predicted the Spurs would shut down Curry on Saturday but wouldn't have an answer for Lin on Monday ... well, you'd be right.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) March 22, 2016
Charlotte is now 40-30, a winner in 10 of its 12 games in March. If you're looking for a sneaky contender in the East, the Hornets are it.
There's Still Joy in Detroit
Stan Van Gundy hasn't been happy for roughly six months, and he'll never quit grousing about the Detroit Pistons' failure to live up to their defensive potential. It's his thing.
Fortunately, SVG's constant carping hasn't dampened the Pistons' spirits.
Evidence: jubilation after Andre Drummond's game-winning tip-in.
Detroit's 92-91 win over the Milwaukee Bucks was its third straight, and it was necessary. The Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards are right in the mix for playoff positioning, and both have been doing plenty of winning lately. Chicago would have moved a half-game up on the Pistons for the No. 8 spot Monday—if not for Drummond's late bucket.
Teams seeded No. 7 through No. 10 in the East are separated by just two games, and the third seed is only a half-game ahead of the sixth. These final few weeks are going to be bedlam.
Elsewhere in the Chaotic East...
If not for the Hornets' incredible upset, the Wizards would have logged the night's most surprising victory. They beat the Atlanta Hawks, 117-102, as John Wall finished with 27 points and 14 assists. All five Wizards starters scored in double figures, and Washington shot a scorching 50.5 percent from the field (including 52.0 percent from long range).
Considering Atlanta's defensive prowess, the Wizards' scoring output was, to use a technical term, bananas. Since Feb. 1, the Hawks have allowed 95.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. It's the lowest figure in the league—markedly better than even the historically stingy Spurs, who limited offenses to 97.0 points per 100 possessions in that same span.
The Wizards' fifth straight win got them to .500, just a game-and-a-half out of the eighth spot in the East. Wall has been excellent offensively during his team's resurrection, but he's been talking more about his teammates' defense, per J. Michael of CSNMidAtlantic.com:
The Bulls retained their lead on Washington and Detroit (though by a mere percentage point in the case of the latter) by beating the Sacramento Kings at home, 109-102. Doug McDermott stayed hot, scoring 16 points off the bench as DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo combined for 14 turnovers.
Cousins didn't push any security guards Monday, though, which counts as progress in the Kings' lost season.
Rounding out the lower reaches of the East playoff race, the Indiana Pacers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 95-71. As a result, seventh-seeded Indy remains ever so slightly above the fray—a half-game ahead of Detroit and Chicago.
This thing is a mess, but it's an exciting mess. And even if we got ahead of ourselves in trumpeting the East's rebirth as a power conference earlier this year, we could still see a couple of teams with winning records miss the playoffs. Considering the eighth seed in the East has been at or below the break-even mark every year since 2004-05 (excluding the 2011-12 lockout campaign), that's significant.
Mortality Is Unfun
Especially when you’ve been nothing less than god-like for months.
Stephen Curry looked gassed in the Golden State Warriors’ 87-79 loss to the Spurs on Saturday, hitting just one three-pointer in 12 attempts. He was sluggish, unable to shimmy past mismatches on the perimeter and was uncommonly out of rhythm—even on some early open looks before San Antonio really clamped down on him. But there were built-in excuses: It was the Spurs, who are terrific on defense. And it was the second night of a back-to-back set.
In a surprisingly close 109-104 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday, Curry was nearly as shaky. He put up 19 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, but he was 6-of-17 from the field and made just two of his nine three-point attempts. The Wolves, it must be noted, are not the Spurs on defense.
Despite the softer opponent, Curry did things we haven’t seen him do all year, per Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com:
That was weird. Curry was wide open from 3 and hesitated on taking it— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 22, 2016
Curry’s worn down. That’s all there is to it.
And who could fault him?
He’s been carrying the weight of history for months, propping up the Warriors and bailing them out in 10 games (give or take) they shouldn’t have won. He’s every opponent’s focal point. He gets beaten to a pulp off the ball, and now, predictably, he’s tired.
It just feels strange to see him struggle because he’s been such a superhero for so long.
Good news, per Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group:
Curry just needs to make it through Friday. He can then sit vs Philly and get 4 days off— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) March 22, 2016
Golden State is still on track to win a record 73 games. As long as that record’s in play, the Warriors will keep pushing themselves. Hopefully, Curry rests up during the upcoming break. If this persists, the Warriors will not only fall short of the wins record; they also won’t have a shot to repeat as champs.
Because when Curry is mortal, so are the Warriors.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played March 21.