CLEVELAND — As good as the Cleveland Cavaliers have been against much of the NBA this season, Kyrie Irving summed up his team's performance after Jan. 18's 132-98 beatdown at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
"They just came in and kicked our ass."
Irving's sentiments were echoed throughout the locker room in Cleveland's worst loss of the year and final regular-season meeting against the Warriors. For all the talk that a healthy Cavaliers team would have won the 2015 NBA Finals, there was little evidence to suggest such an outcome.
The Cavs finished the regular season 0-2 against the Warriors and are 0-1 with one game left to play against the NBA's other elite team, the San Antonio Spurs.
Cleveland has been a lock at the top of the Eastern Conference standings all season but has shown little hope of knocking off one of the best in the West come June.
As with everything they do, the Cavs' potential success starts and ends with their Big Three of Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James.
While the group rebounded nicely in a 91-78 win over the lowly Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 20, a new challenge awaits in the form of another Western power. As Cleveland welcomes the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers to town Thursday, it needs to begin to fix the following issues regarding the team's Big Three.
Gaining Experience, Cohesion
Prior to last season, Love and Irving had taken part in exactly zero combined playoff games. Even with a run to the Finals, injuries limited their experiences. Irving played in 13 of the team's 20 postseason contests. Love lasted just four.
Irving is 23. Love is 27. Both are still young and learning the winning habits needed when playing on a championship-caliber team. James is 31, owns two titles and knows there's improvement to be made for all of his younger teammates.
"We're a young basketball team. We had some success last year. In terms of experience, we don’t have much together."
Cleveland has played with James, Irving and Love for a total of 76 regular-season and playoff games since they were assembled. That's less than a full season, and this is a far cry from the time the Warriors' (years) and Spurs' (centuries?) cores have spent together.
"We have a long time to go," Irving said. "We know that. We still have a lot of games left to find our continuity."
It was around this same time last year that Cleveland finally took off, finishing the season on a 34-9 run after a 19-20 start. Trades for Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith helped, of course, but it was really the meshing of James, Love and Irving that led to such a dominant second half.
While it remains to be seen if general manger David Griffin will pull off any more significant trades, Cleveland can't sit around and hope for outside help. It's crucial that improvement come from within instead of plugging in yet another moving part. Stability now becomes key.
"We’re not at that point yet. We have some inexperienced guys who haven’t played enough meaningful basketball games that they can fall back on," James said. "We’re gonna have a lot of bumps, and that’s OK. The best teacher in life is experience."
With three months until the playoffs start and almost a full five until the Finals, the Cavs have plenty of time to gain some much-needed familiarity.
Keeping Love Involved
This record just keeps on breaking.
Hopes were high coming into this season for Love, who signed a five-year max extension with the team this past summer. James was especially quick to praise his power forward, telling ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin: "I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus. He's going to have a hell of a season. He's going to get back to that All-Star status."
That was October, with Irving still two months away from making his season debut. Now in January, Irving is back, and Love's stats are suffering.
|Kevin Love Stats Before/After Kyrie Irving Return|
|Before Irving (24 games)||17.6||43.4||13.8||24.4||24.8|
|After Irving (15 games)||12.4||36.9||11.2||21.2||19.2|
Despite a strong 17-point, 18-rebound showing in Cleveland's Jan. 20 win over the Brooklyn Nets, Love is once again standing around the perimeter far too often. His incredible post skills and high free-throw percentage are essentially going to waste, which is a problem if the Cavs want him to resemble his vintage self against true contenders.
After going an abysmal 1-of-5 from the field for three total points against the Warriors, Love appeared frustrated postgame. When asked how he felt about his role, he paused before simply responding, "I really don’t know how to answer that."
Part of Love's lack of involvement has been an increased role for Irving. Part has been Love's lack of aggression to fight for position in the paint. The rest is up to coach David Blatt and his offensive game plan.
"He’s an extremely high-level player," Blatt said of Love. "I don’t believe there are situations where he can’t play. We need to do a better job of helping him, honestly."
Cleveland's Big Three has been good, yes, but far from reaching its massive potential. The three-man lineup of James, Irving and Love is registering a plus/minus rating of plus-4.4 this season, good for just sixth on the team among combinations that have played together in five games or more.
By comparison, the Warriors' trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are plus-13.1. In all, Golden State has 17 different three-man lineups registering better than Cleveland's plus-4.4.
As Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio recently told 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland (h/t CBS Cleveland):
The key is, No. 1, you have to get Kevin Love going. Now, is that all on David Blatt? No. It is on the coaching staff, because that's where it always ... begins and ends.
But it's also on Kevin Love. He has to be more aggressive. It's on Kyrie Irving. He has to find Kevin Love. And it's on LeBron James. They all have to make sure Kevin Love is involved.
Because otherwise you don't have a Big Three. You have a Big Two and one guy who's pretty good. And if you don't have a Big Three, you are not going to beat the Spurs and the Warriors. You're just not gonna do it.
If the Cavs want to reach these elite levels, the complete inclusion of Love in the offense has to be achieved.
For all his natural physical gifts, James has become one of the most advanced students and analysts in the game today. He recognizes the importance of not only playing the game but mentally processing it as well.
"Mentally, we’ve got to be more sharp," James said after the loss to the Warriors. "You look at Chicago, San Antonio, Golden State, they got experience and high basketball IQ and guys who are sharp mentally at all times."
This lack of mental toughness was especially evident against the NBA's best squad. Cleveland was down by 13 points after the first quarter and made no comeback attempt whatsoever against the Warriors. Heads were already hanging low when the first timeout was called less than two minutes into the game.
This came less than a week after a 99-95 road loss to the Spurs. San Antonio was in a similar position, down 12 points after the first quarter to the hot-shooting Cavaliers.
Here lies the difference.
At no point did the Spurs pout or doubt they could come back. Instead, the defense tightened up, holding Cleveland to just 63 points over the final three quarters.
"There’s some things you can get away with against certain teams that you can’t against [Golden State and San Antonio]," James said.
As leaders of the team, both Irving and Love need to stay mentally in the game and set the tone for others to follow. Of course, this isn't easily done for players who have predominantly played on losing teams throughout their careers.
This can't be solely on James to keep his head up and play the right way, no matter what the scoreboard says.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR.
All quotes are obtained firsthand unless sourced. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced and are current as of Jan. 20.