TORONTO — This isn't new territory for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's been like this for the past few years now, seasons full of peaks and valleys and questions and answers—only to see those answers followed by more questions.
Or, in the case of their defense and effort, the same questions being raised again and again and again, until June when they find themselves locked in and facing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
"This is just us during the regular season," LeBron James told reporters Thursday morning in what turned out to be a prophetic comment. "It's been four years since I've been back, and this has just been us. We have great months, we have not-so-good months. We have times where we're not playing well, times where we are playing well, but this is just us."
It'd be easy to fall into the same trap following the Cavaliers' embarrassing 133-99 loss, their sixth in eight games, versus the Raptors in Toronto.
There was that porous defense again, showing why it's the league's second-worst, allowing the Raptors to launch 42 triples, 18 of which they buried and the majority of which were uncontested. There was that effort again, or lack thereof, with defenders seemingly stepping out of the way to welcome Toronto guards into the paint with open arms.
But we've had these discussions before. We know how they end. The Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals and favored—that's what happens when you have LeBron James—over a squad like the Boston Celtics. Or maybe the Raptors this year, given how deep and electric they look. It makes the regular season one giant tune-up to get their, um, stuff, figured out.
That task is no longer as simple as it once was, not since Isaiah Thomas replaced Kyrie Irving. Thomas missed the season's first three months due a hip injury. He returned to the court last week, right around the season's halfway mark, giving the Cavaliers about four months to blend him into their fabric and elevate the roster into one capable of doing what last year's could not.
Yet four games in, we've already learned the process is not going to be easy.
Thomas, for example, has thrived in the limited action he's seen as the primary attacker in lineups without LeBron and Kevin Love. But the team has been outscored by 28 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, in the 40 minutes he's played alongside the other Cavaliers starters. Much of those numbers stem from the way the Raptors ran that group off the floor Thursday, and Thomas' 2-of-15 clunker, meaning he's now missed 21 of his last 26 shots.
Still, the lineup math was ugly prior to the blowout loss.
There are good reasons for this slow start, a few of which Thomas acknowledged while talking to reporters following the game.
"I just have no legs," he said, pointing out the majority of his misses were short. "Like, this is my preseason. I can't do nothing about that. Usually guys have an offseason to prepare and a preseason to prepare as well before you get going with the real games, and I had neither of them. So this is my preseason; I have to figure out ways to get my legs back."
There's more to it, though. Thomas, after all, is going from man in charge to sidekick. In Boston, the offense ran through him at all times. In Cleveland, he has to play off LeBron. Few players were allowed to touch the ball as much and as long as Thomas. This year, that's not going to be the case, even if his usage rate through four games has been higher than it was last year.
He drilled an impressive 41.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys last year, per NBA.com. It's just going to take time. More, perhaps, than Thomas originally hoped.
"On top of me being out seven months, me not playing basketball and just getting back on the team, not just getting back on the Boston Celtics where I've been for three years, but I'm on a totally different team with totally different players in a totally different system," Thomas said. "It's going to take time. I got to figure things out. We're not a team that practices a lot, so my figuring out comes in game time."
The offense will come around. The real questions are on defense. The Raptors repeatedly attacked Thomas, whether one-on-one or via screens, and were successful doing so. That's one of the reasons Celtics president Danny Ainge felt so comfortable moving him.
Thomas could exert all his effort defensively and still be a liability because he's about a foot shorter than the majority of the players on the floor. His presence opens opportunities for opponents. They can get shots they want, either by targeting him or forcing the Cavaliers to help.
None of those are issues the Cavaliers can't overcome. But the Raptors—shorthanded, too—illustrated just how much work they have ahead. That work starts with Thomas. How he fits in will likely determine how the team's season ends.