As NBA Playoffs Loom, LeBron's 'New Levels' May Not Be Enough for Flawed Cavs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) stands and watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Sunday, March 25, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

MIAMI — From sharing AmericanAirlines Arena with Dwyane Wade again to rocking some South Beach kicks, it all felt so familiar for LeBron James.

"You wouldn't be human if you didn't have any emotions or any memories pop up when you walk back into an arena where you had so many games and so many battles and so many great memories," James said.

Even the narrative around the King's club elicited feelings of deja vu.

Behind sheer basketball brilliance from James—"Finals James," as his former coach Erik Spoelstra put it—the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed to be hovering above the entire Eastern Conference. Any argument made against the NBA Finals' heading back to Northeast Ohio for a fourth straight year could be countered with, "Yeah, but they have LeBron."

No matter how much James' squad coasts through the regular season, the oft-repeated story goes, it will always flip the necessary switch come playoff time.

Maybe that still rings true, but when's the last time James' team felt this far from championship contention? For all the nostalgic feels inside the building, one couldn't shake the notion this tale might have a different ending.

This isn't about the Cavs' 98-79 loss to the seventh-seeded Miami Heat.

Cleveland lost Kevin Love early when his tooth was knocked loose and didn't get him back after he exhibited symptoms of a concussion at halftime. And without Kyle Korver, the NBA's 11th-best three-point shooting team clanked its way to an ugly 4-of-26 showing.

"We've had a great rotation down the last few games, and for a guy to go down that early, it kind of messed that up," James said. "Our rhythm was broken right from the beginning."

The defeat came with simple excuses—and not just the typical "game after an off day in Miami."

But the loss did speak to greater concerns about the Cavs, worries big enough to make you wonder whether even a miracle-worker like James can figure them out.

Joe Skipper/Associated Press

The Cleveland defense is a train wreck. It's been bad before (22nd just last season) but never this disastrous (28th, nestled between the lottery-bound tankers in Chicago and Sacramento).

How can the Cavs fix this? They don't have a shot-blocker. They don't have reliable wing stoppers. And they don't have enough practice time to get everyone on the same page.

"These guys are still learning what we do," Cleveland interim head coach Larry Drew said. "I can see the confusion on their faces on some things. I can see that they're doing a lot of thinking as well. We want this to be just a reaction thing for them so they know exactly what they're supposed to do. Right now it's not like that. Guys are still really trying to think where to go, who to pick up."

A leaky, disjointed defense could be a death sentence against the Toronto Raptors, let alone the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors should the Cavaliers advance that far.

And the questions don't dissipate on the offensive end.

The Cavs rank fifth in efficiency. But so much of that stems from James.

After Kyrie Irving bolted and Isaiah Thomas flopped, Cleveland never found its second option. It should be Love, but his shots, points and assists per game are all down from last season. And if he's Plan B, then who is Plan C—Jordan Clarkson? Rodney Hood? George Hill? Whomever it is, it's not a player on the level of Love or Chris Bosh, the third wheels on James' past championship teams.

But wait—where were these issues during the Cavs' five-game winning streak, which the Heat snapped? Not far from the surface, actually.

Cleveland's opponents in that stretch—which only included two playoff teams and just one seeded higher than eighth—averaged 112.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting, including 38.4 percent from three. All three figures would be bottom-two defensive marks this season.

Love put up 20.3 points per night, which sounds fine until you weigh it against the production of James' former sidekicks. Clarkson was third on the scoring list at 14.2 points per game despite shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from distance.

With two weeks left on their schedule, the Cavs are clinging to a half-game lead on the fourth- and fifth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers. Before you assume James can win from any seed, just know the eight teams he's taken to the Finals finished first or second in the East.

All that said, this is still LeBron.

In fact, it might be the best LeBron we've ever seen.

"When he was here there was a point in time when he was shooting 60 percent from the field, and I was like, 'This is the best he's going to be. This is as good as it gets,'" Wade said. "He's continued to prove everybody wrong and find new levels. In his 15th season, to be 33 years of age and to be playing the way he's playing, as consistent as he's playing, that is as impressive as anything that anybody has ever done."

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 27:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat meet after the game between the two teams on March 27, 2018 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

Whether borne of necessity or the result of aging like fine wine, James' production has reached a ridiculous rate—even by his standards.

He was the East's Player of the Month for February, when he averaged 27.0 points on 54.6 percent shooting, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game. He's a heavy favorite to take the hardware again for March, with more points (30.5), better shooting (55.7) and near-double-digit per-game marks in boards (9.6) and dimes (9.5).

"I know that man well enough that you should never be surprised," Spoelstra said. "It's just the next challenge with him. ... The highest level we thought he played at the time was our second year. Then the third year, he played at a higher level than that. Then he capped it off and went to another level his fourth year. It doesn't matter. He's the best player in the game."

Doubting James at any point before the championship round has been foolish for almost a decade. Perhaps this time won't be any different. There might be better teams in the conference, but there isn't a more dominant force.

James' margin for error, however, is slimmer than it's been during his run to seven straight Finals. The Cavs' switch isn't flipping. It'll take all-galaxy greatness from James to avoid an earlier vacation than he's had in years.

If anyone can pull it off, it's him. But there's a distinctly foreign feeling to the gargantuan odds he's up against.

    

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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