The Cleveland Cavaliers have tried something new in just about every game of the 2018 postseason. But no matter what they do, they often arrive at the same unsettling, potentially defining conclusion.
This team is not like any of LeBron James' squads from years past. It has no switch to flip, no next gear to enter, no secret supply of untapped energy and engagement stored in its reserves.
These Cavaliers are a wild card prone to spurts of adequacy but also long, drawn-out fits of division, relative ineffectiveness and complete meltdowns.
Head coach Tyronn Lue has tried pushing all sorts of buttons. Different starting lineups, varied rotations, a carousel of "did not plays" and welcome-backs—anything that might shake up the status quo for a thought-to-be contender fast transitioning from a general underachiever to an exposed fraud.
The Cavaliers stayed true to their Jekyll-and-Hyde act during Tuesday's Game 2 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Another new starting lineup and another at-random rotation incited another slew of questions and concerns.
A double-digit lead devolved into a seven-point edge at halftime. It became a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, which then turned into a 15-point chasm that eventually settled into a 107-94 loss and 2-0 series hole.
This was a master class in mid-game implosions. James pumped in 21 points during the first quarter alone, but the rest of the team only added six. Led by Jaylen Brown's own 14-point effort, Boston remained within four, essentially laying LeBron's herculean detonation to waste.
Kyle Korver breathed some life into the supporting cast during the second frame, dropping in 11 points as Cleveland ever so slightly extended its lead. But that margin never once seemed safe. On the contrary, with James suffering a strained neck near the end of the first half, the Cavaliers limped into the locker room worse for the wear, hardly in control of anything.
For the final two quarters, they played like it.
James labored his way to 17 points and six assists—he finished with 42 and 12, respectively, en route to another triple-double—but his touch from beyond the arc disappeared. Korver went ice cold (0-of-3). Jeff Green played more. Kevin Love perked up a bit, piling on 13 points and nine rebounds, but the starting backcourt of George Hill and JR Smith went scoreless over the final 24 minutes.
And yet, it wasn't just that the Cavaliers forfeited their lead and the game. It was how they lost—how they surrendered, really.
The Celtics didn't just outplay them. They outhustled them. They targeted Korver in the post. They freight-trained their way to loose balls and soft-pitch passes. They swung the ball around until the Cavaliers' rotations folded. On most plays, that didn't take much:
Cleveland waited for rebounds to fall sans sturdy boxouts. Boston smothered the ball, stealing tapouts and second-chance opportunities:
Frustration became implosion down the stretch. The Cavaliers blew more coverages and rolled their eyes. They committed six turnovers and nine fouls in the fourth quarter. Smith exacerbated lazy defense with a dangerous flagrant foul on Al Horford:
Cue Killmonger voice: Is this your reigning Eastern Conference champ?
The Cavaliers don't look like a team capable of, let alone prepared for, another NBA Finals appearance. They escaped their first-round rock fight with the Indiana Pacers and steamrolled the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals. But at their core, they look like a unit divided and often detached, one that doesn't have the chemistry or talent to deliver a lasting rebuke to the concern and doubt showered upon them during the regular season.
Some things are beyond their control. James wouldn't attribute a quieter second half in Game 2 to his neck injury or a potential concussion, but he wasn't as aggressive on offense or even close to active enough on defense.
And this just in: The Celtics are good. The proposed source of their downfall has been repackaged into a strength. They don't have a heralded go-to scorer like Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving, but they have the next best thing: a committee of worker bees who collectively offset the superstar void left by injuries.
Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and even Marcus Smart all take turns attacking. Sometimes, an All-NBA scoring outburst or two is found within them—usually from Horford, Brown or Tatum. But the entire crew is always putting constant pressure on Cleveland's defense. They have guys making big plays on both ends at every turn.
That doesn't excuse what's happening to the Cavaliers. They aren't making the changes necessary to win this series. Yes, the rotation looks different. Lue is turning to basically unexplored lineups:
Supposedly key players are also waffling in and out of his good graces while failing to leave their ascribed mark:
These adjustments are a facade.
Lue is giving the appearance of futzing and fiddling, but he isn't doing anything substantive at all. The Cavaliers' problems remain the same. The ball is sticking deep into the shot clock without ever traveling inside the arc. No-shows like Smith are still called upon to close games. Weirdo lineups that prove to be ineffective continue to see the light of day:
Maybe the Cavaliers find something within themselves leading into Game 3 on Saturday. They should be better at home, and no team has won in Boston during the playoffs.
Then again, their day-to-day performance shouldn't be this big of an issue so late in the year. This is mid-May. They're in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even with their midseason overhaul factored in, they shouldn't be in such demonstrative disarray, searching for lineups that work and reliable options behind James.
At the bare minimum, they should not be 13 games into their postseason march lacking so much energy and discipline.
Effort is tough to quantify, and criticizing it qualifies as cliche. But the Cavaliers are worth all of the vapid expressions. They're embodying the boiler-plate stereotypes.
Are they indifferent? Entitled? Just plain not good enough? A mixture of everything? Either way, they cannot be counted on. Beyond James, they don't have the talent to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Through each of the previous three seasons, the Cavaliers entered the playoffs with two or more players other than James yielding a value over replacement player (VORP) of 1.0 or higher. In his four years with the Miami Heat, he always had at least four teammates with a VORP of 1.0 or better.
This year's Cavs? They have Kevin Love, and that's it. And he's posting far lower shooting clips than he did during the regular season.
Again: Maybe the tides turn in Cleveland. The Cavaliers still have LeBron. If he's healthy, that could be enough. But the Celtics understand what they're up against. They're well-coached, level-headed and, above all else, playing together.
"If [there was] anybody I could put my money on," Jaylen Brown told ESPN's Doris Burke after Game 2, "it would be this group."
Which is way more than James, or anyone else, can say for the Cavs.