CLEVELAND, Ohio – LeBron James was asked Saturday night if he was concerned over the Cavaliers’ lack of consistency this late in the season.
He responded with a look on his face like someone questioned whether he had any Nike shoes in his closet.
“Is that a real question,” James smirked to reporters in Miami, after the Cavs were pounded 122-101 by his old team. “I mean, consistency is part of life.”
So, right. Of course James wishes the Cavs were better than the 11-6 record they’ve posted since the All-Star break, that there weren’t three brutal, terrible-looking losses to a depleted Memphis team, to the Wizards, and now this.
Yes, it’s bothersome that his team has failed to build any sustained momentum since coach Tyronn Lue took over Jan. 23. That the Cavs still struggle to defend the pick-and-roll, play selfishly at times, don’t necessarily have consistent rotations.
The quote from James making the rounds after the Heat thumped Cleveland Saturday night is that “the way” Miami’s beaten the Cavs on South Beach over the past two seasons “is a little concerning, if we face them” in the playoffs.
And that’s a real possibility. The Cavs, right now, are first in the East. Miami is fourth. If both teams hold, or if Cleveland slips to second and the Heat improves to third, a second-round series would be likely.
In four games at the Heat’s AmericanAirlines Arena since James left Miami for the Cavs, the Heat is 4-0 against Cleveland with an average margin of victory of 15 points in those games.
James didn’t play in one of those losses, but let’s stop the Heat discussion right here and get to the heart of the matter.
History tells us that nothing – not what went down in Miami on Saturday night, nor the Cavs’ inconsistent play since the All-Star break – means James and Co. are doomed in the playoffs.
Quite the opposite is true.
Let’s start with the records of James’ teams post All-Star break in each of the past five seasons, all of which ended in Finals runs.
Last season, the Cavs were 11-4 from the All-Star break through March 20 (which is where we are in the schedule right now). They finished the unofficial second half at 20-7.
The year before, in Miami, the Heat was 9-6 at this time (finished 17-14). In 2012-13, the Heat went 16-0 as part of its historic 27-game winning streak (finished 30-2).
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, Miami was 10-7 from mid-February to late March and concluded the season 19-13. And in James’ first season with the Heat in 2010-11, it was 7-7 during the same time frame (finished 18-12).
So when James said Saturday night that “you would like to be playing extremely well in late February going into March, but if not then you just work your habits, continue to work what you’ve been doing over the season and then get ready for postseason” … he’s actually lived both sides of the equation.
And propelled his teams to the Finals either way.
The Cavs appear to be stuck in somewhat of an identity crisis, unsure of how they want to defend, whether to play bigger and slower or smaller and faster.
The chemistry between James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love remains a work in progress. Lue seems to be struggling with whether to commit to Channing Frye or find some way to divide time among him, Timofey Mozgov, and to a lesser degree Tristan Thompson (he’s going to play one way or another).
The Cavs didn’t seem to have any of these issues heading into the last postseason. And then the roof nearly caved.
Love — out for the playoffs after game 4 of the first round. Irving was gimpy for rounds 2 and 3 before breaking his knee cap in Game 1 of the Finals.
J.R. Smith — suspended for games 1 and 2 of the conference semis.
So the Cavs completely changed the way they played to account for all of this controversy, swept Atlanta in the conference finals and led the Warriors 2-1 in the Finals before running out of gas.
Goes to show there is ample time (and room) for Cleveland to commit to a style that works best, and even change things up if a scenario arises in the playoffs that demand it.
In the meantime, James has raised his level of play since the All-Star break. in a career-low 34.8 minutes per game, he’s boosted his shooting (to 51.4 percent from 50.4 percent), his 3-point shooting (to 31.7 percent from 27.7 percent), and free throws (to 74.4 percent from 71.7 percent).
James’ rebounds are up (to 8.1 per game from 7.1); his assists have held at 6.5 per game. He’s scoring a smidgeon less (24.1 points per game now, versus 25 before the break), but the difference is inconsequential and he’s playing fewer minutes any way.
Finally, there is the issue of a potential second-round series against the Heat.
There would be some real drama surrounding that hypothetical matchup, mostly because of James and his decision to leave the Miami sunshine and Pat Riley to return home.
But when it comes to the Heat’s dominance of the Cavs in Miami over the past two seasons, or Miami’s 2-1 season-series triumph over Cleveland, pay it no mind.
James’ career is littered with examples of struggles against certain organizations during the regular season followed by playoff victories.
Last season, the Hawks beat the Cavs twice. As previously mentioned, there was no trouble for James and Cleveland against Atlanta in the postseason.
In 2013-14, the Brooklyn Nets swept the Heat in the regular season, only to be bounced by James’ Miami squad 4-1 in the playoffs.
In 2010-11, James went 1-6 against the Bulls and Celtics; the Heat dumped both on their way to the Finals.
Taking a closer look at the Heat’s four wins over James in Miami – one was on Christmas, 2014, the game after the Cavs lost Anderson Varejao for the season and before they’d made roster-reshaping trades.
The other losses were all on the second night of consecutive road games for Cleveland. And in one, of course, James didn’t play.
James has never missed a playoff game. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs.
It’s totally different.
“I don’t see it as saying, ‘We don’t have enough time, we don’t have enough time,'” James said. “It is what it is. We have to finish the season off as well as we can and get ready for the postseason.”