Cavs just can’t win this year
Is there something beyond “worst-case scenario’’?
If so, the Cleveland Cavaliers believe they are experiencing it.
Once, they were warriors. Once, they were NBA Finalists. Once, they were winners of 66 and 61 games in back-to-back seasons. Once, on Oct. 27, in fact, they defeated the Boston Celtics in an emotional home opener.
Oh, was that ever Then. The Now is that with last night’s 112-95 setback at the hands of the Celtics, the Cavaliers have lost 18 consecutive games and 28 of 29. An apparent case can be made that LeBron James was the most valuable player ever to have performed for any team in any sport on any planet in any known galaxy since the dawn of time.
But there’s more to it than the departure of the best player in franchise history. Yes, LeBron James was the focal point of everything good that occurred with the Cavaliers since his arrival in 2003. Yes, the Cavaliers were going to be a far lesser team without him. But nobody envisioned anything like this.
Simply put, the basketball gods, whom you would expect to have some sympathy for the team most adversely affected by “The Decision,’’ have instead been extraordinarily hostile to the poor Cavs. Anderson Varejao, the wild-haired, extremely energetic 6-foot-11-inch Brazilian who has given the Celtics great difficulty, recently went down for the count, out for the season with a torn tendon in his right ankle. Doc Rivers likens it to his team losing Kevin Garnett. Varejao was an excellent rebounder and a ubiquitous presence on defense, and the team has no hope of replacing him.
Guard Mo Williams, who actually has played in an All-Star Game, has a hip injury and is out for two or three weeks. Anthony Parker, the veteran guard who proved to be a very useful auxiliary player during the Cavs’ 61-win season a year ago, has had recurrent back problems. Leon Powe, who has had nothing but bad luck since sustaining that left knee injury during the 2009 playoffs while playing for the Celtics, is out for 6-8 weeks with a torn meniscus in his right knee. It’s starting to look as if he is never going to have a proper career, which would be too bad because no nicer or more deserving young man exists in this league.
If these aren’t personnel setbacks of biblical proportions, they’re close.
So, no, the Cavaliers never projected to be this bad.
Owner Dan Gilbert certainly didn’t think so. He was so fired up in the immediate aftermath of LeBron’s celebrated televised announcement that he’d be going to Miami (excuse me, “South Beach,’’ which is on the other side of the bay) that he referred to the spectacle as having been a “several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his ‘decision’ unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.’’
That said, Mr. Gilbert also made the following pronouncement: “I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former ‘King’ wins one.’’
“You can take it to the bank,’’ he added.
He was obviously preening when his team defeated the defending Eastern Conference champions by a 95-87 score on Opening Night, a game in which Williams, arguably his best returning player, didn’t even play. He was probably feeling very good after a three-game road conquest of Philadelphia, Washington, and New Jersey gave the Cavs a 4-3 record. He was still, I would guess, reasonably optimistic when a 92-86 victory over Memphis put his team at 7-9 on the night of Nov. 27.
Since then his team has won one (1) game.
They defeated the Knicks in overtime by a 109-102 score Dec. 18. They apparently caught New York at just the right time, that being the week New York was beaten by Boston (the exhilarating 118-116 game in which Amar’e Stoudemire’s bid for a game-winner came a wee bit after the buzzer) and Miami (a more resounding 113-91). Mo Williams had 23 points and 14 assists.
But things have gotten grim since that night at Quicken Loans Arena. Among the 18 consecutive losses to follow were thrashings by 11, 14, 15, 15, 18, 55 (that’s correct), 22, 28, 14, 13 and last night’s 17. The 112-57 demolition at the hands of the Lakers prompted coach Byron Scott to inform his team at halftime, “You look scared to death.’’
That forgettable evening was, of course, the low point. They have soldiered on, and they arrived in Boston fresh from a tantalizing 103-101 loss in New Jersey on Monday night. It was the first time they have been closer than 8 points to anyone since losing a 98-97 decision to Minnesota Dec. 26.
“I’ve always been a positive person,’’ said Scott before last night’s game. “I know those guys in the locker room work hard every single day, and they’re playing hard. That’s all I can ask.’’
With all their injured personnel, they are now playing people such as Manny Harris, Samardo Samuels, Alonzo Gee, and Congo native Christian Eyenga, names not known in many American households.
It’s almost as if they have come full circle. The Cavs’ first season was 1970-71, when they lost their first 15 games, defeated fellow expansionist Portland (105-103, on the road), and then lost 12 more to start off 1-27. They bottomed out at 3-34 before getting their first-ever two-game winning streak, beating Buffalo (yet another expansionist) and Philadelphia (en route to becoming a quasi-expansion team that would go 9-73 two years later).
This is not history anyone wishes to repeat.
But on Monday, Jan. 25, 1971, they did an amazing thing. After losing a 121-110 decision in Boston the day before, they stunned the Celtics the following night in Cleveland. The Celtics were leading by 1 when the Cavs caused a turnover. Bobby Washington made a spectacular save at midcourt and Dave Sorenson drilled a 17-footer from the left side at the buzzer. The 7-47 Cavs 117, the 29-23 Celtics 116.
Tom Heinsohn was the Celtics coach, and he says he doesn’t remember it. Fortunately for Doc Rivers, there was no anniversary redux.