MILWAUKEE: For all that Mike Brown’s defensive concepts seem to be fixing, there is one glaring weakness from last season that remains. The Cavaliers are still struggling to start games the right way.
Former coach Byron Scott often grumbled about the large holes his teams dug right away, then spent the rest of the night (unsuccessfully) trying to dig out. It’s happening again, first at Charlotte last week and now Wednesday at the Milwaukee Bucks.
Both of those teams are expected to flounder near the bottom of the Eastern Conference – the Bucks were even playing without three starters – yet the Cavs’ furious late rally wasn’t enough in a 109-104 loss.
Kyrie Irving dribbled the ball off his foot with 14.3 seconds left, then missed an off-balance 3-pointer from the wing in the closing seconds. None of that mattered to Brown, who was livid over his team’s terrible defensive effort.
The Cavs entered fourth in the league defensively, then allowed a mediocre Bucks offense to shoot 50 percent for the game. That figure was much worse (58 percent after three quarters) until an intense defensive effort the last couple of minutes decreased it slightly.
“The performance they gave today is unacceptable,” Brown said. “Watching our defensive performance, I’m at a loss tonight. I don’t understand it.”
The Cavs trailed 100-88 with 4:43 left before Dion Waiters and Irving carried them back. The two guards combined for 12 consecutive points as the Cavs outscored the Bucks 14-3 to take a 104-103 lead on a 3-pointer from C.J. Miles with a minute left.
After Caron Butler tipped in a missed shot to give the Bucks the lead again, Irving was dribbling to the basket when his left toe kicked the ball out of bounds.
The Cavs had a chance to tie at the buzzer following a pair of Bucks free throws, but Irving missed an off-balance 3-pointer from the wing with O.J. Mayo draped in his face.
“Crucial turnover by me at the end,” Irving said.
On the final play, Irving said he wished he would’ve taken the ball to the middle of the floor.
“I just let O.J. crowd me into a touch shot in the corner,” he said. “On to the next one. Just got to learn from this one.”
The Cavs have now played three road games this season and lost them all, but it’s the losses to the Bobcats and Bucks that are particularly stinging.
Irving had 29 points and eight assists and Waiters finished with 21 points, but the Bucks shot 50 percent in what was statistically the Cavs’ worst game of the season defensively.
“You could feel the difference between our defense the last four or five minutes and the rest of the game,” Brown said. “There was a sense of urgency there because there was a panic because we were going to lose the game. Our group has to understand we can’t play that way for five minutes. We can’t coast or float through a game and then expect to try to win it at the end.”
The Bucks were playing without Brandon Knight, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. Knight sat with a sore hamstring, leaving South Dakota State second-round rookie Nate Wolters as the Bucks’ only healthy point guard.
Sanders reportedly was involved in a bar fight last Saturday in downtown Milwaukee. He missed the game with a sprained thumb, although it remains unclear if the injury occurred in a recent game or in the scrum.
Despite the short-handed roster, the Cavs couldn’t take advantage. The Bucks shot 58 percent in the first quarter (5 of 7 on 3-pointers). Mayo and Gary Neal combined to shoot 10 of 12 on 3-pointers despite pleas from the coaching staff to close out better at the 3-point line – yet another complaint Scott had with many of these same players last season. The Cavs have the league’s second-youngest roster, but Brown refuses to use that as an excuse. Irving and Thompson are now third-year players, Waiters is in his second year and both Anderson Varejao and Earl Clark are veterans.
“Somebody in that group needs to come out with a mental focus or a sense of urgency to want to get stops and understand that’s how you win games on the road,” Brown said. “To get into a shootout on the road with anybody is not going to work. You may win some, not only will you win some, we’re going to get our numbers probably. We scored 104 points, everybody got their numbers.
“I need somebody on this team that wants to come out and get stops at the beginning, not only get stops, but have a mental focus on the defensive end of the floor. Right now it’s not happening on the road for us. Happens at home, maybe because we’ve got the crowd behind us, I’m not sure. It’s not happening on the road and we have to figure it out.”
They’ll get another shot Friday at the Philadelphia 76ers.