SAN ANTONIO: In the quiet din of the losing locker room, Shaun Livingston delivered the same message his teammates have heard countless times before. Sooner or later, maybe part of it will stick.
This wasn’t that night.
The Cavaliers lost 119-113 at the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday because they still can’t defend. For 3 ½ quarters, they played as well as they can play without Kyrie Irving. They had the best team in the Western Conference staggered, their coach so incensed he was ejected. And in the game’s final four minutes, it all fell apart because of a lack of defense.
“You look across the hallway, that’s a championship-caliber team,” said Livingston, who had 16 points and five assists on a pretty good offensive night for the Cavs. Wayne Ellington returned after missing a game with an ankle injury to score 21 points. Mo Speights had 19 points, including 15 in the second half. Dion Waiters made his first five shots and scored 15 points.
The problems, as usual, were on defense.
“Every bucket we got, they made us earn,” Livingston said. “And the buckets they got, we had breakdowns. We have to get to that point where we’re going to say, ‘We’re going to make you beat us. Show us that you’re better than us.’ And teams might be, but we don’t know that if we give up layups and give up backdoor plays.”
Cavs players have said it before. Coach Byron Scott has said it before. They have to get tired of losing, they have to get tired of being beaten defensively, they have to stay focused on defense… The talking can only go on for so long.
The Spurs are an excellent offensive team. Their .487 shooting percentage is the second-highest in the league behind only the Miami Heat. But they shot 58 percent against the Cavs and watched their young opponent self-destruct on three consecutive possessions in the final 3 ½ minutes.
With the Spurs ahead 107-103 and in transition, Tristan Thompson never got good position against Tim Duncan, who had an easy dunk because the baseline was completely clear. That upset Scott enough to call a timeout, but the next two defensive attempts weren’t any better.
Waiters failed to box out Kawhi Leonard, allowing Leonard to grab an easy offensive possession. Then Waiters lost track of Leonard after a defensive switch, leaving him alone in the lane for an easy basket.
And by the time Boris Diaw was able to catch the ball at half court and dribble down the lane uncontested for a too-easy dunk, the Cavs’ night was essentially over.
Three Spurs possessions, two dunks and a layup. Another loss for the Cavaliers.
“The last three or four minutes it kind of got away,” Scott said. “Just made some mental mistakes on backdoor cuts, offensive rebounds. Just things you can’t do. You have to make them earn it. We gave them a few buckets just not being ready on the weak side.”
After the loss, Livingston spoke to the players about staying mentally involved in the game and not giving up easy points. It’s a lesson Waiters still must learn.
He lost Leonard in the corner during a game last month in Cleveland, allowing the Spurs to escape with a last-second victory. Then he lost Leonard again Saturday at the most inopportune time of the game.
This is a bit of a transition period for Waiters, who is learning how to do more on offense with Kyrie Irving sidelined. The Spurs were without their All-Star point guard, too, since Tony Parker is still nursing an ankle injury.
But the Spurs had the ageless Duncan provide 30 points and 12 rebounds while teaching Tristan Thompson valuable lessons about positioning and experience. They had Leonard score 24 points, set a career high with 13 rebounds and tie a season high with four assists.
The Cavs are still searching for those secondary options when Irving is missing. Waiters tried to be it, but he didn’t return until the game’s final 4 ½ minutes and he missed both shots he attempted.
He sat an inordinate amount of time in the fourth because Scott stuck with his bench longer than usual and complained of not being able to find a rhythm. The bench was moving the ball well, playing together defensively and keeping the Cavs in the game. It didn’t slip away until the starters returned in the final minutes.
“It’s hard finding your rhythm,” Waiters said. “I didn’t really have no rhythm coming into the fourth. … I sat a little longer (than usual).”
Ironically, Popovich was disgusted with his team’s defensive effort as well. It’s part of the reason he excused himself early in the second quarter with the Cavs ahead 48-44. He objected to a questionable charge called on Diaw and seemed like he wanted to get ejected. As soon as referee Ed Malloy heaved him, Popovich walked off the court and to the locker room.
“We had one decent quarter of defense, the fourth quarter,” Popovich said. “Up until that point, it was embarrassing defense.”
Popovich has been battling to get his guys to play better defense for weeks and he still isn’t satisfied despite the Spurs carrying the second-best record in the league.
“We’ve been emphasizing for 2 ½ weeks and it hasn’t done any good,” Popovich said. “So I need to learn another language.”
The Cavs need that language, too.