CLEVELAND: The Cavaliers are down to their third string playmaker. The only problem is identifying who exactly that might be.
They faced another playoff team Monday and lost to the Indiana Pacers 111-90 because they were pushed around inside by a much more physical, dominant opponent. Role players for the Pacers had terrific nights while the Cavaliers struggled to score. A large reason for that was the absence of Dion Waiters, who left after the first quarter with soreness in his left knee and didn’t return.
Waiters said the knee has been bothering him for the last couple of games. It didn’t feel right at the start of Monday’s game and apparently grew worse. He mentioned something to trainer Max Benton after the first quarter and his night was finished.
He’ll go for testing today before a decision on his future is made. This is the worst possible stretch in the schedule for the Cavs to lose key players, but it’s reasonable to expect Waiters will miss at least a little time – and the Miami Heat are coming to town carrying that remarkable 23-game winning streak.
With Kyrie Irving already out and now Waiters perhaps sidelined, Cavs coach Byron Scott was asked what Plan C is for the offense.
“Besides go home tonight, get on my knees and pray?” he said.
Sounds about right.
With Waiters in the game for the entire first quarter, the Cavs trailed 27-24. Without him, they were outscored 84-66. Even that is misleading, since the Cavs scored 28 points in the fourth quarter when the outcome had long been decided. In the decisive second and third quarters, without their two best offensive players, the Cavs made a total of 13 baskets and shot 31 percent.
The bigger problem is on the defensive end, because nothing is getting any better. The Pacers scored 39 baskets on Monday and 15 of them were either dunks or layups – and that can’t be blamed on a pair of guards.
Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green both entered averaging right around 6 points. Hansbrough finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds and Green had 20 points off the bench.
“We got our asses kicked tonight,” said Tristan Thompson, one of the few post players who put up a fight. Thompson had 20 points and 11 rebounds, but got little help from anyone else. He seemed particularly irritated by Hansbrough’s final line.
“He’s not that kind of player,” Thompson said. “We take that responsibility of not coming out ready to play and we got our ass kicked.”
Scott wasn’t overly critical of the effort. He said prior to the game if the Cavs didn’t match the Pacers’ intensity, “we’ll have someone else with a mask on,” referring to Luke Walton’s Batman appearance.
Walton played with a black mask for the first quarter after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his nose. He tried taking a charge from Tim Duncan on Saturday, but instead Duncan just ran him over.
“He got an and-1, I got a busted nose and a foul,” Walton said. “Talk about a bad choice.”
Walton hopes to see better out of the permanent clear mask he’ll have on Wednesday. He couldn’t see clearly out of the black mask and discarded it after the first quarter. Once rid of it, he couldn’t have liked what he saw.
As soon as opponents start moving and cutting toward the basket, the Cavs seem to lose them defensively. The Spurs tore the Cavs apart with motion late in the fourth quarter and the Pacers did it again Monday.
They scored on a pair of layups within the game’s first minute. They had five dunks in the third quarter when the Cavs continually failed to protect the rim.
The most aggression they displayed all night came in the third quarter when Mo Speights grabbed Paul George in a horse collar and slung him to the ground. Speights received a flagrant-2 for the play and was ejected. He showered and left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.
George told the Associated Press it was a “punk play” and he’s probably right, although Scott downplayed the intent.
“Anytime you grab a guy around the neck in this league, they’re going to eject you,” Scott said. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
The Cavs don’t have long to regroup, not with the defending champions marching toward history and the league’s longest winning streak. In a way, it’s sort of poetic that LeBron James will carry a 23-game winning streak, his old jersey number, into the city that once adored him.
Through 67 games, the Cavs still haven’t figured out how to defend. It’s likely not going to start now. The Cavs aren’t going to the playoffs, but they’re in a playoff environment now. Starting with Saturday’s game at San Antonio, the Cavs are playing eight playoff teams over their next 10 games.
“As much as we say it as coaches, you have to sometimes live through it or go through it before it really sinks in and hits home,” Scott said. “You take notes of what’s going on and how this league is played, simple as that.
“Sometimes it takes two or three years. Hopefully it doesn’t take that long.”