CLEVELAND: For all of the areas where the Cavaliers have made tangible progress over the last month, the most glaring deficiencies remain on the defensive end. They struggle defending the pick and roll, their lack of communication too often leaves shooters open and their lack of an interior defense has turned games into dunk contests.
Entering Monday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, opponents were shooting .476 against the Cavs – the worst mark in the league. Nineteen of the first 51 opponents shot 50 percent or better.
Coach Byron Scott said on a scale of 1 to 10, the defensive woes rank about a 6 for him.
“I am concerned about it, but I know we’re going to continue to work on it, we’re going to get better,” he said. “We have to make sure our guys get a little more defensive-minded. When you have a lot of young guys, the one thing they think sometimes is you can just outscore people. Some nights that works and some nights it doesn’t. We can’t rely on that.”
Management and ownership have been unhappy with the Cavs’ defense much of the season. Owner Dan Gilbert finally went public with his displeasure following Saturday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets.
“We have made good progress recently but when the Cleveland Cavaliers arrive back to the top tier of the NBA we will be a DEFENSIVE 1st team,” Gilbert wrote on his Twitter account Saturday night.
Scott believes the defensive problems have been compounded by the absence of Anderson Varejao. The Cavs still ranked near the bottom in defensive categories when Varejao was healthy, but Scott believes now that the players are starting to fare better, Varejao could make a big difference.
“We weren’t getting dominated on the boards as much,” Scott said. “I think now if Andy was with this team that’s playing now, we would be a whole lot better on both ends of the floor. We would be 10 times better defensively because that’s what he brings. It’s not an excuse, just a fact that he is our best defensive big man on the post and in pick and roll. That’s where we’re getting killed right now.”
History indicates the Cavs will never be a legitimate contender in the East until the defensive problems are worked out. Over the last three seasons, 20 teams have allowed opponents to make at least 47 percent of their shots.
Of those 20, only one has made the playoffs. The New York Knicks were the sixth seed in the East in 2011 after opponents shot .472 against them – and the Knicks were swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics.
“In every sport, your defense is going to be a little ahead of your offense. And our offense has kind of caught up and passed our defense,” Scott said. “We keep making our guys understand that’s still going to be the staple of our team getting better and better and winning games.
“It’s just a stretch right now where we’re not playing very good defense. We’re not playing terrible defense, we’re just not playing very good defense. We have to get to the point where we’re playing a lot better on that end of the floor.”
Kyrie Irving has been skewering Scott this week for his third-place finish in the 3-point shooting contest in 1988. He was at it again before the game Monday when he read where Scott challenged Irving to a 3-point shooting contest after practice today.
“That’s something a third-place winner would do is go behind my back and challenge me,” Irving said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m getting up early, doing my push-ups. This is definitely a challenge.’
The challenge is supposed to prepare Irving for Saturday’s 3-point contest during All-Star Saturday Night. Scott said he’ll get two chances to beat whatever score Irving puts up in practice today.
“He’s talking a lot,” Scott said. “It’s been a long time since I shot that many balls.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.