CLEVELAND: Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has a secret.
That should be encouraging, since what he’s holding back is his plan for how to fix the Cavs’ struggling defense in the playoffs.
There’s just one caveat, and it looms large for the team that was tied for 15th in the league in opponent’s field-goal percentage — the statistic posted on a board in the Quicken Loans Arena locker room — going into Sunday’s games.
Lue is not sure the plan will work.
“I’m not confident, but we got to,” he said after Saturday night’s 127-115 home loss to the Washington Wizards. “We have to.”
Statistically, the loss to the Wizards seemed nearly as inept as a 13-point loss at Denver on Wednesday night, when the Cavs were beaten in every phase of the game. The Wizards shot 59.8 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from 3-point range. They had a 40-32 edge in rebounding, 29-21 on the defensive glass. They used their dominance on the boards to claim a 27-4 advantage in fast-break points.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last Cavs’ opponent to shoot a better percentage than the Wizards was the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 17, 2014. That night the Hawks hit 64.5.
With a 40-point first quarter and a 71-point first half, the Wizards may not have threatened the Cavs’ franchise record of 67.5 percent allowed to New Orleans on March 24, 1979. But the Wizards’ scoring spree continued a disturbing trend.
In March, Cavs’ foes are shooting 41.9 percent, second highest of any month this season. That doesn’t necessarily translate into wins and losses; they allowed a season-high 42.5 in February, when the Cavs went a league-best 9-2. This month the Cavs are 6-8 heading into road games Monday in San Antonio and Thursday in Chicago.
Of course, Lue is holding things back for the postseason.
“We’ve got to hold back,” Lue said. “We can’t show our hand early because these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”
Lue admitted that a practice at UCLA last Tuesday concentrated on defensive sets for the playoffs. He’s still experimenting with rotations. He finally had his whole team healthy for games against the Nuggets and Hornets, then Iman Shumpert was a pregame scratch with right knee soreness against the Wizards. With Shumpert back with the second unit, Kyrie Irving is left to defend opposing point guards. Tristan Thompson is the team’s only center and he’s no match for big men like the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat.
Rebounding is also an issue, with the Cavs averaging 41.1 in March to opponents’ 45.6. When Kevin Love, five games into his return from arthroscopic knee surgery, gets back to full strength, that number may improve. Love said after Saturday’s game he expects to have his minutes restriction lifted.
Lue implied his secret will have rebounding implications, too.
Of late, LeBron James has played center in the fourth quarter, when Lue has rested Thompson and surrounded James with shooters.
“I think the rebounding hurt us,” Lue said of James at the 5. “But it will be different once some other things happen.
“Their two-guards, their threes crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”
Giving Lue confidence the defense can be fixed is the fact that opponents are pushing the pace this month, when the Cavs play 12 of 17 games on the road.
“Everyone’s game plan is just to get it off the glass and push it. Play fast,” Lue said. “The big thing for us is at least we don’t have to play back-to-backs in the playoffs. I was upstairs talking to the coaches before I came down and they said we played 21 games last year in two months. This month, we have 17 alone in one month.”
The defense should improve in the playoffs, when games are spaced out and teams have more time to prepare. But James is well aware that the Cavs’ issues need to be remedied in the last 10 games of the regular season.
“You want to build something defensively so you can always have something to go to in the postseason,” James said. “It’s been more down than up. Not room for concern, but we want to be more up than down, especially defensively coming down the stretch.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.