SAN ANTONIO: The Eastern Conference lead is gone.
And with the inconsistencies the defending champion Cavaliers are showing and just nine regular-season games remaining, there’s no guarantee they will get it back.
The San Antonio Spurs dominated the Cavs in every phase of the game Monday night in AT&T Center, running away with a 103-74 victory.
It was a virtual replay of Wednesday night’s trouncing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center, a 13-point loss in which coach Tyronn Lue drew his second technical foul of the season. The Cavs’ effort wasn’t much better at home Saturday in a 12-point loss to the Washington Wizards.
Against the Spurs, the Cavs were playing their third game in four nights and their 11th of 12 road games in March, so they had reason to be sluggish. But in the past week, their defense has struggled, their rebounding has been weak, their bench is in disarray and their 3-point shooting off the mark.
With the loss, the Boston Celtics, winners of four in a row, moved a half-game ahead of the Cavs in the race for the East’s No. 1 seed. The Wizards are just two games behind the Cavs and have won three in a row.
The Cavs have lost four of their last six and fell to 6-9 in March. J.R. Smith and Kevin Love appear to be pressing, trying to regain their form after missing extended time with a fractured right wrist and arthroscopic knee surgery, respectively. Love didn’t have a rebound in the first quarter and contributed nine points and seven rebounds. Smith shot 1-of-6 from 3-point range and scored five points.
The Cavs were led by LeBron James with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving scored eight points on 4-of-13 field goals and saw his string of 21 consecutive games with at least 20 points, the longest active streak in the league, snapped.
The Cavs were without two regulars. Kyle Korver sat out the first of what will be at least three more games — which will bring his total to 10 — with a sore left foot. Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with right knee soreness. Of no help was Derrick Williams, who had played about nine minutes in the previous four games.
Two-time All-Star and NBA MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs with 25 points, six rebounds and six assists, and LaMarcus Aldridge contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Cavs, meanwhile, gave up 64 points in the first half on the heels of allowing 71 to the Wizards.
The Cavs turned the ball over, with nine in the first half and 16 for the game. They shot 2-of-15 from 3-point range in the first 24 minutes and went 4-of-26 for the game. Although they’ve already established a single-season record for 3s made, the Cavs’ four was a season-low. With the Big Three sitting out, they made five on March 18 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Their .154 percent from beyond the arc was also their worst, surpassing .185 against the Clippers.
That wasn’t all the ugliness. At halftime, the Cavs had been outscored 28-0 by the Spurs bench. At the end of three quarters, before both coaches took their starters out, the margin was 37-10.
While the Cavs frantically try to stop the bleeding, the Celtics and Wizards look to be the beneficiaries. But before the game, Lue said he values health over everything else and feels confident about what his team can do when it’s whole.
Asked if he was resigned to not being the No. 1 seed in the East as the injury issues continue, Lue said, “We ain’t going to have the No. 1 seed in The Finals. If we go to The Finals we’ve got to play on the road, anyway.
“But for us I know if we’re healthy we’re going to be fine. Having our guys healthy going into the playoffs is the biggest thing for me.”
James was asked at shoot-around at AT&T Center, where five NBA championship banners won under coach Gregg Popovich hang, what comes to mind when he thinks of the Spurs. His answer seems to be what the Cavs are seeking before the playoffs begin on April 15.
“Consistency,” James said of the second-place team in the West. “Obviously you’ve got to have talent, but this league is full of talent. Pop does a great job of making sure these guys understand, ‘We’re here to win every single day, but we’re going to do it playing it the right way’ and all those guys buy into it, which they should. Why wouldn’t you? Just look up at the banners.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.