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Bad habits hard to break for Cavaliers

By CHRIS FEDOR • Updated May 16, 2018 at 2:46 PM

CLEVELAND — Perhaps we should have seen this coming with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe not yet. At least, not until the NBA Finals against one of the two elite teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the league. But eventually it was bound to happen, right?

Bad habits are hard to break. Last year's Finals should've shown that.

During a chaotic season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a flashy offensive-minded group, built to overwhelm teams with spacing, 3-point shooting and efficiency. The construction of that identity started in training camp, a time when head coach Tyronn Lue shifted Kevin Love to center and put hustling, energetic Tristan Thompson on the bench.

So explosive most nights, their consistency on offense allowed them to overcome and enter the playoffs with a refreshed attitude despite pitiful defensive habits and an overall lack of toughness and purpose at that end of the floor.

They were a team that relied on LeBron James, possibly a little too much, to take his game to a different level, reaching Playoff LeBron earlier than usual to save the season that looked to be slipping away a few times. With Kyrie Irving in Boston and Cleveland lacking other drivers and penetrators, the Cavs demanded an unhealthy amount of shot creation from James, whose usage rating skyrocketed.

They were a team with mental lapses and a maddening neglect for attention to detail that led to nonstop eye-rolling, finger-pointing and palm-raising.

The third quarter was Cleveland's nemesis, often lamenting a lack of effort to start the second half and never being able to find a solution no matter how many adjustments they made or how many timeouts Lue called to try to stop the avalanche.

They were a team that tinkered with rotations and lineup combinations, a strategy spurred on by owner Dan Gilbert's text to Lue, giving him the green light to fail in the short term for the betterment of the team this time of year. The thinking was simple: Getting answers about things that don't work is still getting answers.

Trying to figure out who the Cavaliers were -- while they were incorporating new personnel and navigating what James called three or four seasons in one -- seemed difficult.

But was it really? Maybe, just maybe, the answer was there all along.

Just take a gander at the first two games against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals -- specifically Tuesday night's loss, which puts the Cavaliers into a 2-0 hole against their toughest Eastern Conference matchup during the LeBron era.

Cleveland got off to a blistering start, scoring 55 points on 21-of-41 (51.2 percent) from the field and 7-of-14 (50 percent) from 3-point range. Those shots falling, the Cavaliers were brimming with confidence. They were playing with joy and energy, an extra pep that allowed them to meet Boston's intensity.

They were (gasp) even covering for one another on the defensive end and making multiple efforts, holding Boston to 48 points on 19-of-44 (43.1 percent) from the field and 5-of-14 (35.7 percent) from 3-point range.

But in the second half, the Cavaliers crumbled, all that hard work undone by those bad habits -- a reminder of the sins that had many questioning this group's ability to win a championship. They were outscored by 14 points during another forgettable third quarter that flipped a seven-point lead to a mirror deficit going into the fourth quarter.

"We gave ourselves a pretty good chance with 36 minutes," James said. "That 12 minutes in the third quarter, that killed us."

In the third period, the offense wilted and looked uncomfortable in the face of Boston's constant pressure, scoring just 22 points on 9-of-22 (40.9 percent) from the field and 3-of-10 (30 percent) from beyond the arc. That added up to an offensive rating of just 91.

Cleveland's defense eroded too.

"I thought defensively we were horrible," Thompson said. "We were terrible defensively. We were s--- defensively. Of course LeBron is going to put up those numbers and what not, but if we don't get stops on the defensive end, they're going to make open 3s and they're going to have rhythm and their guys are going to feel good. If you don't play no defense, especially in the conference finals, you're not going to win a ball game."

The Cavs gave up 36 points on 14-of-25 (56 percent) from the field and 5-of-10 (50 percent) from 3-point range. The rotations were nonexistent and the closeouts weren't remotely energetic enough. When those horrid 12 minutes were over and the Cavs finished with a futile 157 defensive rating, the Cavs' championship mettle was about to get tested again.

Only this time, instead of responding like the team that crows about their ability to thrive in the face of adversity, they fragmented.

It started with Lue, whose questionable rotation management returned at the worst possible time.

Needing positive momentum, something to put fear or even doubt into the young and inexperienced Celtics, Lue rolled out George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. No James, who finished with a 40-point triple-double. No Kevin Love, who had a double-double and looked more comfortable in his natural power forward position.

Then, when the Cavs cut the lead to six -- a stretch aided by two minutes of shoddy offense and carelessness from the Celtics -- and James had that look in his eye, the same one he flashed at the Pacers and Raptors, Lue went with another strange quintet. It was Smith, Green, James, Love and Thompson, a group that played eight total minutes together in the regular season.

The Celtics finished with a 12-7 surge, ignited by Smith losing his composure and committing a dangerous flagrant foul 1 that led to a four-point possession for Celtics All-Star Al Horford at the worst possible time.

That's not toughness. That's not defense. That's a blatant, dirty cheap shot from a player who can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt.

That was it. That's when the Cavaliers transformed from a team closing in on another shot to steal a game the way they did against Toronto and Indiana to a team that could sense a second straight loss.

"We've got to be tougher," Lue said. "I think they're playing tougher than we are. We see that. They're being physical. They're gooning the game up, and we've got to do the same thing. We've got to be tougher, mentally and physically."

It shouldn't be surprising to see the Celtics out-hustling the Cavaliers. It shouldn't be surprising to see the Celtics as the tougher team. It shouldn't be surprising to see the Celtics trusting each other more. It shouldn't be surprising to see the Cavs lack the energy necessary for all 48 minutes. And it shouldn't be surprising that the Celtics took a figurative haymaker from James and the Cavs early in the game -- the same one that has made numerous East teams submit -- and not even flinch.

That's who the Celtics are. It's the DNA they've shown all season long.

They lost prized free agent addition Gordon Hayward in the first six minutes of the season opener and responded with a 16-game winning streak. Kyrie Irving's knee surgery cost him this shot at his old team and threatened to derail their title hopes. But here they are, competing for a chance to get to the NBA Finals.

Boston is mentally tough and fearless, a team that plays beyond its years. That combined with some high-level talent and brilliant coaching has led to this.

As for the Cavs, well, they will have a chance to show exactly who they are and what's inside as the series shifts back to Cleveland. Unless, of course, they have displayed that already.

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