Cavaliers' statements about not being concerned with playoff seeding ring hollow
By Chris Fedor, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Go back to the very beginning of the season. Before a game was played during the Cavaliers' title defense. That's when head coach Tyronn Lue first said the team was adamant about prioritizing rest. That's when he said his primary goal was to go into the playoffs fresh and healthy, not concerned about playoff seeding.
He proudly boasted about the Cavs' ability to rally from a 3-1 Finals deficit and win two games in one of the NBA's most intimidating buildings: Oracle Arena. He spoke about the Cavs closing out the conference finals in raucous Toronto and doing the same on the road in the two series leading up to that one.
Lue stuck with that same script when the queries came during the regular season. Of course, Lue had plenty of reasons to believe his talented and battle-tested roster could plow through the East from any playoff spot.
So what happened to that?
As the playoffs inch closer, Lue certainly isn't acting like a coach that has little care for the regular season. Instead, he appears to be fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, abandoning his own initial views in the process. What he does in Miami Monday will be telling, but Lue even said recently that he would like to get LeBron James and Kyrie Irving rest -- only after the one seed is locked up.
Given the on-court struggles, Lue can justify some of his playing time decisions. It's important for the Cavs to get back into rhythm and answer pressing questions. Playing the right way heading into the postseason should also be a priority and that hasn't been the case, unable to validate their play after a huge win in Boston.
Following a second straight loss against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday, reporters asked Lue whether he has changed his mind about playing time going into the second game of a back-to-back in Miami with the No. 1 seed still up for grabs.
"We'll see," Lue said. "I'll think about it."
Lue's comments come on the heels of James phrasing Friday night's game against the Hawks as "huge," which is why he wanted to play big minutes into the fourth quarter, hoping to grab the victory. It didn't happen. And now the door has swung open for the Boston Celtics, who finish with two home games (Monday against Brooklyn and Wednesday against Milwaukee).
As for the Cavs, they have more decisions to make. There are two games left and they are anything but rested. Thinking they'll be fresh heading into the playoffs is naive.
In five April games, a time when many thought the Cavs would relax, James is averaging 43.2 minutes. He topped the 40-minute mark for the 23rd time this season during Sunday's overtime loss. At 32 years old. After playing deep into the June.
To put that number in perspective, James reached the 40-minute plateau just 13 times during the 2015-16 season.
Kyrie Irving, who didn't have a backup point guard for much of the season, is averaging 34.9 minutes. He played 45 on Sunday, one game after talking about his surgically repaired knee bothering him. Even Love played more than 40, just the second time that's happened.
There have been numerous obstacles. James has called this his toughest season to date. It appears Lue is learning the playing time balance the hard way.
Injuries to Love, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith have forced Lue's hand, asking James and Irving to carry more of a burden than anyone could have anticipated. Richard Jefferson, the veteran so vital to Cleveland's Finals win, a guy who fits perfectly in a matchup against Golden State, is one year older and averaging more minutes than last season. The Cavs were hoping not to overuse him before the postseason. Tristan Thompson is getting rest now, only by necessity, as he remains sidelined with a thumb injury. It's hard to believe Lue would've gotten him time off otherwise.
The Cavs blew a 26-point fourth quarter lead and Lue spoke about the team not being able to keep up the intensity, playing with a different pace.
It's fair to wonder whether the team was gassed. James played 22 of the 24 second-half minutes. Irving played 20 while Love logged 19. The Hawks, meanwhile, had fresh legs, closing the game with a few backups.
Fatigue also has a tendency to lead to turnovers. The Cavs committed nine of their 17 miscues in the final 12 minutes.
Perhaps none of this will matter. Maybe the Cavs can overcome it and many will laugh at this notion in a few weeks. It's entirely possible that the lack of practice time from earlier this season and not having to deal with rigorous back-to-backs will be the key to players staying fresh in the playoffs.
But the idea that the Cavaliers don't value playoff seeding rings hollow. There's sufficient evidence to the contrary, especially Lue's minute management.