MILWAUKEE — During the grind of an 82-game regular season, there are bound to be games like Tuesday night.
No team is immune.
After building a 14-point lead and looking like they were headed for a fifth straight win, the Cleveland Cavaliers let their guard down and the maddeningly inconsistent Bucks took advantage, cruising to an impressive 118-101 win that caused head coach Tyronn Lue to curse during his postgame interview.
Here are five observations:
Lost night – What can be taken from the worst performance of the season?
“Nothing,” LeBron James said while pretending to crumple up a piece of paper and toss it over his shoulder. “Move on. Move on, move on. I was looking at the scores after the game and I see San Antonio is losing at home to Orlando right now. You just crumple it up and move on to the next.”
Sure, that’s one way to look at it. But the loss comes on the heels of a lackluster performance against Philadelphia over the weekend.
The Cavs were able to win because the 76ers’ best player (Joel Embiid) can only go 24 minutes before getting subbed out. But the Cavs’ level of play needs to pick up, especially with four tough games on the horizon, including a three-game roadtrip.
Paint job – Prior to each game, Lue has a list of objectives for his team based on the opponent. The Bucks entered the night ranked second in the league in points in the paint, averaging 48.8 per game. That was one of Lue’s top bullet points.
It didn’t resonate. The Bucks scored a season-high 68 points in the paint.
“I just didn’t like that we didn’t match their physicality,” Lue said. “I thought they were physical from 1 through 5. You give up 68 points in the paint, you don’t get back in transition and this team scored 118 points with only seven 3s.”
Those 68 points came in a variety of ways. Giannis Antetokounmpo spearheaded Milwaukee’s lethal transition game, as it scored 20 fast break points. Jabari Parker bullied his way inside, scoring 18 points. John Henson used his length to grab four offensive rebounds, helping the Bucks finish with 17 second-chance points. Greg Monroe posted defenders en route to a 14-point night off the bench. The Bucks had 13 dunks.
Oh, and an old friend did them in.
“They just broke us down at the point of attack,” James said. “Delly’s pick-and-rolls in the third quarter allowed him to get downhill and he was just picking us apart going to guys slashing and cutting and things of that nature. We had some transition breakdowns as well. Just not one of our better games.”
If there’s any good news, many of the players seem to think this was just a one-time clunker.
“We’re so good at trusting each other throughout games and there was a little lapse in that, but that’s not something that’s going to be recurring,” Love said.
Lue’s move – Irritated with his mainstays, Lue made mass substitutions with 3:49 remaining in the third quarter and the Cavaliers trailing by 11.
“I just wanted to do it,” Lue said of his decision to yank Love, James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert.
Off the bench came DeAndre Liggins, Mike Dunleavy, James Jones, Jordan McRae and Chris Andersen, as the play-by-play announcer next to me in the media section scrambled to find his depth chart.
“I just didn’t like how we played, how we were playing,” Lue said when pressed on his reasoning.
It didn’t make a difference. That one-time 11-point edge built to 18 by the end of the third quarter.
“He’s our coach and if he felt like we weren’t giving the effort we needed to do then he has the right to do that,” James said. “Our guys that came in, they played as well as they could.”
Trying for one last miracle, Lue went back to the starters about a minute into the fourth, with the Cavs down by 15. But it was too late. Too much ground to make up.
The five players exited for the last time with 6:03 remaining.
“Same results,” Lue said about the changes. “F—, you saw it.”
Lue’s true motivation is unknown. He was clearly angry after the game. But chose to play coy. Love didn’t want to characterize the move as “sending a message.” That, however, seems like semantics.
“I think he wanted us to play harder,” Love said. “We weren’t getting the job done so I think it was an effort between the coaching staff and everybody getting a new lineup in there and get a fresh start.”
Irving agreed with Lue’s decision.
“We respect his leadership. We respect him as a coach. Probably if I was a coach, I probably would have done the same thing,” he said. “I mean, we needed it. They were getting some easy looks and you obviously know the coaches around the league — probably one coach, in (Gregg) Popovich, (would) do it with his starting five and take them out just to prove a point. I think that going forward we don’t want it to happen again and we’ll do our best to not make it happen again.”
Foreshadowing – The Cavaliers strolled into the arena for morning shootaround shortly after 9:30 a.m. CT. James sat down to field questions from reporters, discussing the primary challenge when playing against the Bucks: their length often leads to turnovers.
But as James kept talking, he felt the Cavs being a low-turnover team would help. Turns out, his initial proclamation was dead on. And he was the main culprit.
James committed seven of the team’s season-high 20 miscues. He now has 16 turnovers in the last three games.
“Tonight four of my seven was unforced,” he said. “I had a lob to Tristan, I had a couple they got their hands on and they’re long. You can’t simulate how long they are in the passing lanes. Four of my seven was unforced and that’s careless, but I’ll be much better the next time we play them.”
Delly visits – There were a few players remaining in the locker room when Dellavedova came. The first thing that James and others noticed? Dellavedova’s snazzy shoes.
“I see you boyyyyy,” James shouted. “New contract, new shoes boyyyyy.”
There were times when Dellavedova looked out of place sitting up at the podium, sandwiched in between his sharp-dressed teammates.
Not anymore. With a new $38 million contract, he looks the part of a NBA starting point guard and Lue – and the rest of the Cavaliers – have great appreciation for him.
“We miss him with that second unit,” Lue said prior to the contest. “His leadership, the way he got people involved on that second unit, the way he ran the offense. You knew every night what you were going to get from Delly. He’s going to play hard, he’s going to scrap and his teammates love him.”