Random dribbles following the Cavaliers’ 120-115 road loss to the Magic on Tuesday.
1. For the Cavs, man, it’s just tough right now. Yes, you should beat a bad team like the Magic. But you are vastly undermanned. Really, what can the Cavs expect at this point?
2. The Cavs battled, as they normally do. They just couldn’t make the big stops, couldn’t hit the big shots. They allowed too many wide-open 3-pointers. The Magic rarely missed. In the end, it was Heartbreak City, because this was a game the Cavs really needed.
3. Now, they are locked into the play-in tournament. They can finish no higher than No. 7 in the Eastern Conference. The goal from here will be to hold on to that spot. At least, that way they’re assured of home-court in the play-in game.
4. Yes, the Cavs miss Evan Mobley. But they really, really miss the defense of Jarrett Allen. You can’t give up 120 points to perhaps the worst team in the league. And the Magic were actually missing a lot of their main players, too. Allen is the Cavs’ biggest difference-maker when it comes to disrupting what opponents are trying to do. The longer he’s out, the more that becomes wildly evident.
5. Basically, without Allen and Mobley, everything the Cavs have done all season that’s worked … yeah, poof. It’s vanished.
6. Offensively, the Cavs are mostly fine. Darius Garland shook off a slow-ish start to score 27 points and pass for 10 assists. Lauri Markkanen tallied 25 points, finishing 6-of-12 shooting on threes. Kevin Love also gave a fine performance with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
7. But again, the Cavs (43-37) are just having a whale of a time stopping anybody. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said some of that was the result of the Cavs just not showing enough fight.
8. Bickerstaff on the loss: “They out-competed us. They had a mindset of, they were just going to attack. … It’s extremely disappointing for us to come out and play the way we played. Every single night the stakes are on the line. The bare minimum we ask of our guys is to outwork the guy in front of them. But tonight, they outworked us.”
9. More Bickerstaff: “We keep hoping to flip a switch. But every time we hope to flip a switch, it bites us in the butt.”
10. Clearly, the coach was at odds with my own feelings. I thought the Cavs battled most of the night. But I’ll concede there were moments where they sort of gave up on plays. Without Allen and Mobley, there’s almost zero margin for error.
11. Basically, Bickerstaff is pulling out all the stops. When the Cavs give most of everything they have, he demands that they give more. That’s a wise approach for a young team. Don’t give up on any play … ever. As Bickerstaff will often say, these are teaching moments.
12. About the only good thing about the night was that the Raptors beat the Hawks (41-38), who remain 1.5 games back of the Cavs. The Hawks have three games left, the Cavs have two. The Nets are also just 1.5 games back. And guess who the Cavs play next?
13. Hawks, Nets, Hornets. No matter who the Cavs face in the play-in tournament, they’re going to want the highest seed and home-court edge. Hopefully, you’ll have Allen or Mobley (or both) back on the floor. Win your first play-in game, and it’s settled. You’re in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed.
14. Of course, these next two games count for a lot. The Cavs hit the road to face the Nets on Friday. They close it out with the defending champion Bucks at home. Both of those opponents are also jostling for positioning. So yeah, you can forget about any of this getting easier. Quite the opposite.
15. Some bad losses have haunted the Cavs, of course. They lost twice to the Pistons, for instance. This one also counts as a stinker. Win two of those, and you’re still alive for the No. 6 seed. But this is their reality, and all they can do now is try to take it to another level when it means the most.