Heading into the final game of a five-game home stand against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Cleveland Cavaliers were flying high. They had two solid and decisive wins over the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks and were starting to become a legitimate Eastern Conference Contender. But, like Icarus, the Cavs flew too close to the sun and came crashing down to Earth in a humiliating 103-95 defeat to the Trail Blazers.
Postgame, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who is typically punctual to speak with the media, took a while to address the loss. His anger and frustration with his game plan and the team's on-court performance were palpable when he arrived. When questioned about the loss, Bickerstaff's answers were short, direct, and concise. That's typically not like Cleveland's head coach, and when asked about what took him so long to speak to the media, he gave his longest answer in nearly two minutes of availability.
“Just trying to get an understanding of where we are going and how we are going to get there,” Bickerstaff said of the discussion in the locker room.
Cavs stars frustrated but not panicking
When the locker room was opened to the media to speak with players, it was mostly deserted. Jarrett Allen had left Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse before Bickerstaff even spoke, and only Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, and Donovan Mitchell were around to speak on what had happened.
Like their coach, all three players were frustrated but maintained an even-keeled disposition on what transpired on the court. Mitchell called it their worst loss of the season, and it's safe to assume everyone else felt the same. Nevertheless, it didn't change that this iteration of the Cavs has what it takes to make the postseason and contend in the Eastern Conference.
“We all know we're a really good team, but some days we just have those lackadaisical days, and that's where we have to grow at,” Garland said. “We have to act like a playoff team as we talk about it.”
“We can either sit here and keep having this conversation or we can do something about it,” Mitchell said. “I think we'll do something about it. I know we will. I just talked to guys in this group, in this locker room. It's a turning point.”
While humiliating defeats can cause some teams to rise from the ashes, this loss felt similar to the entire start of Cleveland's season. It has always been one step forward and two steps back. Whether it's a rash of injuries, the new faces finding their way or an overall lethargic effort on the court, the only thing really getting in the Cavs' way is the Cavs themselves.
There won't be nights where Mitchell, Mobley, Garland, or Max Strus can pull Cleveland out of their rut. The loss to Portland is the perfect example of that. The Cavs look lost on the court to start the year, struggling to find an identity after being humiliated by the New York Knicks in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Sure, pressure can make diamonds, but is there enough pressure for Cleveland to dig deep and, ironically enough, live up to their hashtag and moniker along the home-court's baseline? Or is it time to start worrying about what the season holds for the Cavs?
Pistons game is crucial
That's why their upcoming matchup with the hapless Detroit Pistons will become one of Cleveland's most important games early into the season. That's right: the team that didn't win a single game in November and has only won two games this year will be the Cavs' biggest test.
If Cleveland comes out guns blazing and dominates Detroit, then the concern about this Cavs team will be kicked down the line to when they face the Orlando Magic next on their schedule. But if Cleveland doesn't come out with a sense of urgency that's been lacking, pummel Detroit, and never relent that overwhelming pressure, then it might be time to start being concerned.
Unfortunately, that might be the case in every upcoming game for the Cavs until they show consistency on either end of the floor. Job security could be on the line for Bickerstaff and his coaching staff. Mitchell's future with the team could be further in doubt. The organization's stability and the culture built in the wake of LeBron James's second exodus could crumble.
Again, a lot is riding on a game against a hopeless Pistons team, but this is also the hole the Cavs dug themselves into. Hopefully, they can find a way forward and finally turn the corner.