Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has accused his players of having developed bad habits, and the players themselves have echoed his sentiment.
Ahead of their clash with the champion Golden State Warriors on Friday night, the Cavs had lost two games on the bounce, the most recent a 127-120 loss against the Sacramento Kings. Bickerstaff wasn’t a happy man and spared no punches when speaking to reporters.
The coach expects the team to play to a certain standard, something they’ve failed to do recently. And he’s keen on having them get back on course before all the good work they did earlier in the season turns out to be for nothing.
“We didn’t come out and play the game purposefully,” he said after the loss. “We’ve gotten to this habit – and it’s my responsibility to be better – of allowing people to just play freely to start games and then think that we’re going to turn it on in the second half. That’s arrogant basketball. You can’t survive in the NBA playing that way.”
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They were expected to blow out a much weaker opponent in the Kings this week but ended up starting 10-3 and never led in the first half. They allowed Sacramento 34 points in the first quarter and 35 in the second, marking the third straight game in which they let opposing sides score 60 or more points in the first half. It’s part of a worrying trend that has led to the Cavaliers having to fight from behind lately and Bickerstaff is growing sick of it.
“If we want to be a good basketball team, we need to remember who we are and we need to play Cavaliers basketball,” the head coach added. “Not hero ball, not my turn, not selfish defensively, not not executing game plans. If we don’t do those things, we’ll have nights like this. We were a disappointing basketball team tonight. There’s no other way around it. We all need to be held accountable for it.”
Cleveland still has the NBA’s second-best defense this season and has been able to force results in the second half of games. However, they’re 19th in defensive rating in the first quarter and 16th in the second.
They managed to turn things around in their favor against the Los Angeles Lakers last weekend but that did not work against the Clippers, who kept them under the foot until the clock read zero.
They finished Wednesday’s game against the Kings with a 129.6 defensive rating, the worst of the season so far.
“It’s been a conversation for the last week, week and a half, about our slow starts defensively, and always fighting our way back into games,” shooting guard Caris LeVert admitted. “We just got to go out and do it at this point. We’ve just got to come out and show that we learned from the last game.”
“You saw it in the third,” All-Star point guard Donovan Mitchell added. “We have done it on many occasions. Disappointing that we didn’t start off that way as a collective group. We can’t start off that way. Teams are too talented. We can’t come out and expect to just turn it on. That’s not how you want to respond after losing a game. Really on us to make that effort as a group. Has nothing to do with offense. It’s really just our defense.
“We pride ourselves on defense and that’s what we’ve been even before I got here. For us to be who we are, we have to be really solid defensively and we weren’t the past two games. We’ve relied heavily on the offense, hoping that the offense carries us. That’s not what we do. We have to go out there every night and be able to lock in on that end and not lose sight of what has been getting us to what we have been doing early this season.”
Bickerstaff would also lament over the team’s defensive issues. They were quite poor at keeping ballhandlers in front of them and allowed too much penetration off the dribble, which forced them to abandon their defensive shape all game and leave Jarret Allen and Evan Mobley to deal with added pressure.
“We were playing their game all night,” LeVert pointed out.
Cleveland is expected to achieve a lot this season and they’re still on track despite a few upsets. But Bickerstaff has every right to be worried given their habit of playing catch-up in the second half of games.