CLEVELAND -- On a night when it was tough to muster anything close to a compliment for the suddenly stumbling Cleveland Cavaliers, we all can, at the very least, give some credit to LeBron James for seeing this one coming.
After the Cavs beat the Toronto Raptors at home eight days ago to run their winning streak to eight games, the man with two rings and five trips to the NBA Finals on his résumé warned that success can be fleeting.
"I kind of stay even keel because it's too early in the season," James said at the time. "As fast as you can win five or six in a row, you can lose five or six in a row. So, it's a process of every day, getting better every day and taking on the next challenge. But I feel like, I always said it was going to take a few months."
Wednesday's 127-98 shellacking at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks wasn't the Cavs' sixth loss in a row, or even their fifth. But it was their third loss in their last four games, and when you lose by 29 at home to a team you beat by 33 the last time you played them, maybe things feel twice as bad as they really are.
"That was embarrassing how we played," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "I apologize to all the good fans that came out here, as they always do. Really just a poor, poor performance and I don't have a whole lot else to say."
Blatt might have been rendered speechless by the night, but plenty of questions come to mind after watching that debacle.
Like, what happened to the defense? How do you let an Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans team (after the first quarter) and a Jeff Teague-less Hawks team (from the start) average 123 points against you on a combined 60 percent mark from the field and 50 percent mark (28-for-56) from 3 in your last two losses?
James took exception to Blatt's "embarrassing" comment, quipping, "I'm embarrassed to lose in the Finals" (channeling his "RELAX" tweet from earlier in the season to offer proper perspective), but he was understandably down on the defense.
"Defensively we definitely took a step back," James said -- and he should include himself in that critique because he was beaten off the dribble on the perimeter on several occasions. "The communication, the breakdown, the pride -- I think the pride of actually defending one-on-one and guarding your man is something that we have to learn and rely on help second. So that plays a part into it as well."
With Teague out, it should have been Irving's show. Instead, he was out-game-managed by Dennis Schroder, who started in Teague's place and dished out a career-high 10 assists to Irving's six. And he was outgunned by Shelvin Mack, who scored a career-high 24 points off the bench, including a 6-for-6 clip from 3, to Irving's nine points on 4-for-9 shooting (with an 0-for-3 line from 3).
"I, myself, I lost Mack I think once or twice and he got going and it was tough to come back," Irving admitted after the game.
He actually admitted it well after the game, as Irving went back to the court following the team's postgame locker room talk to go through shooting drills for more than 45 minutes while arena workers cleaned trash out of the stands around him.
"I'm getting good looks," Irving said after making less than half of his shots for the seventh consecutive game -- totaling 38-for-101 in that span (37.6 percent). "I just got to knock them down for our team. It's frustrating for myself getting the looks that I was to get and they're either in-and-out or I'm just being lazy with my jump shot."
At least Irving immediately tried to fix one of the problems facing the team.
After getting repeatedly scored on in the third quarter by Paul Millsap and Al Horford, who combined to score 14 points in the period while Atlanta broke open the game with a 30-15 run, Love tried to downplay what happened on the defensive end.
"We took the individual challenge and just sometimes good defense is beat by better offense and that was kind of it tonight," Love said.
If that was good defense by the Cavs, Love might have been the only one to see it that way.
Said Blatt: "I thought our defense was nonexistent throughout."
Added James: "We can't be satisfied with the open looks that they got."
There's plenty the Cavs can't be satisfied with right now. As ugly as the ground we've already covered has been, we didn't even get into how they blew another big early lead again (12 points this time), or how the roster still lacks a rim protector, or how the rotations still aren't settled, or how they just got smacked around by a team they could face in the playoffs.
And that win against Charlotte on Monday in the midst of the other three losses? It wasn't all that grand. Yes, the Cavs jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first six minutes, but they were outscored by 12 the rest of the way by a team that had lost 12 of its last 14 games.
This Cavs team that had supposedly rounded the corner is left searching for itself once again.
And while Irving sought out the court for sanctuary after the loss, James sat in front of his locker with his feet immersed in an ice bucket and his nose in a book -- "Occupy All Streets," a spirituality guide written by New York City pastor Carl Lentz.
Indeed, a little divine intervention certainly couldn't hurt in turning this group from pretenders to contenders.
"We got some work to do tomorrow," James said. "I don't view it as, 'We'll get them next time.' We got some work to do and we need to figure out why we keep having so many breakdowns."
James was right again.