CLEVELAND -- Tyronn Lue approached a group of reporters, ball in hand, after the Cleveland Cavaliers held shootaround Monday morning and shot a chest pass against the wall near where they were standing.
He wanted to know why his team, 8-3 in their previous 11 games, was being characterized as struggling, while the Toronto Raptors, a comparable 9-2 in their past 11, continue to be celebrated.
The pass wasn’t menacing, it was merely used for punctuation as he finished his point.
Yet when Lue settled in to answer questions -- breaking his custom of not speaking after home shootarounds so the media had a representative Cavs voice to talk to because LeBron James chose not to speak -- there wasn’t a hint of defiance in his voice.
Yes, Lue vowed, the Cavs can and will improve during their final march before the postseason begins in about three weeks. And yes, even though a dominating 124-91 win over the Denver Nuggets later Monday night would give Cleveland its 50th victory through 70 games played and clinch the Central Division, there is real work to be done.
“It’s going to get better,” he said. “Yeah, our defense is going to get better. And I take full blame for that. We’re trying to do some different things and now we've just got to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation.”
It was a significant admission, not just because Lue dropped his indignation over the perception surrounding the Cavs so quickly, but because he owned up to a truth about his team in the process.
And in order to get better on the defensive end, Lue chose to purposefully take a step backward, stripping down the defense to basic tasks. What was the difference? “One assignment up top, one assignment on the wing, one assignment down low,” one Cavs player told ESPN.com without wanting to give up the exact schematics. “Rather than switch up coverage throughout the game at those positions based on personnel.”
The trick to the dumbed-down D? It can get picked apart by a smart team who sees what’s coming possession after possession. So, as the player continued, “Do it, execute it, aggressively.”
Cleveland did just that against the Nuggets, with Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova getting into the opposing ball handlers’ bodies on pick-and-rolls, disrupting Denver’s point of attack and allowing the Cavs’ big men to stay back and protect the rim.
Denver coughed up 17 turnovers, which the Cavs turned into 33 points, with James (33 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists for his 41st career triple-double) fueling a frenzied transition game.
And while the Nuggets are far from world beaters on offense, coming into the game ranked in the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency, points per game and field goal percentage, the Cavs managed to hold them to 39.5 percent shooting for the game and to 25 points or less in every quarter.
“The coaching staff has simplified the defensive principles for us so now there’s no excuses of us not putting in the effort,” said Channing Frye, who filled in quite nicely for Kevin Love (out with an illness), as he put up 14 points, three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot.
A nuts-and-bolts defense with no nuance or variety would be a weakness for the Cavs in a playoff series, but over the course of Cleveland’s final 12 games in the next 23 days to close out the regular season? It can be a way to generate some momentum and confidence back on that side of the ball, where there had been slippage for the past several weeks.
"We've got to own the [simplistic] package defensively until we are able to go to an advanced [package] in the postseason,” James said.
Much like Lue tried to provide some perspective when he tossed the ball against the wall Monday morning, hoping to snap the reporters out of the sky-is-falling narrative that is easy to lean on for a team with as much at stake as the Cavs, the defensive adjustment might do the same for his players.
When Cleveland plays hard, creates turnovers and allows its talents to take over in the open floor, it’s a great team. The time will come when every possession is pressure-packed in a playoff series, but the more the Cavs can recapture their mojo over the next couple of weeks, the more they’ll be prepared for that pressure cooker.
“Make it natural and instinctive,” Lue said. “That’s what we’ve got to get back to doing.”
When asked before the Nuggets game what clinching the division title would mean for the Cavs, Lue said it was a sign that “all is not bad.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement, but also an honest take. Just like the Cavs’ defense, all is not bad. But it doesn’t mean it’s all good right now either.