SAN ANTONIO -- Delicate. Of all the words LeBron James could've used to describe his team's condition after a 103-74 beatdown at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, "delicate" was a rather odd choice.
Upset would have worked. Frustrated, down, tired, confused -- all would've been appropriate and expected after Cleveland dropped into second place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since November.
But delicate? That's the kind of word that makes you wonder just how concerned James actually is about this group's mettle following a miserable road trip in which they've lost four of six games.
"It's a delicate time right now for our team," James said after Monday's loss. "A lot of people talking ... guys in the locker room. I'm not saying it's for the bad. We've got a couple guys that's shown leadership, some guys that's been in the fray before that's giving their opinions.
"I've learned over the season there's a time and place for it. Certain situations. I kind of wait for the right time ... So my time will come."
In other words, it's loud right now and James knows anything he says publicly now will turn up the volume in a way that might be unproductive.
James was seen huddling in an intense, personal conversation with an obviously-emotional Kyrie Irving as reporters left the locker room. Irving had been so upset with his performance in the game (his minus-29 plus-minus rating Monday was tied for the lowest of his career) that he went back out onto the court to do shooting drills after the loss. He walked back into the locker room afterward, buried his feet in a bucket of ice water, his face in a towel, and tried to process everything.
James has learned to pick his spots with Irving over the years. Sometimes a subtweet is the best way to reach him. Sometimes he'll offer up a direct and suggestive quote. On this night, in this delicate place in the season, he chose to put an arm around him and talk.
That's where this team is now with just nine games left in the regular season -- trying to pull together again as their championship swagger and bodies keep coming apart.
Since the All-Star break, the Cavs' defensive efficiency is still second worst in NBA. No team has forced fewer turnovers since then. Is that fatigue? A lack of cohesiveness because of all their injuries and midseason additions? A lack of athleticism? Of effort?
Everyone seems to have theories. Hence James' comment about all the voices in the Cavs' locker room right now.
Coach Tyronn Lue keeps talking about how the teams beating the Cavs seem so much faster right now. Monday night he flat out laughed as he recounted the ways the Spurs ran circles around his team.
"The crazy part about it. We start off the right way, but teams are so much faster than us," Lue said. "They just look so much faster than we are. I mean. I mean, damn. It just looks like, just beat us on the dribble, transition, just looking faster."
According to data from SportVU, on offense the Spurs rank as the fifth-fastest team in the league, while the Cavs rank last in the league. On defense, San Antonio is the third-fastest team in the league, Cleveland is 26th. So Lue is correct, San Antonio is playing way faster than his team. What the Cavs need to figure out is whether that's a product of fatigue, athleticism or cohesiveness. Remember, they're still trying to figure out their rotations after the midseason additions of Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams. And it sort of feels like JR Smith and Kevin Love are midseason additions too after each man missed a large chunk of the season with injuries. "With JR, it's a lot. To miss training camp because of the contract situation and then you finally start getting your legs under you, and you get hurt -- and you're out for three months," Lue said of Smith, who scored just five points Monday on 2-of-7 shooting.
"So this is kind of like his training camp and his preseason, then all the other things that are going on as far as his family [Smith's daughter was born five months premature this January]. It's gotta be tough on him. I just got to keep talking to him, tell him he doesn't have to press. We're behind him 100 percent. His daughter is in our thoughts and our prayers. Basketball is our life, but it's not the only life that you have. He's gotta understand that. He's just gotta stay up and stay positive."
In the 11 games since he has returned from a broken thumb, Smith is averaging just 6.8 points on 31 percent shooting.
Like the rest of the Cavs' additions, Smith's play has been uneven. Korver has done exactly what the Cavs hoped when he has played. In 29 games he's averaging 10.9 points on 48.5 percent shooting. But a nagging foot injury keeps knocking him out of games. Monday the Cavs decided he needed to rest a full week before trying to return again. When Korver is in, the second unit has a potent deep threat. When he's not, it robs Deron Williams of the space he needs to create off the dribble and you get games like Monday where the Cavs bench goes scoreless in the first half.
So you know, maybe "delicate" was the right word for James to use in describing the state of his team right now.
Frustrated as he and Lue might be with the level of play, James has been around this team long enough to know when escalating tensions is counterproductive. So instead of criticism, he'll say things like, "It's up to the individual where if you're feeling a little slow, OK, you gotta get in better shape."
Or he'll tweet about the value of youth coaches being honest with their stars, rather than sugarcoating things and risking a potentially lucrative relationship. Then he'll make a point of getting in an extra workout or lift after a late-night flight or rough stretch of games.
"We'll get in late, 2-3 in the morning and he's in at 8:30 getting his stretching and workouts," Lue said. "Or we're just having a walk-through. And he's on the treadmill running for 30 minutes.
"That's why he is who he is."
How much longer James goes with this push-not-prod approach remains to be seen. The Cavs have nine games left in the regular season to get themselves right, or at least out of this delicate spot.