Wizards expose Cavs with small-ball lineup

CLEVELAND -- They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman was desperately in need of something to go his team's way as they stumbled into Tuesday's game against the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers mired in a four-game losing streak.

What Wittman came up with -- a small-ball lineup of four guards and a swingman for most of the fourth quarter of Washington's 97-85 win over Cleveland -- not only fortified his team's edge but left the Cavs looking extremely ill prepared.

"I had some lineups out there tonight that I don't know if I would have dreamed about," Wittman said after closing out the game on the backs of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jared Dudley, Otto Porter Jr. and Garrett Temple. "Our guys did everything they possibly could."

Wittman's wildest dream -- created by injuries to Nene and Drew Gooden, and foul trouble for Marcin Gortat -- turned nightmarish for the Cavs, who looked downright exposed against what Washington threw at them.

Cleveland's supposedly solid front line of Timofey Mozgov and Kevin Love could barely even find the court in the second half. Mozgov played only three minutes and Love 13 after the break as the Cavs tried to dig themselves out of an 11-point hole. Mozgov finished with zero points, two rebounds and four turnovers. Love was minus-24 in 33 minutes.

In creating a patchwork scheme for his team, Wittman just might have shown the rest of the league Cleveland's vulnerability.

"They played a different style [that] we haven't seen in a long time in terms of really going [small] -- five guards, pushing the tempo and really just kind of junking up the game and making us play basketball that we haven't played all season," Tristan Thompson said. "So you got to give them credit, but we got to be prepared for that because I know other teams are going to watch that and teams that might have smaller lineups might think that might be one of our weaknesses. So we got to be prepared to go against opponents like that moving forward."

Thompson has the lateral quickness and overall mobility as a big man to stay on the court when the opposition goes small. He has been a part of Cleveland's switch-everything, late-game defensive lineups in the last few contests, against Charlotte, Brooklyn and now Washington.

But he cannot be relied on to have as much impact on the offensive end. He had six points on 2-for-6 shooting (and 2-for-4 on free throws) on Tuesday, with two turnovers. Not terrible, but also not effective enough for a team trying to play catch-up against five capable offensive players.

Cavs coach David Blatt pegged the loss on Cleveland's 19 turnovers leading to 25 points for the Wizards, as his team struggled in transition defense. And there's no dodging the fact Cleveland shot just 33.7 percent from the field. But you have to wonder how much of the Cavs' struggles came from just having an off night and how much of it was failing to adjust to the Wizards.

"They were just quicker, much faster to the ball, with the ball, they moved the ball a lot faster than we were," LeBron James said. James coughed up nine turnovers, one shy of his career high. "They were just a step quicker than us tonight and they beat us pretty good."

That's the most frustrating part for the Cavs -- they didn't really have a chance. They fell down 10-0 to start the game and never led, trailing by as many as 22. Their first four losses of the season came by a combined 14 points. They lost by 12 on Tuesday. It was borderline embarrassing. They were booed on their home court and fans headed to the exits halfway through the fourth quarter at The Q, where Cleveland had won 29 of its previous 30 games, their only loss in that stretch coming last April when players were resting before the playoffs.

"How does it feel? It feels ... Help me out here," Blatt said, searching for the right words as he sat in the same room where only hours before he was asked about being named coach of the month. "It feels lousy after such a streak, but hope we can start another one."

They also might want to start planning for what to do when teams go small against them, because it has all but guaranteed Washington won't be the last team to try it.

"In my opinion, I think whatever team usually wins the NBA championship, people start following that formula the following year," Thompson said. "Golden State played small ball and it worked for them. So other teams are trying to do the same thing. We just got to adjust. If it means us bigs, we got to be quicker on our feet, lateral quickness, be able to guard a guard, so be it, if we want to be in the game and [have] an impact."

Love added: "We've got to find a better way to exploit our mismatches on both ends."

It's certainly better that Washington's beatdown came in game No. 19 rather than game No. 79. There's certainly time for Cleveland to figure out how to counter a situation like that in the future -- just like how the Cavs were initially caught off guard by Atlanta blitzing pick-and-roll coverage during the regular season in 2014-15 but figured it out en route to a 4-0 series sweep in the conference finals. Plus, if Cleveland does have to acquiesce and play small for extended periods, it will be better equipped to do so when its intended starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert returns.

There can be a lesson in a loss, and for the Cavs that lesson should be they have even more to work on than they thought.

"This is great for us. This is good," Thompson said. "It's an eye-opener, it's for us to look in the mirror and understand that, hey, you know, you got to be prepared for whatever kind of lineup you throw at us -- the conventional two bigs; one big with four out, one in; or what Washington did today with five guards. You got to be able to play D and switch and guard your man. Take the challenge."