Cavaliers in annual rut as they try to straighten themselves out

BOSTON -- We've reached that time of year, my friends.

It's the time of year when the Cleveland Cavaliers' season starts to go off the rails a bit -- as it did each of the past three campaigns. And through some combination of fans panicking, LeBron James tweeting cryptically and the front office wheeling and dealing, the Cavs made it to three straight NBA Finals.

Wednesday's loss -- a 102-88 stinker against the Boston Celtics -- shouldn't be all that surprising. Cleveland, the oldest team in the league, was playing on the second night of a back-to-back. And the Cavaliers were playing on the road after flying in late Tuesday night. And they were playing a Celtics team that had 2½ months to stew on its opening-night loss in Cleveland and anticipate its chance for some measure of revenge.

Still, rationalization doesn't do much to soften the blow in the standings resulting from the Cavs' current rut of five losses in their past seven games. At 25-13, they're currently third in the East, 4½ games back of No. 1 Boston and two games behind the No. 2 Toronto Raptors, whom they play later on their five-game trip.

They had their second-worst shooting night of the season against the Celtics, making just 34.8 percent of their shots from the field and 8-of-32 from beyond the arc to snap their franchise-record streak of 26 straight games with 10 or more 3-pointers. The only game in which the Cavs have shot worse was Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors.

It's not just that they've looked so out of sorts against the two teams that many think they will face in the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals. Until the Cavs start racking up some wins against the league's better teams, that hot streak they put together when they reeled off 18 victories out of 19 games will look more and more hollow because it was mostly against weaker teams.

"I'm always concerned about other teams getting better and better," James said after Wednesday's loss. "But I'm more concerned about us getting better and better. That's the bigger thing. Washington and obviously this team right here, Miami is trying to get better and better, Toronto is playing exceptional basketball right now. The East is pretty damn good this year, and right now we're not so good. [We were] great, [now] not so good. See what happens next. But you've always got to be concerned with the competition, for sure."

James was right to focus on the Cavs before scanning the competition. Right now, it appears their biggest challenge is figuring out how to manage the rotation and play with the new lineups that come with the integration of Tristan Thompson and Isaiah Thomas.

"It's new for all of us, it's new for Coach [Tyronn Lue], it's new for us," Thompson recently told ESPN. "T-Lue, he knows what I bring to the table; I know what he expects from me. So when the going gets tough, I know that he can rely on me to go out there and be productive."

Working Thompson back in -- his 10 points and 11 rebounds against Boston marked his third straight productive game after a few clunkers that coincided with the Cavs' struggles -- means cutting Channing Frye out.

With the type of lineups Cleveland faces on a nightly basis, there just isn't a feasible way to regularly play three centers -- Thompson, Frye and Kevin Love -- and not force one of them to play against a small-ball unit and potentially be exposed.

"He got to do what he got to do, that's his job," Frye told ESPN of Lue. "I'm just here to play. So if I play, I play. If I don't, I stay ready. ... My attitude is he has to do what's best for the team, and I think for me, it's to be a pro and do what I got to do and be ready to go whenever."

When asked if he might be more game-ready than Thompson right now, Frye said that's insignificant.

"Regardless, if I'm ready or he's not ready or who is or who isn't, that's not up for me to say," Frye said. "I think he gives us a good chance to win, I think me playing gives us a good chance to win. So as long as we're winning, I think both of us understand that we bring different things to the table, but we all just want to win in the end, and it ain't always going to be cookies and cream."

Which is essentially the same acknowledgement James made about Thomas. Yes, tinkering with the rotations in the middle of the season to account for a 5-foot-9 guard who hasn't played in 7½ months is not ideal. But it needs to be done for the Cavs to have the best chance of maximizing their potential come playoff time.

"I don't know who we are, what we can be until we get IT back consistently," James said. "But we know what the program is, so it's not like it's a surprise he wasn't playing tonight. We already know he won't play in the Indiana game after we're in Minnesota. He's not playing back-to-backs right now. So until we get a full dosage of IT and get our rotations down and things of that nature, we're playing well and Tristan comes back, we're integrating him, and we haven't played as well as of late, so we're trying to figure that out. We'll be fine."

James ended his media remarks with a throwaway line that didn't show the same level of confidence, however.

When asked if the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics were a "different" threat than last season, James retorted, "I think they were a threat last year. The [Thomas] injury affected them a lot."

Was James saying that the Celtics were more of a threat with Thomas than they are with Irving? Was he saying that now that the Cavs have Thomas they are the team with the greater threat when at full strength? Was he saying the Cavs lucked out by getting past Boston to make the Finals last year and a healthy Thomas would have swayed the series the other way?

It might very well have been the first of many cryptic statements by James if the Cavs don't start to dig themselves out of this hole soon.