SAN ANTONIO -- One way of looking at the Cleveland Cavaliers' 99-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs is Kyrie Irving scored a whopping 41 points fewer than he put up the last time the Cavs were in this building, yet the margin between the two teams swayed by only seven points in the Spurs' favor.
Instead of a three-point win for Cleveland on that memorable 57-point night from Irving last March, Thursday's game was a four-point loss with Irving's 16 points on a 6-of-17 shooting performance.
This isn't to blame Irving for not being superhuman, but to point out what type of effort it takes to beat the Spurs on their home court, where they've now won 32 straight games since that career night from the Cavs' point guard.
Another way to look at it, of course, is that as good as the Cavs have been this season at 27-10, the portion of that record that really matters is their 0-2 mark against San Antonio and the Golden State Warriors -- the only teams in the league with better records than Cleveland and the two teams widely considered the favorites to represent the West in the Finals.
There's a knee-jerk tendency to think that those two losses really mean something more, that they are proof the Cavs and their $110 million payroll still don't have enough ammunition to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June. But the truth of the matter is some patience is required and Cleveland will know a whole lot more about its chances against those two teams down the road after hosting the Warriors on Monday and then having the Spurs come to The Q less than two weeks after that.
"Can't take away much for us," LeBron James said when asked how he computes the two losses to the West's best. "We have another game tomorrow; I can't really elaborate on what I see. You see two well-coached teams, two teams who play well together, and don't make many mistakes.
"Obviously, you know, coming to this building they're never going to make many mistakes and Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) definitely puts those guys in the right position to be successful for their team. And for us to come in, both at Golden State and here, and play some good basketball, you know, not as well as you would like to, we can learn from it."
If there wasn't an overarching lesson to be learned that the Cavs have major flaws compared to the Spurs and Warriors, there was certainly a momentary one when you examine how they played on offense from the second quarter on, particularly in the fourth.
After running out to a 32-20 lead in the first quarter, assisting on six of their 13 made baskets with only two turnovers, Cleveland finished the game assisting on only nine of their final 25 buckets while coughing up the ball 17 more times.
There were different theories to explain the regression. Popovich said, "We just played better defense," and J.R. Smith suggested the Cavs "not getting to the free throw line like we're accustomed to" contributed to the downfall. (Cleveland was called for 23 fouls to San Antonio's 16, and the Spurs took 22 free throws to the Cavs' 11.) James allowed that the Cavs "could have executed better," but added, "We also had some really good looks that just didn't go down." Kawhi Leonard's presence on both ends -- he had 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal and helped hold James to just 22 points with four turnovers -- was a factor too, no doubt.
All partial truths. But the harsher critiques by both Cavs coach David Blatt and Irving are where Cleveland can learn a lesson from the letdown.
"I thought we stopped moving the ball," Blatt said, stating the obvious. The Cavs' first nine possessions of the fourth quarter resulted in a 1-for-7 mark from the field and two turnovers. The only make was a layup by Irving. Every other attempt was a jump shot -- three of them 3s -- and two of them particularly poor choices by James. By the time the slump was over, the Cavs' three-point lead at the start of the quarter had turned into a 10-point deficit.
Irving pointed the finger at himself. "I had three turnovers, splitting the defense and they do a great job just getting their hands on the high-low crossovers and also the screen-and-rolls," he said.
The encouraging part is Irving will get better. Everything he has shown on the court since making his comeback from a long layoff following knee surgery last month is trending in the right direction. He remains on a minutes restriction, playing only 33 minutes against the Spurs, and when that increases he'll have more time to turn his game around when he does struggle.
In the meantime, it was simply a bad night for the Cavs' point guards. Matthew Dellavedova was 2-for-8 with two turnovers in 20 minutes and yet he stayed on the court because Mo Williams is not with the team as he grieves the death of an uncle. And they looked even worse as a group thanks to Tony Parker's brilliant 24 points on 11-for-18 shooting and three steals.
They'll get a chance to improve on their mistakes Friday in Houston. Sometimes back-to-backs are the most brutal part of this business. Sometimes they're a blessing. A win against the Rockets would give the Cavs a sense of accomplishment after a 5-1 trip, heading into two days off before hosting the Warriors on Monday.
A loss in Houston -- especially if James and Irving both end up playing, as they both said they planned to do -- will make for a different story. But for now, it's premature to come to any far-reaching conclusions about the Cavs' potential based on how their games against Golden State and San Antonio have gone this season.
Just listen to what Irving said when asked if he had any concern about that 0-2 mark.
"No, no," he said. "Because they have to come to our home. We'll see what happens."