“We’re s--- in the third quarter right now,” said LeBron James.
Indeed, the Hornets' video board operator, who during a timeout showed a poop emoji next to fan wearing a Cavs jersey, proved to be spot on. Cleveland was outscored 33-17 in the third, seeing a nine-point halftime lead disappear and then some.
“We need to figure it out,” James continued. “I don’t know what it is. I know the coaching staff will try to pinpoint what the case may be. We’re doing a good job of playing great basketball in the first half, and our third quarters are pretty awful right now. We’ve got to try to figure that out.”
Coach Tyronn Lue said the third-quarter funk has plagued his team the past three games. Against San Antonio, the Cavs were up 17 at halftime, but instead of closing the door they were outscored 27-26 in the third, giving a dangerous Spurs team a chance to make it a game. Against Indiana, Cleveland led by 11 at intermission before being outscored 30-15 in the third.
“I just think that coming out of halftime, we just have to continue to play the same way with that same aggressive mindset,” Kyrie Irving said. “That’s all it comes down to. It’s not about making any other excuses for each other. We just have to continue to build on our lead and know that we have to bury teams, and if we can do it in the third quarter, then do so.”
It’s a vicious cycle for the Cavs that usually begins on the defensive end. Once the defense starts to slip, fewer transition opportunities off of long rebounds or steals present themselves. Without those run-outs, the preferred high-pace offense begins to slow itself down. And once Cleveland starts playing possession after possession of half-court ball, that’s when its isolation-heavy offense -- the team’s “old habits,” as Lue calls it -- starts to show.
“I think when things get hard and you have great individual players, they seem to take it upon themselves to try to get you out of a jam,” Lue said. “So we just got to be able to play past that and continue to trust.”
The letdown in Charlotte was particularly troubling considering the Hornets were without both Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. It wouldn’t be fair to say the Cavs overlooked Charlotte completely, not with the way they came out and established the lead, but it’s obvious they were outhustled. The Hornets outrebounded the Cavaliers 49-28 -- a striking statistic when you remember that after the first preseason game in the big three era, in which the Cavs outrebounded Maccabi Tel Aviv by 28, James declared, “We shouldn’t lose a rebounding game [all season].”
“They played hard, but there’s no reason why any team in the league should outwork us,” Cavs center Tristan Thompson said. “We got so many guys that have high motors and are athletic. So for them to come and outwork us tonight, we got to do better than that.”
Thompson is usually the straw that stirs the Cavs' drink when it comes to generating energy, but even he was no match for the Hornets, grabbing just four rebounds in 34 minutes. “Yeah, it’s bad,” Thompson said when a reporter mentioned his stat line. “A bad night. Got to do better.”
The Cavs are still in first place, of course, and won two of the past three games when they had those lackluster third quarters. So their problems could be far worse. But if they are truly going to embrace the culture of accountability that Lue promised to promote when he took over the team, they have to treat all of it -- the poor third quarters, the abandonment of the quickened pace, the shoddy rebounding -- with urgency.
And that means that this might be Lue’s first true test as the coach, because James was as much to blame for the team’s rebounding on Wednesday as anyone. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist eluded him late in the game to get to the glass without James boxing out.
“That’s unacceptable,” James said. “We did a great job of making them miss at times, then in the first half we gave up some offensive rebounds. Some of them was just looking at the ball and they was flying over our backs, some of it was bad bounces you can be OK with. I definitely kick myself for the two offensive rebounds I gave up in the fourth quarter. That kind of, it made the difference in the game.”
The difference the Cleveland front office expected to see when it fired David Blatt was a winning team turning into a group with championship habits. The Cavs knows what they need to work on. It's time to prove they are actually committed to fixing things.