CLEVELAND -- Seeing the Cleveland Cavaliers' 20-point lead slipping away point by point into oblivion during Tuesday’s 106-100 come-from-ahead loss to the Houston Rockets seemed somewhat apropos for the way the Cavs’ season has gone thus far.
Like the season, Tuesday began with so much promise. Yet there are so many problems that are threatening to catch up with the team down the stretch and dash Cleveland's dreams of finally fielding a championship team.
Tuesday’s result without LeBron James in the lineup was nothing new, of course (he was out for scheduled rest). The Cavs are now 4-13 in the past two seasons when James doesn’t suit up.
And reading too much into this specific game -- as frustrating as it might have been to see the sub-.500 Rockets escape with the victory on the Cavs’ court -- doesn’t do much good when projecting Cleveland’s longterm chances considering that James changes everything and has never missed a playoff game in his career.
Yet it was a reminder that there is a checklist of things the Cavs want to accomplish, and avoid, in their final eight games before the postseason begins. Tuesday featured more of the latter.
There have been four major goals that Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has laid out for his team as it embarks on the final weeks of the regular season:
Rest his players, and not only James, so that Cleveland has optimum health come mid-April, when the games really count.
Capture the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Find a flow and confidence in a set rotation it can ride into the first round.
Shore up a defense that has looked increasingly subpar in the days since Lue assumed the top spot from David Blatt.
Some of the goals seemingly counteract one another. For instance, how can the Cavs expect to hold off the Toronto Raptors while simultaneously resting players? Also, how will a rotation be settled upon if Cleveland keeps leaning on mismatched lineups when its key players -- James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova -- get the rest that Lue intends to dole out?
The Cavs currently hold a 2½ game lead over the Raptors atop the East, but they should look at it more like 1½ because Toronto holds the tiebreaker.
Lue has made the decision to put health above seeding if he has to choose, which he explained after the Rockets game.
“I have to listen to the training staff,” Lue said. “And if they say guys are banged up a little, or tired, you know, we have to go with that. ... When our guys’ limit is in the red and it gets kind of dangerous, and in the ‘danger zone,’ then we have to tend to listen to that. ... The training staff and guys feel like guys need rest because they’re in that zone. I’m not going to fight that.”
As he plans out his rest program, Lue realizes he is sacrificing his core's playing time heading into the playoffs. Of the Cavs' eight remaining games, Lue expects to use a limited roster in at least two of them.
“I’m looking at hopefully ... five or six (games) to have our full team,” Lue said. “Just talking with the training staff and seeing who is banged up or (has) little knick knacks kind of determines that -- my vision is to see like five or six games, yes.”
The silver lining to that approach, as Lue sees it, is other supporting players who will be “just-in-case” type options in the postseason can try to find a rhythm and be ready if they should they be called on later. There is some merit to this. Mo Williams has 14 points in his past two games after missing a month with a knee injury, James Jones pumped out 10 points against Houston and Richard Jefferson continues to play a consistent, albeit minor, role in order to keep his 35-year-old body loose.
The defensive issues might be trickiest of all. After spending his first 20 games or so on the job preaching pace and focusing on the Cavs’ offense, Lue pivoted to try to salvage a defense that slipped significantly. To his credit, he recognized a change was necessary after the Cavs' defense was stripped down by Miami a week ago.
He first gave the team simple assignments rather than personnel-based switches and later started incorporating two areas to hone in on -- it’s been physicality and transition D in the past two games -- to slowly build back the defense while giving his team the opportunity to feel good about itself on that end once again.
On Tuesday, the Cavs flirted with accomplishing all of Lue’s final four goals for the season. James rested while the team ran out to a big lead thanks to stifling defense in the second quarter, when they held Houston to just 14 points -- all while Irving (31 points, eight assists) seemed to get his mojo back. But ultimately, they fell far short from a satisfying night.
Sure, James saved some wear and tear, but the Cavs’ defense sprung a leak in the second half, giving up 66 points. The rotations looked a little off, thanks to foul trouble, and Cleveland lost, allowing Toronto to stay within striking distance.
It looks as if it could very likely be an up-and-down process all the way to the finish line.