TORONTO — Call it an excuse. Or call it an example of an athlete being honest and self-aware. But LeBron James’ comments at the shootaround Thursday morning about the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers ended up being prescient when it came to the beatdown in store for his team from the Toronto Raptors later that night.
“This is just us during the regular season,” said James hours before the Cavs’ 133-99 loss to the Raptors. “This is just us. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at times.”
Cleveland showed its unseemly side again, losing for the seventh time in its past 10 games — looking more like the team that started the season 5-7 through its first 12 games than the squad that reeled off 18 wins in 19 games to follow that.
It was hard to point to the biggest culprit for the Cavs because so much went wrong.
Outside of James — 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting — Cleveland’s offense was anemic. Kevin Love followed up his 1-for-7 night in the Cavs’ loss to Minnesota on Monday with a 2-for-8 night against Toronto for 10 points. Isaiah Thomas missed his first 11 shots before finally finding the net, finishing 2-for-15 for four points. JR Smith went missing again, shooting 0-for-5 (he was 0-for-7 against Minnesota). And Cleveland’s bench was outclassed by Toronto’s reserves 76-48.
All told, it was one of the Cavs’ worst shooting nights of the season as they connected on just 38.2 percent from the field as a team and an even worse 6-for-26 from 3 (23.1 percent).
Frustration got the better of James, as he was captured by the TNT cameras in an animated yelling match with Cavs player development coach Phil Handy in the first half. The video was later posted to the @ballgod Instagram account where Kyrie Irving, of all people, liked it.
One of the few bright spots for Cleveland was Tristan Thompson, back in his hometown, contributing eight points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes. His play, coupled with an ineffective stint by Channing Frye, could quiet those who blame Thompson’s return from a left calf strain as the main reason for the Cavs’ struggles of late, as he replaced Frye in the rotation. Frye started the second quarter and the Raptors’ lead quickly increased from six to 12 before coach Tyronn Lue pulled him after four minutes.
Following a film session on Wednesday, when Lue highlighted all the poor possessions the Cavs had against the Wolves when they simply didn’t play hard enough to give themselves a chance, Cleveland appeared to be a loose group heading into the night.
This Raptors game — a nationally televised affair against a playoff foe from the previous two seasons — would typically be the type of game the Dr. Jekyll Cavs would show up for. While some lackadaisical play could be expected for a team coming off three straight Finals appearances, Thursday, supposedly, would be a night that would grab Cleveland’s attention.
Then again, there’s another Cavs trope that applied to Thursday night: underperforming when the other team is undermanned. The Raptors were missing two of their big three in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and rather than that result in an easy night for Cleveland, all it did was set the stage for guys like Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam to make an impact.
Cleveland will finish its five-game road trip Friday in Indianapolis, with a 2-3 record the best it can hope for. And when the Cavs finally return to Cleveland after this stretch of 11 straight days on the road, their welcome-home gift is a matchup with the Golden State Warriors on Monday.
If this is just the Cavs in the regular season, then this could continue to be just ugly in the interim.