CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – It’s been asked all season who could possibly challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East come April and May?
Saturday night the Washington Wizards threw their hat into the conversation but right now the defending NBA champions have an even bigger concern to worry about – their defense.
John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 as the Wizards held off the Cavs in the second half for a 127-115 win at Quicken Loans Arena leaving Cleveland to answer more questions about another sub-par defensive effort.
“It seemed like they were just so much faster than us,” head coach Tyronn Lue said. “In transition, to the basketball, getting into the paint. For me we didn’t have it tonight. I thought the guys got tired. They were at a faster pace, faster speed than we were tonight.”
LeBron James led the Cavs with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists for his 37th double-double of the season – a career high. Kyrie Irving topped 20 points for the 21st consecutive game with 23 while Kevin Love finished with 17 and 7 rebounds but it was not enough.
If the cliche, ‘defense wins championships’ holds true come playoff time, the Cavs probably won’t be repeating.
This season’s Cavs team entered the game ranked 22nd overall defensively while allowing opponents to average 45.6 percent from the field against them. The effort against Washington did nothing to help those numbers.
The Wizards shot a blistering 69.8 percent through the first 24 minutes and the Cavs trailed 71-61 at half marking the second time in 3 games Cleveland has allowed 70-plus in the opening half. The Wizards finished shooting 59.8 percent, making 49 of 82 shots.
That kind of defensive effort does not a repeat NBA champion make. And it’s a theme that has been commonplace this season for the defending champions, who have had to shuffle lineups almost nightly due to injury or roster adjustments but time is running out.
“I’m not confident,” Lue said about fixing their defensive woes. “But we’ve got to.”
Washington pushed the pace and dictated it all night beating the Cavs on the break 21-4.
“You can see all the coaches on the sidelines just saying, ‘Go. Push it. Push it,'” Lue said. “We have to get back and be better in transition. Tonight was a tough night for us.”
Tristan Thompson didn’t have a single defensive rebound in 27 minutes working against Marcin Gortat, who scored 10 points and 5 rebounds. With no true backup center, Thompson is exposed and overworked.
“When Tristan plays against those big centers, it’s tough on him,” Lue said. “To play every single night for four straight years, that was a big reason we started [Timofey Mozgov] last year. You don’t want [Thompson] to have to wrestle with those big guys on a night-to-night basis. We just have to try to figure out ways to get him off the floor like last night, getting his minutes down. Then getting him off the floor tonight trying to do the same thing.
“He’s the only center we have. He has to play right now.”
The Wizards’ youth, athleticism and aggressiveness kept them a step ahead of the Cavs all night long.
Wall scored 18 points in the first quarter and he made his first 10 shots – including a pair of 3s – to begin his evening for the Wizards. He scored or assisted on 28 of Washington’s first 40 points to start the game as they raced out to a 14-point advantage after 1.
“When [Wall] is making shots like that, they’re a very tough team to beat,” James said.
In the third quarter the Cavs applied pressure to Washington holding them to 8 of 20 shooting. They forced 5 turnovers while blocking 4 shots to close within 96-91 after 3.
Cleveland was able to trim the Wizards’ 17-point first-half lead to 3 in the fourth quarter but every time the Cavs made a run, Washington responded with one of their own to extend back to double figures.
James started the game wearing goggles to protect his right eye after suffering a scratched right cornea Friday night in Charlotte but he tossed them to the bench after just 8:30. He was 2 of 5 from the floor with 5 points and an assist before he chucked them.
“I missed a couple of shots and I was like, ‘The hell with those things,'” James, who added that he dealt with light sensitivity, said.
The loss cut the Cavs’ lead in the East to just a half game over Boston and the Wizards are now 2.5 back.