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Cavaliers Proving They Can’t Hang With The Big Boys

The Cleveland Cavaliers claimed they felt disrespected by Stephen Curry’s champagne comments prior to the two teams’ second NBA Finals rematch of the season. They should be more appalled by the way the reigning MVP carved them up Monday night. Curry (35 points) out-scored every member of Cleveland’s “Big Three” combined (27 points) en route to Golden State’s 132-98 trouncing of the Cavs at the Q. It was the worst home loss of LeBron James’ career and another clear reminder that the Cavs are no longer among the NBA’s upper echelon.

Four days prior, Cleveland dropped a close one to the San Antonio Spurs, a franchise that’s had James’ number throughout his career. Tim Duncan and Co. own a 20-18 record over The King, including two triumphs in the NBA Finals. They are one of just three teams who James doesn’t own a winning record against during his 13 years in the pros.

So, if the Cavaliers aren’t on par with the likes of the Warriors and Spurs, where do they stand? Today’s SportsNews’s own John Doe made some interesting comparisons.

“They’re not contenders for an NBA Championship, not serious ones, even though they’re virtually assured of representing the Eastern Conference once again in the NBA Finals. Being the default entrant shouldn’t earn them any plaudits. They’re just the Buffalo Bills. They’re the John Elway Broncos before Terrell Davis got there. They’re every opponent Michael Jordan and the Bulls faced in the Finals. They’re the Finnish national hockey team in 1980, playing the U.S.A after they knocked off the Soviets.”

At 28-11, the Cavaliers are the clear-cut beasts of the East. However, that distinction doesn’t hold much weight when you consider the conference doesn’t have another elite team in it. The lack of serious competition on their own coast allows Cleveland to coast throughout the regular season, since a trip to the Finals is almost a guarantee. However, the limited experience of  being tested shows when they square off against other talented rosters.

James recently acknowledged his team’s inability to stand up to the NBA’s elite, per USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt.

“Against the top teams you want to play well, and we haven’t done that. We’re 0-3 vs. the top two teams in the West. We’re 0-1 against the Bulls so far. We’ve got to play better basketball.”

The two losses to Golden State and the lone defeat (so far) to San Antonio exposed some flaws that could hinder Cleveland going forward, namely on defense. In their first clash against the Cavaliers on Christmas day, the Warriors scored 46 of their 89 points in the paint. Cleveland did a little better in the rematch, surrendering 38 points on the interior.

The Spurs also had an easy time getting to the hoop against Cleveland, scoring 48 points in the paint. While new starting center Tristan Thompson has made strides defensively, he’s not the kind of elite rim-protector that makes attackers think twice about coming inside. That role is supposed to belong to Timofey Mozgov, but he is logging just 15 minutes per game this month. Even when Mozzy is on the floor, the team surrenders 102 points per 100 possessions, the worst of any Cavs big man.

Another problem Cleveland has is Kevin Love. In the three combined games against Golden State and San Antonio, he’s scored a combined 23 points, including notching just three in the latest showdown with the Warriors. Since Kyrie Irving’s return on Dec. 20, Love is averaging 12.4 points in 15 games. He’s shooting just 34.7 percent from the field in the month of January as he struggles to find consistency playing alongside two other elite scoring options. Then, there’s the issue of Love’s trademark matador defense, as evidenced by the clip below.

When you combine both factors, the Cavaliers’ $110 million investment in Love last summer looks more and more like a sunk cost. It’s even gotten to the point that CBSSports’ Chris Towers sent a portion of the day on Twitter proposing potential Love trades.

This was one of the better ones.

The good news for Cleveland is there still plenty of time to work out the kinks. There’s little shame in losing to a Golden State team led by the best player in basketball or a Spurs dynasty that has become an NBA institution for nearly two decades. All great players have had their share of rivals who gave them fits. Michael Jordan struggled to get by the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons clubs of the late-80’s/early 90’s. Shaquille O’Neal was routinely confounded by graceful big men like Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Steve Nash never experienced the Finals because he played in a tough Western Conference filled with championship-caliber teams.

The bad news is that the Cavs are still figuring things out despite the fact this core has been together for a season and a half. At 31 years old, James isn’t the spring chicken he once was, and his body is already starting to show signs of wearing down. With Golden State on top, San Antonio holding strong and Oklahoma City waiting in the wings, it’s not inconceivable to believe Cleveland’s title window is on the verge of closing.

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