MILWAUKEE — Nearly 30 minutes after the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ 113-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff had still not arrived for his postgame press conference. The atypical late showing was the result of a lengthy postgame talk with his players following a fifth consecutive defeat.
“It’s more about solving things than getting a message across at this point,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re not playing winning basketball right now, it’s that simple. We have a formula in place that allows us, will allow us, to be successful. Holding each other to that is what we have to do, and right now we are not. It’s that simple. It’s my responsibility to search and find the guys that are most willing to play the way we want to play and help us all be successful.”
After acquiring Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz in a blockbuster trade this summer, the new-look Cavs got off to a flying start, winning eight consecutive games from Oct. 22 to Nov. 6. They have not won since then, despite holding double-digit leads in three of the five defeats.
“I think honestly we got kind of a fat cat mentality,” Bickerstaff said. “We went out and won eight games in a row, everybody was giving us love and praising us, and we got really comfortable… It started on our West Coast trip. I first saw it on the defensive end of the floor. We got away from being who we are. We got to a point where, and respectfully so, that we were confident we could score the ball. But if you want to win in this league to the level we hope to, you can’t do it if you don’t guard.”
Over the five-game losing streak, the Cavs are allowing 122 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst defensive rating in the league during that period. Jarrett Allen missing multiple games due to an ankle injury has played a part in their struggles on that side of the ball, as has opponents’ strong 3-point shooting (37.6 percent). The lack of effort, though, is the biggest concern.
“Defense comes down to the effort you’re willing to put in,” Bickerstaff said. “The second effort, third effort, fourth effort you’re willing to put in. Right now, we don’t have enough guys who are putting in the second, third, and fourth efforts. Too often, I see us saving ourselves, and for what? I’m not sure. Give up 21 second-chance points tonight, it shows you’re being outworked.”
Donovan Mitchell had a quick explanation.
“It’s our defense,” he said. “Scoring is gonna be whatever. That’s not really the concern. It’s really just our defense. Yeah, we missed JA, but the one thing that championship teams — which we aspire to be — do when guys are out, everybody continues to step up.”
As bad as things have been over the past 10 days, the Cavs are still in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and have a four-game homestand coming up that begins with a match-up against the lowly Charlotte Hornets. There’s plenty of time to turn things back around, and they’ve shown they can play at a high level. Doing so every night remains the challenge for this team, but it’s one they’re confident they can eventually conquer.
“Do we believe that there’s a good team in that locker room? Hell yeah,” Bickerstaff said. “Do we believe we’ve got individual talent in there, elite individual talent? Hell yeah. But building a team takes more than that. It takes time, it takes experience together. My belief in this group has not wavered.”