“We’re just not playing well right now,” James said, his head down throughout a 90-second post-game interview after Monday’s 127-99 setback against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center.
If there was more James wanted to say, if there are internal grievances lurking, this is not the time to air them. Especially not after his 10-point performance in the Cavs’ worst loss of the season.
It would be hard for James to send veiled messages to the Cavs front office or coach Tyronn Lue after he posted a minus-39 plus/minus rating, the lowest of his career, against the Timberwolves.
“I don’t care about no damn plus-minus,” James said. “I’ve won a game and had a bad plus-minus before, so what does that matter. I don’t give a damn about no damn plus-minus.”
A game after he joked about falling one assist shy of a triple-double Saturday in Orlando, saying, “I cover the scoring part pretty well. I can get 10 points,” he almost didn’t. He needed a 3-pointer with 5:52 left in the third quarter to get to double digits, then was lifted at the 4:09 mark.
James took only eight shots, five in the first quarter. He was at his most aggressive in a span of 2:14, when he scored on an and-one, a driving layup and a driving finger roll. Seven of his 10 points came in those 134 seconds. In the other 24:21, he scored three.
Hard-to-decipher tweets and Instagram memes should be put on hold. To sort out the Cavs’ issues, James will have to be actively involved in the solution, not adding to the problems.
James might have to collaborate with the coaching staff on ways to improve the struggling defense. He will have to encourage his teammates to play with more energy and effort and take an interest on both ends of the court, and do the same himself.
He also needs more support, especially from starters J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder.
Lue continues to insist there will be no lineup changes. But Smith has fallen to ninth on the team in scoring (7.7 points per game). He’s shooting .381 from the field, second worst of his career (behind .346 last season). He hasn’t been the same since he fractured his right thumb in December, 2016, although there were extenuating circumstances last season when his now 1-year-old daughter Dakota was born five months prematurely.
Crowder stands eighth on the Cavs in scoring at 8.4, his .391 field goal percentage the second-lowest of his career, his .300 from beyond the arc third-lowest.
The Cavs also need Kevin Love to return to his All-Star-caliber form after making 2-of-18 shots, including 1-of-8 3-pointers, in the past two losses. They need to get Kyle Korver more involved. They need their second unit to get back to the peak efficiency it showed during their franchise-tying 13-game winning streak, although the reserves outscored the starters 71-28 in Minnesota. The Cavs have had to reintegrate injured players Tristan Thompson, then Isaiah Thomas, and Derrick Rose is returning soon.
It all adds up to a mess, but one that the Cavs have dealt with and overcome before.
In 2015-16, they broke the city’s 52-year championship drought after the Jan. 22 firing of coach David Blatt. Last season they muddled through a 6-10 March, blew the No. 1 seed in the East and still got to the Finals before losing to the Golden State Warriors.
When that miserable month ended with a loss in Chicago, James spoke before Lue after the game, talked for three minutes and then left the United Center. Thompson, Smith and Iman Shumpert also bolted. The feeling from the three who remained in the locker room was that James had let loose.
Something like that might be coming. James might believe the Cavs should use the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal to upgrade the roster before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. That’s a pick the front office covets in case James opt out of his contract in July and departs in free agency, so if he does feel that way, it could create friction.
Whatever is percolating in James’ superb basketball mind should be kept quiet for now, unless it pertains to the solution.
With a daunting January schedule, the Cavs don’t need drama. They need unity, they need attention to detail, they need a higher level of effort and they need answers.