Coach Tyronn Lue is confident heading into the playoffs despite the Cavaliers struggles in the final two months of the regular season. (0:53)
CLEVELAND — Ready or not, here come the playoffs for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the defending champions lost more than they won over the last six weeks of the regular season — Wednesday’s 98-83 season-ending defeat to the Toronto Raptors dropped their record to 10-14 since March 1 — Cavs coach Tyronn Lue insists sunnier skies are ahead.
“Well, it’s here now,” Lue said of the postseason on Wednesday. “All the talking is over, what we can do and what we’re going to do. It’s here. So, we got to put up or shut up.”
The last time the two teams met, Cleveland outlasted Indiana 135-130 in double overtime to take the season series 3-1. George finished with 43 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, while LeBron James put up 41 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. The Pacers’ lone win against the Cavs came in November, 103-93, when James sat out. Cleveland finished 0-8 on the season in games James did not play, including Wednesday against the Raptors.
“They’re well-coached,” Lue said of Indiana. “Coach [Nate] McMillan did a great job the second half of the season figuring out his team, who he wanted to play and what lineups. They’ve been playing well. Paul George coming off pin-downs and trying to run LeBron around off catch-and-shoots, because you can’t post Bron or it’s hard to go on-on-one, so he ran Bron around a lot. We’ve got to be prepared for that.
“Also with [Jeff] Teague being a fast guard who can get downhill, put a lot of pressure on you and get into the paint. Those are two things we have to be better at and we got to be good at going into the playoffs.”
Cleveland finished the season 51-31, including a 20-21 record on the road. Last season, en route to their first title in franchise history, the Cavs went 57-25, were 24-17 on the road and captured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“We had some key injuries this year that set us back, but for the most part, it’s pretty much the same,” Lue said. “I think the East has gotten better. Toronto has gotten better. Boston has gotten better. Indiana is playing good basketball. The Bulls finally figured out what they’re going to do, who they’re going to be. Same thing with Milwaukee. So, teams have gotten better, and that’s just the biggest difference to me. It’s going to be a bigger challenge for us this year.”
Have the Cavs also gotten better?
“I think we’re good,” Lue said, evading the question. “I think we’re good.”
As much as the competition might be stiffer for the Cavs than what they faced when their 2016 playoff run started off 10-0, Lue said it’s more of an internal battle than an external one for his team.
“I feel good,” Lue said. “As long as we’re healthy, I think we can win. So, health is the most important thing. We chased the No. 1 seed; we lost two games to Hawks that we should’ve won, but we didn’t. So now we’re here. It’s going to be a tough road, whether you’re first seed, second seed or third seed. The Eastern Conference had gotten better, and we understand that. And we have to play better, so we understand that. The challenge is here, and we’re up for the challenge.”
One of those healthy players is Tristan Thompson, who returned to the lineup against Toronto after missing the past four games with a sprained right thumb. He echoed his coach’s confidence.
“I think the East has gotten better. Toronto has gotten better. Boston has gotten better. Indiana is playing good basketball. The Bulls finally figured out what they’re going to do, who they’re going to be. Same thing with Milwaukee. … It’s going to be a bigger challenge for us this year.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue
“You know how it is in the playoffs, where you lock in and now you can just focus on one team and guys’ tendencies and guys will be on their iPads studying at home,” said Thompson. “So this team has enough guys with experience to know what it takes and know what we have to do when the postseason starts, so I’m not worried about that.”
Cavs general manager David Griffin acknowledged some worry, saying, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s reason for concern. Sure. We had a very rocky, adverse regular season.”
Yet he also trumpeted his team’s upside.
“If we’re the good version of us, we’ll be better [than last year’s championship team],” Griffin said. “We’re more talented than we were at this time last year. We’ve been through more, we’re more hardened and seasoned than we were at this time last year. This team lost two starters and made it to The Finals and was two games away from winning a championship two years ago, and most of these same guys are the ones who did that. So I’m no less confident. I’m more pissed off that we put ourselves in this position, because we certainly didn’t need to. But damn, we’re good when we put ourselves here. That’s what we do.”
They’ll get the first chance to prove themselves all over again this weekend.
“My confidence is that we can win,” said Lue. “And I know we can win the series. We just got to play Cavaliers basketball, which we’re capable of doing, which we showed we can do. I hear all the talk or whatever; I don’t listen to it. I know our team, I know we have confidence to win. As far as the outside rumblings, that’s just part of it; it always surrounds this team, and I’m used to it.”