The reigning three-time Eastern Conference champions are struggling on all fronts after being ripped 124-107 at home by Indiana on Wednesday night. James had 33 points and 11 assists, but he also committed eight turnovers as Cleveland (3-5) had no answers defensively for a Pacers team that hit 16 3-pointers and shot 54.4 percent overall.
And those defensive struggles may continue since Tristan Thompson is out at least a month due to a strained calf suffered in that defeat. Kevin Love likely will have to rotate back to center defensively, but the issues are more systemic than a simple frontcourt personnel switch since the Cavaliers are 26th in scoring defense at 111.9 points per game, 27th in defensive field goal percentage (47.8) and last in 3-point defensive field goal percentage (41.8).
“Other teams are making a lot of shots. That’s what it feels like. Teams are playing very well, playing very confident, they’re making shots,” guard Dwyane Wade told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We’ve got to continue to get our coverages down, our communication down. … It’s tough when you’re losing, you want it to happen now, especially when you’re the Cavs, it needs to happen now.”
James has not been part of a full five-game losing streak since his first go-round with the Cavaliers when it happened between February 22 and March 1, 2006.
Washington (4-3) have dropped three of four since their 3-0 start after a 122-116 home loss to Phoenix on Wednesday night. Bradley Beal scored a season-high 40 points and John Wall added 21 and 6 assists, but the Wizards also had defensive issues as the Suns scored 58 points in the paint.
The Wizards are 23rd in points in the paint allowed at 48.0 per game, and they are 1-3 when opponents score 50 or more in that area. They’re also tied for 22nd in second-chance points allowed (13.7) and defensive field goal percentage (46.6).
Three keys to the game
Get the ball to Gortat - Wizards center Marcin Gortat has been a bit of a forgotten figure the last two games, taking just 13 shots and scoring 15 points. But with the Cavaliers having so many defensive issues, this may be the perfect opportunity for the 7-footer to get going on the offensive end. Gortat had averaged 13.6 points on 59.2 percent shooting in Washington's first five contests.
Why James runs the offense - It's possible right now that James has too much responsibility for this team, but the fact he's turning Derrick Rose into a scoring guard is intriguing. Rose had a season-high 19 points on 9-of-13 shooting in Wednesday's loss, hitting both jumpers and layups as James assisted on five of Rose's nine baskets. If the ball doesn't stick, the Cavaliers are a good offensive team, and James is the reason behind that.
Beal breakout? - A career 39.5 percent shooter from deep, Beal went 6 for 12 from 3-point range in Wednesday night's loss after going 6 for 24 in Washington's first six games. Given Cleveland's defensive shortcomings on the perimeter, this is a prime opportunity for Beal to keep hunting his shot from 3-point range.
Matchup to watch
LeBron James vs Otto Porter - Otto Porter missed Wednesday's game with a stomach virus, and it showed on the defensive end for Washington as Suns forward T. J. Warren scored a career-high 40 points. The Wizards have outscored opponents by a combined 70 points while Porter has been on the floor in the previous six games, and while no one can truly contain James, he will have to at least force the ball out of his hands and make other players on the Cavaliers beat them.
But don't sleep on Porter on the offensive end, as he's averaged 18.7 points on 55.7 percent shooting, including 51.7 percent from beyond the arc. Look for the Wizards to get him going early offensively to keep the pressure on the Cavaliers.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - Derrick Rose | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Kevin Love | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jae Crowder
Washington Wizards projected lineup
PG - John Wall | SG - Bradley Beal | C - Marcin Gortat | SF - Otto Porter | PF - Kelly Oubre Jr.
James punished the Wizards last season, averaging 27.7 points, 10.0 assists and 9.3 rebounds in three games, shooting 9 of 16 from 3-point range and 54.4 percent overall. The Cavaliers superstar has played 44 games against the Wizards, averaging 26.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists.
Love had two double-doubles versus Washington last season, including a 39-point, 12-rebound effort. He's averaged 18.0 points and 10.2 rebounds in 19 lifetime games against the Wizards while posting 11 double-doubles.
Beal is a career 41.2 percent 3-point shooter against Cleveland and had a 41-point outburst last season. He's scored 26 or more points four times in 13 career games versus the Cavs.
Slowing down Wall has proven problematic as well for Cleveland as he's averaged 25.7 points on 54.5 percent shooting and 9.8 assists in the last seven matchups. The speedy guard has also hit 11 of 22 from long range in that span.
There is no betting line for this game due to the questionable status of Porter for the Wizards and who will replace Thompson in the lineup for the Cavaliers, but note that Cleveland have failed to cover in their last six games. Regardless of the spread, the better play is likely the over whenever it is established. Washington have played five games with at least 213 combined points, and have gotten to 226 and higher in all three home games. The Cavaliers have been involved in seven straight games of 207 or more points and have ranged from 213 to 224 points in their three road contests.
Wade's comments imply there isn't a sense of desperation with the Cavaliers just yet, which is not surprising given the veterans they have on their team and their status as three-time defending conference champions. Still, this is not a matchup that plays well for Cleveland given how Wall and Beal not only attack the basket but also how well they can shoot from the perimeter.
How Porter comes back after missing a game will be crucial, more so since he will match up against James on the defensive end. The Wizards want to be considered among the teams who can take down the Cavaliers, and look for them to express themselves here with a 119-111 win.
This game will be televised nationally by ESPN. Tip-off time is 7 pm ET.
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