JB Bickerstaff chastises Cavaliers for playing ‘arrogant basketball,’ starting to develop bad habits

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Cleveland Cavaliers are developing a bad habit. A few of them actually.

Coach JB Bickerstaff and the players alluded to that following a second consecutive perplexing loss. This time against the middling Sacramento Kings, who last made the playoffs when George W. Bush was president and entered Wednesday’s game with just three wins. Bickerstaff didn’t mince words after. As he has reiterated countless times, it’s about playing to a certain standard. The Cavs didn’t. again.

He wants those bad habits corrected — quickly — before they threaten to impede the headway gained in the first few weeks.

“We didn’t come out and play the game purposefully,” Bickerstaff explained following the 127-120 loss. “We’ve gotten to this habit — and it’s my responsibility to be better — of allowing people to just play freely to start games and then think that we’re going to turn it on in the second half. That’s arrogant basketball. You can’t survive in the NBA playing that way.”

On Wednesday night, despite playing against a lesser opponent coming off a lengthy road trip, the Cavs dug a 10-3 hole and never led in the first half. They gave up 34 points in the first quarter and then 35 in the second. It was the third consecutive game allowing an opposing team to pour in 60 points or more in the first half — a nasty trend that has forced Cleveland to repeatedly play catch-up.

“If we want to be a good basketball team, we need to remember who we are and we need to play Cavaliers basketball,” Bickerstaff said. “Not hero ball, not my turn, not selfish defensively, not not executing game plans. If we don’t do those things, we’ll have nights like this. We were a disappointing basketball team tonight. There’s no other way around it. We all need to be held accountable for it.”

The Cavs — the league’s No. 2 overall defense that’s being buoyed by a couple dominant performances and gutty second-half turnarounds — are 19th in defensive rating in first quarters and 16th in the second.

They’ve gotten away with these lackadaisical defensive starts at times this season, typically responding well to Bickerstaff’s fiery halftime speeches and shrewd adjustments. Over the weekend against the ill-fitting and hapless Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs flipped the proverbial switch. But when they attempted to do the same versus the Clippers and Kings, the light didn’t come on.

Cleveland finished with a paltry 129.6 defensive rating Wednesday night — by far its worst of the season. The only other one that approaches that level of stink? two nights earlier in LA

“It’s been a conversation for the last week, week and a half, about our slow starts defensively, and always fighting our way back into games,” Caris LeVert said. “We just got to go out and do it at this point. We’ve just got to come out and show that we learned from the last game.”

The Cavs had every reason to start fast. They were coming off a wretched collapse against the Clippers that snapped their eight-game winning streak. Those late-game issues, combined with that they believed was an unfavorable whistle, had the team miffed upon leaving Los Angeles. They were eager to arrive in Sacramento, with a golden opportunity to quickly erase any of those bad feelings.

And yet, there was still an inexplicable lack of urgency.

“You saw it in the third,” Donovan Mitchell said after scoring a game-high 38 points. “We have done it on many occasions. Disappointing that we didn’t start off that way as a collective group. We can’t start off that way. Teams are too talented. We can’t come out and expect to just turn it on. That’s not how you want to respond after losing a game. Really on us to make that effort as a group. Has nothing to do with offense. It’s really just our defense.”

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According to Bickerstaff, Wednesday’s defensive issues were numerous.

Point-of-attack defenders couldn’t keep ballhanders in front, allowing too much dribble penetration, which led to constant scrambling and a plethora of pressure on the two defensive anchors — Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Defenders failed to recognize trends and execute the game plan properly, giving Kings players chances to get to their sweet spots. There were missed assignments and a troubling lack of communication, especially on attempted switches. Sacramento scored inside and outside. In the halfcourt and transition. At the foul line too (35 attempts). The Kings shot 52.6% from the field and made 17 3s.

“We were playing their game all night,” LeVert said.

It’s 11 games into the season — and growing pains were expected, especially with a new-look starting lineup that’s thrust guys into different positions and roles than they’re accustomed to. However, it’s fair to wonder how much of this slow-start tendency is tied to an unconventional fivesome that has both intriguing qualities and concerning warts — an undersized backcourt that’s not known for its defensive exploits.

Of all NBA quintets that have logged at least 30 minutes together this season, the Cavs’ starters — Darius Garland, Mitchell, LeVert, Mobley and Allen — are currently 10th-worst in terms of net rating, being outscored by 15.4 points per 100 possessions. The defensive rating for that group is 117.8, which is the equivalent of the last-ranked Detroit Pistons.

The other bad habit is a growing belief that this suddenly explosive offense can save the team on nights the defense is leaky. It almost did Monday and then again Wednesday, thanks in large part to Mitchell’s 38-point eruption that included a 17-point, perfect-shooting third quarter. Mitchell’s heroics helped the Cavs cut a one-time 15-point deficit to four heading into the final quarter.

Cleveland has plenty of offensive firepower. Mitchell and Garland form one of the league’s highest-scoring duos. Six players are averaging double figures. Mobley, Allen, Mitchell and Dean Wade are all shooting better than 50% from the field. Four players — Wade, Mitchell, Love and LeVert — have been 40-plus percent long-range bombers this season. The Cavs rank third in offensive rating, trailing just the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics and surprising Utah Jazz.

But that’s not supposed to be their backbone.

“We pride ourselves on defense and that’s what we’ve been even before I got here,” Mitchell said. “For us to be who we are, we have to be really solid defensively and we weren’t the past two games. We’ve relied heavily on the offense, hoping that the offense carries us. That’s not what we do. We have to go out there every night and be able to lock in on that end and not lose sight of what has been getting us to what we have been doing early this season.”

Mitchell is typically an even-keeled beacon of positivity. He understands the ebbs and flows of an 82-game season.

Following the loss to the Clippers on Monday, he talked about not panicking or overreacting. While there’s no reason for that in November, it doesn’t mean ignore the problems starting to arise.

“We have to understand two things. First, we aren’t who we want to be yet. Need to continue to build and get there, which is what we’ve all been saying. Then two, the more success you have the more people are going to come after you every single night and every single trip,” Mitchell said. “It’s great to win seven or eight in a row, but we haven’t accomplished anything. It’s still November. We have a long way to go as a group. Nights like the past two games remind us of that.

“Through wins and losses, it’s early and I’m glad we’re going through this now and not in a few months. We will respond. I’m always going to say it’s early but this one was one where it can’t happen again. I think as a group we know that and feel that. We will be better.”

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