Cavaliers’ Defensive Struggles Opening Door For Celtics, Others In East

The Cleveland Cavaliers don’t look like champions as the NBA playoffs near.

The defending champs were crushed 103-74 by the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night in yet another lackluster defensive effort.

Cleveland now ranks 23rd in the league with a 108.1 defensive rating. The only team ever to finish outside the top 12 in defensive rating and win the NBA Finals in the same season is the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. And they had Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and dominated a weak era talent-wise for the league.

The Cavs also rank 19th in opponents points in the paint per game, 25th in opponents second-chance points, 26th in blocks per game and 25th in defensive rebound percentage.

All of this was evident Monday night. Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard had a field day against Cleveland’s subpar defense. But he wasn’t the only one — all 13 Spurs players eligible to play scored.

The question heading into the playoffs is this: Are these defensive issues a product of the Cavs just being bored and waiting for the regular season to end, or are there genuine reasons to be concerned?

Well, there’s enough of a sample size to say there are real issues at play — Cleveland has allowed 100-plus points in 23 of its last 25 games.

Not only do the Cavs rate poorly in so many defensive statistics, their communication and energy on the defensive end of the floor are lacking. This has been especially apparent in transition defense. Manu Ginobili should not be on the receiving end of reverse layup alley-oops at age 39.

The fact is Tristan Thompson is the only center the Cavs have at the moment. Andrew Bogut’s injury was a devastating blow. Channing Frye is a big man, but he’s a perimeter shooter and not much of a rebounder or interior defender. This is a problem against elite drive-and-score guards like Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan and John Wall.

Richard Jefferson still can be effective at times despite being 36 years old, but watching him try to guard Leonard on Monday night was pretty rough.

Cleveland doesn’t have great bench depth when everyone is healthy, and when you factor in injuries to Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith throughout the season, too much pressure is put on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

“Flipping the switch” on defense isn’t easy, especially when you don’t have the talent to do it. The Cavs have weaknesses that are being exposed over the last few weeks of the season, and teams like the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors now have a legit chance to win the East as a result.

Thumbnail photo via Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports Images