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Can the Cavaliers pull themselves out of their latest mid-season slump?

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 1/12/2018 Jeff Zillgitt
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Video by Sports Illustrated

TORONTO — No Kyle Lowry and no Serge Ibaka, and the Toronto Raptors still bludgeoned the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were listless and hadn’t played since Minnesota crushed them on Monday.

It was a statement victory — 133-99 — for the Raptors and another bad loss for the Cavaliers.

"We are in a funk," Cavs star LeBron James said of a 3-7 record since Dec. 19. "Once again, we are back to the beginning of the season. We just have to find our way to get out of it. It’s going to start with us and everybody just getting back to what we were doing when we were playing good ball. It’s so fragile."

James has used that word to describe his teams in the past.

But what does it mean in January amid eight road contests in 10 games?

Since James returned to Cleveland in 2014, the Cavs have been through rough stretches, and James acknowledged that Thursday morning.

"I mean, this is just us," James said. "This is four years since I’ve been back, and this is just us. We’ve had great months. We’ve had not-so-great months. Times where we’re not playing well. Times where we are playing well. This is just us. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at times. The potential is always there."

James is right. This isn’t a new dance. The potential is always there. The Cavs have looked vulnerable at some point — or multiple points — during a season, and it seemed unlikely they could reach the NBA Finals.

Yet by mid-April, they are ready to make a run to the Finals, which they have done in the previous three seasons.

Is this season any different?

The Cavs are 29th in defensive rating, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions — an indication that they are not primed for long-term playoff success. Yet, they were 22nd last year in defensive rating, and it didn’t hurt them until meeting Golden State in the Finals. In 2015-16 when the Cavs won the title, they were 10th in defensive rating. While it’s an offensive game, a team needs to stop an opponent at some point.

Maybe the defensive slippage is the biggest difference, but the Cavs have increased their defensive intensity, at least in the Eastern Conference playoffs, when needed.

Perhaps what’s most alarming about Thursday’s loss was the lack of effort on defense. It was easy for the Raptors, who were up 65-40 at halftime and led by as many as 35 points in the second half. It didn’t help that Cleveland played poor offensively, too.

James was angry during a second-quarter timeout, imploring his teammates to play better and with more effort.

"We all have to be held accountable for how well we play, how we play, how hard we play, and what we are going to do for another," James said.

Cavs coach Ty Lue said he wasn’t concerned but made a reference to players dropping agendas.

"We’ve got to be better. We know that," Lue said. "But until we play better defensively, and I think offensively, sharing the basketball, get everyone on the same page. If guys have agendas, we’ve got to get rid of our agendas and play the right way."

But don’t discredit Toronto’s role in Cleveland’s debacle on TNT. The Raptors are one of two teams (Golden State is the other) who are top-five in offensive and defensive rating.

They have an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, a solid starting five and a deep, young bench, giving Toronto coach Dwane Casey options. DeRozan had just two points in the first half. It was C.J. Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam causing the damage.

Usually a strong defensive team under Casey, the Raptors have more diversity in their offense this season with more three-point attempts, more free-flow offense and fewer predetermined sets on every possession. It makes the Raptors less predictable. It makes them fun. It makes them more dangerous.

But let’s circle back to a previous question. What does in mean in January? Cleveland has lost just five Eastern Conference playoff games in the past three seasons and finished off Toronto 4-2 in the 2016 conference finals and 4-0 in last season’s conference semifinals.

This game will be another blip on an 82-game season if the Cavs return to the Finals.

Even DeRozan conceded, "You are talking about the regular season and playoffs, and they are two different things."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

Related slideshow: 2017-2018 NBA season (Provided by photo services)


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