Struggling Cavs searching for answers when visiting Magic
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There are many factors to explain why the Cleveland Cavaliers are so inconsistent.
Injuries. Effort. Dysfunction.
Or you can go with uneven performances against one of the league's worst teams in the Orlando Magic.
After an ugly nationally televised blowout loss at home to the Houston Rockets, the Cavaliers attempt to get rolling again Tuesday when they visit the Orlando Magic.
Cleveland (30-21) boasts the third-best record in the East by mere percentage points over the Washington Wizards, who are on a five-game winning streak. The Cavaliers started with seven losses in their first 12 games and then ripped off 18 wins in 19 games.
Starting with a 119-116 loss at Milwaukee, the Cavaliers are 7-13 in their last 20 games. Two of the seven victories were close games over Orlando on Jan. 6 and Jan. 18.
Even those wins illustrated some of the issues. The Cavs led by 23 before squeezing out a 104-103 home win over Orlando, and 12 days earlier Cleveland also held a 23-point lead but gave up a 40-point fourth quarter in a 131-127 win.
At least the Cavs won those games.
They conclude the season series and seek a 20th win in the last 21 meetings with three days to stew over a 120-88 loss to the Houston Rockets.
And those inconsistencies added up to talk about the team's worst nightmare, missing the playoffs and seeing LeBron James leave for a second time in free agency.
"I don't think we'll be knocked out of the playoffs, no," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue told reporters at practice Monday in Orlando.
"I don't think anybody's here not to make the playoffs," said James, whose team holds a 4 1/2-game lead over eighth-place Detroit.
Those comments were made after the team posted its fourth loss by at least 24 points since Jan. 1 and ninth defeat by double-digits in this stretch.
James was held to 11 points Saturday, marking his eighth straight game with less than 30 points. In his last three games, James is shooting 39.2 percent (20 of 51) and since getting four 3-pointers at Orlando last month, he is shooting 20 percent (10 of 50) from 3-point range.
Isaiah Thomas scored 12 points Saturday and is averaging 15.2 in 13 games since making his debut in last month's visit to Orlando and was among those questioning the team's effort.
"I don't know the last time we got on the floor for a loose ball," he told reporters. "I know that teams I've been on, defense is determined on deflections, steals, loose balls, who's the hardest working team on that end. We don't have that right now."
Orlando's 114-93 win at Cleveland way back on Oct. 21 was part of its 8-4 start. Since the quick start, the Magic (16-36) are 8-32 in the last 40 games.
The Magic also are 4-5 in their last nine games since a seven-game losing streak Dec. 30-Jan. 12 with wins over Minnesota and Boston along with close losses to Cleveland, Indiana, and Houston.
Orlando rebounded from Saturday's 115-98 loss to Washington by holding on for a 114-109 win at Miami on Monday night.
Aaron Gordon missed the game with a strained hip flexor and will not play Wednesday. The injury is so troublesome that it caused him to withdraw from the dunk contest.
"I was hoping to be healthy enough but there's no real reason to push it," Gordon told reporters. "I'm actually more focused on getting more wins for Orlando. We don't have a lot of wins. That's my main concern."
Gordon will miss his fifth straight game and second against the Cavaliers. He missed the first meeting with a calf injury and Orlando is 3-10 when Gordon sits.
Without Gordon, Mario Hezonja scored 20 points and hit four 3-pointers. In his last four games, Hezonja is averaging 16.5 points while shooting 51.8 percent from 3-point range.
Jonathon Simmons added 16, including the tiebreaking dunk down the stretch after Orlando blew a 14-point lead.
"I think we've gotten a lot better over the last few games," Simmons said in his courtside television interview after Monday's game. "I think we just continue to grow and we'll be all right."
Updated February 5, 2018