Cavaliers are running out of time and excuses after lifeless loss to Phoenix Suns

The Cleveland Cavaliers have overcome plenty of adversity this season, but they seem to have forgotten what they are fighting for in the final stretch.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Phoenix Suns
Cleveland Cavaliers v Phoenix Suns / Chris Coduto/GettyImages

The Cleveland Cavaliers allowed another crucial win slip past them as they fell 101-122 against the Phoenix Suns.

In the opening minutes, the Cavaliers showed life. They looked ready to compete and give Phoenix a run for their money. Despite Donovan Mitchell's lingering and questionable health and the absence of Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade, Cleveland came out on the second night of another back-to-back with energy. That energy quickly vanished after a stretch in the second half of the first quarter in which the Cavaliers seemingly gave away the ball on command and missed every opportunity at the basket.

Injuries have plagued the Cavs all season, and it has not gotten easier. Against the Suns, though, that excuse is worthless. The Suns have had their big three of Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker available only for 35 games in their first season together. Once the Suns stole momentum, the Cavaliers dug their own grave. From another night of a stale offensive attack and frustrating rotation choices from coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the Cavs are looking hauntingly similar to last year's postseason disappointment.

Throughout the season, Cleveland may be the most perplexing playoff rival in the Eastern Conference. After a 13-12 season start, the Cavs went on a historic run without two of their best players to claim the second seed in the East. After the All-Star break, they sit among the lower third of NBA teams in both offensive and defensive rating. For a team with two All-Defense talents in the frontcourt, their inefficiencies are unacceptable.

Cavaliers get an F for Effort

Against the Suns, Cleveland gave up 14 second-chance points off eight offensive rebounds. If the Cavs have no intentions of crashing the boards and fighting, there is no reason to show up to the game. The Cavaliers' lackluster rebounding has been their fatal flaw for years and is the one area of needed improvement that has gone entirely ignored.

If any single aspect of the game will lead to a repeat in the postseason, it is Cleveland's response to a missed shot from the rival. The blame is not only on the big men, either. Guards and wings must be held accountable for chasing a long rebound off a three-point shot. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley must do a better job boxing out on the post, but rebounding is not a single solution. The entire team needs to care about rebounding, and right now that is not the case.

Additionally, the Cavs allowed the Suns to hit 18-of-33 three-point attempts, good for 54.5 percent from deep. Cleveland was facing three of the best scorers in the Association, and some nights teams just get hot from the arc, but a clip that high is an indication or poor defense - not bad luck. Admittedly, some Cavaliers showed signs of life when guarding the perimeter. Max Strus had the most energy of any Cavalier in the loss, chasing every shooter around screens and running to rebounds. Darius Garland, despite his physical limitations, held his own in contesting shots. Overall, though, the Cavaliers were too slow on close outs and were punished.

Cleveland teased a second-half comeback, trimming the 25-point halftime lead down to 13 early in the third quarter, but their non-existent defense and frantic passing paved the way for the Suns to regain all the momentum. The Cavaliers' inconsistent energy fluctuated the entire game from possession to possession. They were on the latter half of another back-to-back, but other teams have to deal with that, too, and do not allow themselves to be embarrassed so horribly for the second time in three games.

Back-to-back games in general are a failure of the NBA. The Association must do a better job eliminating the absurd number of back-to-backs teams play in a short amount of time. Until that is changed, however, the Cavs must change their mentality to be prepared for it.

Cleveland's rotation woes

Coaching in the NBA is not an easy job. Too often, coaches are cast aside and treated as a scapegoat for a bad playoff series or rough period. The Cavaliers stood by J.B. Bickerstaff after the playoffs last year. While he still faced earned criticism, he had another shot with Cleveland. This season, Bickerstaff has been the leader the team needed, reshaping the offense to skyrocket the Cavs.

Still, Bickerstaff is not perfect. From an outside perspective, his worst trait is stubborn lineup choices. Cleveland's sixth man Caris LeVert can often will the Cavs back into the game with his dynamic scoring and decision making. Against Phoenix, though, LeVert's best qualities turn into his worst nightmare. LeVert ended the game with five turnovers and a dismal -20 plus/minus. One night after draining six triples in Utah, Sam Merrill only saw the court for five minutes, two of which were in garbage time. The Cavs needed a scoring boost, but Bickerstaff showed no interest in taking a risk.

Again, Bickerstaff is proving every season that he is a wildly intelligent coach. There is a reason he is in the discussions for Coach of the Year so often. That has not changed the fact that he is imperfect, especially with his rotations. There might have been extenuating circumstances that kept Merrill out of the action, but J.B. still seemed lost when searching for an answer against the Suns. Injuries to Okoro and Wade alongside Craig Porter, Jr.'s illness hurt the Cavs' options, but it was not enough to warrant such a horrendous display.

The sun in Cleveland, Ohio may rarely peak through the clouds in April, but it is not all doom and gloom. The Cavs' loss to the Suns is pitiful and should be acknowledged as such, but there are silver linings for the final five matches.

Evan Mobley gives the Cavaliers hope

Losses happen, and bad losses stick around for a while. The Cavs' recent slide has covered up one of the best developing storylines on the team. Since returning from a second injury, third-year star Evan Mobley has shown no fear at any moment. In his last eight games, Mobley has averaged 18 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 blocks while shooting 57.1 percent on two three-point attempts per game. He has done this in 29 minutes per game.

Mobley has not broken out onto the scene as an unstoppable force, getting to rim at will and blowing past defenders. He has, though, embraced the physicality of the NBA wholeheartedly. Mobley is unafraid in driving to the hoop and putting his shoulder down into his defender. His postgame has noticeably improved with a reliable baby hook and swift touch around the rim. Mobley's forceful attitude and confident three-point shooting is truly special to witness.

If the Cavaliers hope to reach their ultimate goal of bringing another championship to the best city in sports, Mobley will have to be a catalyst in their efforts. He has all the makings of an NBA superstar, and he is quickly putting it together after losing most of his third season to injuries. With the top rising stars in the league being seven-foot phenoms, Cleveland will need to keep developing Mobley in order to have an answer for Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren.

Evan Mobley has been compared to various NBA legends since joining the league, but he has instead begun creating his own mold of greatness. Adding a dependable three-point shot, especially from the right corner, is going to open up Mobley for a long and successful career with his physical post moves and stifling defensive abilities.

In total, the Cavaliers allowed themselves to get embarrassed again. The excuses are gone. If Cleveland does not respond in one final back-to-back series in Los Angeles, their reputation entering the playoffs will be far from positive. Still, the Cavaliers are a forceful competitor with one of the greatest young stars in the league. The Cavs must prioritize the health of their stars and role players first and foremost. If they can enter the postseason healthy and confident, the sky is the limit for the young contenders.

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