Cleveland Cavaliers’ bad habits proving tough to break against Boston Celtics

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Perhaps we should have seen this coming with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe not yet. At least, not until the NBA Finals against one of the two elite teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the league. But eventually it was bound to happen, right?Bad habits are hard to break. Last year’s Finals should’ve shown that.During a chaotic season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a flashy offensive-minded group, built to overwhelm teams with spacing, 3-point shooting and efficiency. The construction of that identity started in training camp, a time when head coach Tyronn Lue shifted Kevin Love to center and put hustling, energetic Tristan Thompson on the bench.So explosive most nights, their consistency on offense allowed them to overcome and enter the playoffs with a refreshed attitude despite pitiful defensive habits and an overall lack of toughness and purpose at that end of the floor.They were a team that relied on LeBron James, possibly even a little too much, to take his game to a different level, reaching Playoff LeBron earlier than usual to save the season that looked to be slipping away a few different times. With Kyrie Irving in Boston and Cleveland lacking other drivers and penetrators, the Cavs demanded an unhealthy amount of shot creation from James, whose usage rating skyrocketed.They were a team with mental lapses and a maddening neglect for attention to detail that led to nonstop eye-rolling, finger-pointer and palm-raising.The third quarter was Cleveland’s nemesis, often lamenting a lack of effort to start the second half and never being able to find a solution no matter how many adjustments they made or how many timeouts Lue called to try to stop the avalanche.They were a team that tinkered with rotations and lineup combinations, a strategy spurred on by owner Dan Gilbert’s text to Lue, giving him the green light to fail in the short term for the betterment of the team this time of year. The thinking was simple: Getting answers about things that don’t work is still getting answers.Trying to figure out who the Cavaliers were — while they were incorporating new personnel and navigating what James called three or four different seasons in one — seemed difficult.But was it really? Maybe, just maybe, the answer was there all along.Just take a gander at the first two games against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — specifically Tuesday night’s loss, which puts the Cavaliers into a 2-0 hole against their toughest Eastern Conference matchup during the LeBron era.Cleveland got off to a blistering start, scoring 55 points on 21-of-41 (51.2 percent) from the field and 7-of-14 (50 percent) from 3-point range. Those shots falling, the Cavaliers were brimming with confidence. They were playing with joy and energy, an extra pep that allowed them to meet Boston’s intensity.They were (gasp) even covering for one another on the defensive end and making multiple efforts, holding Boston to 48 points on 19-of-44 (43.1 percent) from the field and 5-of-14 (35.7 percent) from 3-point range.But in the second half, the Cavaliers crumbled, all that hard work undone by those bad habits — a reminder of the sins that had many questioning this group’s ability to win a championship.They were outscored by 14 points during another forgettable third quarter that flipped a Cavs seven-point lead to that same deficit going into the fourth quarter.”We gave ourselves a pretty good chance with 36 minutes,” James said. “That 12 minutes in the third quarter, that killed us.”In the third period, the offense wilted and looked uncomfortable in the face of Boston’s constant pressure, scoring just 22 points on 9-of-22 (40.9 percent) from the field and 3-of-10 (30 percent) from beyond the arc. That added up to an offensive rating of just 91.Cleveland’s defense eroded too.”I thought defensively we were horrible,” Thompson said. “We were terrible defensively. We were s— defensively. Of course LeBron is going to put up those numbers and what not, but if we don’t get stops on the defensive end, they’re going to make open 3s and they’re going to have rhythm and their guys are going to feel good. If you don’t play no defense, especially in the conference finals, you’re not going to win a ball game.”The Cavs gave up 36 points on 14-of-25 (56 percent) from the field and 5-of-10 (50 percent) from 3-point range.The rotations were nonexistent and the closeouts weren’t remotely energetic enough on this particular stage. When those horrid 12 minutes were over and the Cavs finished that third period with a futile 157 defensive rating, the Cavs’ championship mettle was about to get tested again.