After the season, the Cavaliers may look at Saturday as the night their goal slipped away.
Collin Sexton had a hint of that before he left Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse carrying the weight of a 135-115 loss to the shorthanded Toronto Raptors.
The Cavs’ defense set franchise records for futility, allowing the most points (47) in the first quarter and in a half (87), surpassing the previous mark of 82 scored by the Miami Heat on Feb. 20, 2020.
Sexton said the Cavs didn’t come out focused because their Raptors were without their three top players — guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were sidelined with injuries and forward Pascal Siakam was rested.
“Whenever you see, ‘Oh, they’re missing these guys,’ and you come out lackadaisical, then you get popped in the mouth,” Sexton said. “Tonight was one of those nights and we can’t allow that to happen anymore.
“It was embarrassing what took place in the first half. We just pretty much just came out being soft and they just pretty much got whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.”
The standings and the postseason were already on Sexton’s mind. The Cavs (19-33) want to qualify for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament for seeds 7-10. The Raptors (21-32, 4-15 in their last 19 games) stand 11th in the East and the Cavs could have vaulted them with a victory.
Only 20 games remain as the New Orleans Pelicans visit Sunday. April is the month the Cavs must make their move. Their nine-game May schedule includes Miami (sixth in the East), Phoenix (second in the West), Portland (sixth in the West), two games with Dallas (seventh in the West) and Brooklyn (second in the East).
“We’re winding down on the season and games are becoming that much more important,” Sexton said. “The game tonight would have been one that we needed, and one that was very important for us.”
The Cavs were coming off two consecutive road victories by 20-plus points, only the second time in franchise history that had been achieved. Their defense was improving. They recorded a season-high 35 assists Thursday at Oklahoma City.
“If you look at our history, we have to do a better job of handling what we might think of as success,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “We’ve had some games where we played well and won recently and to me what we took for granted was who we have to be in order to play to win and be competitive. It was extremely disappointing to come out and play the way we played, to say the least. We didn’t give ourselves a chance.
“You get demoralized when you give up 47 points in a quarter and then follow it up with a 40-point defensive effort. We scored 54 points at half, which is enough. But our defense completely let us down tonight.”
Sexton wasn’t sure why the Cavs can’t handle success, but said the team has to improve.
“We can’t think two games is good. Let’s go on a streak where we win five or six,” Sexton said. “That’s what the good teams do, that’s what the playoff teams do.
“We can’t look at the wins … We have to look at the ones in front of us.”
At the start of the season, the Cavs talked about accountability. With that seemingly established, consistency is the buzzword.
“You do it each and every game, you can’t just do it sometimes,” Sexton said. “Every night you have to make sure your rotations are down, you’re communicating, you’re talking, everybody knows their assignment. And tonight, first half, it definitely wasn’t that.”
The Raptors made their first 12 shots and connected on 71% percent in the first half (32-45), 65% from long range. Columbus native Gary Trent Jr., acquired in a trade from Portland on March 25, poured in 25 of his career-high 44 points. He made 9-of-10 shots, and 5-of-6 from long range, in the first two quarters and 17-of-19 and 7-of-9 for the game.
During the break, Bickerstaff decided he would ask his players what was wrong and let them talk, which three-year veteran center Isaiah Hartenstein said is rare in the NBA.
“My question to them was, ‘What’s the difference? What are the answers?’ and we let them speak on it. Once you allowed them to speak on it, now they have to take words to action and they did that in the third quarter,” Bickerstaff said.
The Cavs came out and held the Raptors to 13 points, the fewest by a Cleveland opponent in any quarter this season.
Asked what the players said, Bickerstaff said, “You’ve got to play with toughness. We talked a lot about the defensive end of the floor, how we take challenges one on one, how we protect each other. But it came down to the fight and we lost the fight in the first half.”
Hartenstein said the colossal first-half failure was all on the players.
“There’s only so much coach can do getting us prepared,” Hartenstein said. “We have shootaround and we know all the stuff we have to do. But I think at some point it’s really on us to bring energy. That’s what I was trying to do.”
The Cavs are 31/2 games out of the 10th spot in the East. Their play-in hopes are not doomed yet. Bickerstaff said the playoff implications of Saturday’s matchup didn’t make the loss sting any more.
“I can’t find enough adjectives to tell you overall how disappointing it was,” he said. “With so much on the line, just as a team to want to have the spirit that we want to have and the competitiveness and the fight and the grit that we talk about all the time. Regardless of the circumstances, that’s disappointing and we have to do better and we have to be better.”
Sexton said he would point out to his teammates Sunday the dubious franchise records set against the Raptorsnames.
“Now looking back at it, it’s time for no mistakes, it’s time to really dig down and dig deep if we want to make this push for the playoffs,” Sexton said. “Every game counts and every game matters. Looking forward ‘til tomorrow, we got to make sure we’re locked in.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.