Playoff-bound Cavs greeted by chorus of boos after embarrassing loss to Hornets

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CLEVELAND — There are nights in the NBA when the boos pouring down from the home crowd feel directed at the players on the court, but the catcalls emanating from the Cleveland Cavaliers faithful Sunday afternoon seemed to be directed elsewhere.

Cavs fans recognize an organizational failure when they see one, which is what they were reacting to in the final moments of a 120-110 loss to the lottery-bound Charlotte Hornets, on a day when all the Cavs had to do was win to avoid the Boston Celtics’ side of the bracket in the NBA playoffs.

The Hornets dressed nine players. Their leading scorer was Nick Smith Jr., who at least played 50 games for Charlotte — more than most people in a Hornets uniform on Sunday could say. Steve Clifford was probably coaching the last game of his strong NBA career, but before the game, he didn’t want to reflect because of the task at hand of trying to manage a 48-minute game with mostly end-of-benchers and G League-type players.

“Games like this are tricky,” he said. “It’s hard for us to score without all these guys playing. I just don’t want to have a really bad, bad day, you know?”

Does this sound like the coach of a team that should be winning a game Sunday? Of course not.

But the Hornets won anyway, despite trailing by 13 early in the fourth quarter, because of a few organizational decisions the Cavs made to sit out certain players and to make sure a few others got to play in the regular-season finale. They also had a stroke of bad luck in the first quarter, when the only ballhandler in uniform, Craig Porter Jr., landed awkwardly and sprained his left ankle. He couldn’t put any weight on his foot as he was helped to the locker room.

So, with that 13-point lead early in the fourth, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff had three G League players (Isaiah Mobley, Emoni Bates, Pete Nance) on the court with seldom-used reserve center Damian Jones and Isaac Okoro.

Porter never returned to the game, and leading into Sunday the Cavs chose to sit out their top three guards — Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, and Caris LeVert — which left the Cavs’ coaching staff in a predicament of perhaps having to leave either Okoro, Max Strus or perhaps even Georges Niang (who isn’t a guard) to at least pretend to keep the offense running.

Instead, with 6:39 left and the Cavs up six, Bickerstaff inserted Tristan Thompson into the lineup for Strus. Niang, Okoro, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen all remained out of the game. Cleveland was outscored 18-2 the rest of the way.

“It was difficult (to watch), but we had our plan in place with what we were gonna do with our guys,” Bickerstaff said afterward. “(Our starters) were gonna play those three quarters, and then Craig not being out there made it a little difficult to organize and score in the fourth quarter, but we wanted to stick to our plan, and no matter what was going to happen, we were going to give our guys an opportunity to play.”

So what transpired Sunday, minus Porter’s injury, was part of an organizational plan in Cleveland that of course went beyond Bickerstaff. He was the one managing the minutes in the end, the one who chose to leave the Cavs — engaged in a tight, meaningful game — completely exposed for the game’s final five minutes.

But as an organization, before the ball went up Sunday, the Cavs had a chance to move up to third, or even second, in the East. The Cavs chose to hold out Mitchell, who has been bothered by a nagging sore knee, and Garland and LeVert, who have also been managing minor injuries. The organization did not place a premium on winning this game, on getting as high in the East standings as possible and on making sure they steered clear of the Celtics — easily the NBA’s best team in terms of record all year — until the conference finals.

“It’s not rest; those guys have things that they’re dealing with,” Bickerstaff said before the game in explaining the absences of Mitchell, Garland and LeVert. “That was the thinking going into it: If we could give them yesterday and today, and get throughout this week, hopefully by Saturday or Sunday, whenever we play, like that’s an advantage for us.”

The Cavs, who will have home-court advantage against No. 5 Orlando in a first-round series, entered play Sunday with a lock on a top-four seed. Early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, both the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks were losing, while the Cavs were up double digits. Bickerstaff said assistant coaches would be monitoring scores to impact lineup decisions, and while after the game he would say trying to do that in real time was hectic, the coaching staff had to know the Bucks and Knicks were struggling.

“We were aware … some of that stuff was going on, but once we sat our guys at the end of the third quarter, and they had the mindset that they weren’t going to go back in, I didn’t want to take any risks in putting them back in the game when they already cooled down, and then something else happens,” Bickerstaff said.

Had those two results held — Milwaukee losing to Orlando and the Knicks losing to Chicago — a Cavs win would have put them in second. The No. 2 seed must play the winner of a Play-In game between the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers (winners of nine straight, with Joel Embiid back) or the Miami Heat, a perennially tough playoff opponent.

Perhaps the prospects of a first-round series against either of those sleeping giants was unappealing to Cleveland, which was knocked out of the first round last year and is desperate to win a playoff series without LeBron James for the first time since the 1990s.

If you want to grant the Cavs that strategy, OK, but the booing crowd Sunday wasn’t feeling it. Neither were at least a few of the players, including Strus, who finished with his first career triple-double (14 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds).

“I wanted to win,” Strus said. “I don’t really know what else to say about it, kind of mad we didn’t, but I’m glad some of the younger guys got a chance to play a little bit more.”

The Knicks came back to win, anyway, which changes the opportunity the Cavs let slide.

If the organization had approached the fourth quarter with even a modicum of sincerity, the Knicks’ overtime win over the Bulls, coupled with the beatdown the Bucks accepted from Orlando, would have meant Cleveland finishes third so long as it disposed of Charlotte.

A No. 3 seed would have meant a first-round matchup with Indiana, and a potential second-round matchup against a team other than Boston.

If you’re trying to game the playoff bracket, pushing off a potential matchup with the Celtics for two rounds, giving the Celtics two full series to suffer an unfortunate injury or two, or even an upset, is the play that maximizes your chances for the deepest playoff run. Finishing as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed is the way to do that.

Now, should the Cavs are to beat Orlando in the first round, the Celtics (so long as they win their first-round matchup) will likely be waiting for them in the second round.

This is why the boos seem to have a bigger target than the lineup Cleveland used to finish Sunday’s game, or even at the coach who chose to manage his available players like so.

They may have been directed at a franchise that was just 12-17 after the All-Star break, won three fewer games this season than last and otherwise made multiple decisions to led to a lying down against an opponent that, organizationally, clearly wasn’t planning on winning Sunday either.

Next weekend, when the playoffs start, the Cavs will have the chance to begin showing those same booing fans that they — the organization — know what they’re doing.

(Top photo of Emoni Bates, Amari Bailey and Jarrett Allen: David Richard / USA Today)

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