With the clock inside of six minutes left in the first half, the Nuggets ran a pick-and-roll in which Cavs 6-3 guard Deron Williams switched onto screener Mason Plumlee, who is 6-11.
Denver naturally fed the ball into Plumlee, who backed Williams down all the way to the basket, but missed.
As was the case all night in the Nuggets’ 126-113 win over Cleveland, the Cavs’ defense had broken down by this point, so no one was really guarding the 6-9 Juancho Hernangomez when he rebounded Plumlee’s miss and dunked.
But on both plays — the Plumlee backdown and the Hernangomez finish — LeBron James stood on the left block, keep an eye on his man in the corner and watching the Nuggets head to the rim. Not once did he move to help.
“It ain’t about a group, it’s about individuals,” James said. “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness, you’ve got to have it.”
What James was saying in the above quote — because he’s made the same point before — is Cleveland’s issue on defense was not about helping teammates or communicating. It was about failing to take the one-on-one challenge.
Twice in the second half James bodied up Denver’s big men. Nikola Jokic backed into James and scored, but James met the challenge. He also held his ground against Plumlee, forcing him to give the ball up out of the post.
“I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said. “Um, one thing about it, I always bring toughness to the game, I know that. That’s for sure.”
Coach Tyronn Lue pointed to a play with 3:10 in the third quarter, when Jameer Nelson knocked Kyrie Irving over while Irving was trying to dribble up the court.
Nelson was called for a common foul and Lue was incensed, and was slapped with a technical for arguing all the way down the court. In that particular moment, Lue said he was furious because Nelson should’ve been at least considered for a flagrant, but there was something else that stood out to him.
“A team’s up 40 points and they’re just playing physical and hard,” Lue said. “We’re down 40 and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever.”
“When you get beat like this, I mean, (Denver is) a good team they played hard, they run a lot of good stuff,” Lue said. “But they’re still a team that’s fighting for the eighth spot. We’re the No. 1 team in the East. We gotta play better and we understand that. We got our butts kicked today, and it starts today. We gotta be better.”
But what was clear is Lue (and James) believe the problem on defense was the players not really wanting to play it.
“Coaches we gotta be better, but players they gotta be better too,” Lue said. “They gotta be tougher. Gotta be more urgency, and it comes from all of us. They got 3-point shots, they got points in the paint, they got offensive rebounds. They got whatever they wanted. And we gotta be better than that.
“It starts with the coaches but the players gotta look at themselves in the mirror too. They gotta be more physical, they gotta bring a physical presence and they’ve got to take pride in guarding their man.”
Shootaround (March 23) — LeBron James says Cleveland Cavaliers lacking toughness – NBA.com