In what is a testament to the grueling nature of an 82-game season, the Cleveland Cavaliers seemingly have plateaued following a roaring start that made the rest of the league take notice.
The grind appears to have caught up to the Cavaliers, who will continue their three-game road trip with a game against the Houston Rockets on Thursday.
With a 105-103 road loss to the New York Knicks on Tuesday, the Cavaliers dropped to 6-6 in January. The offseason addition of three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell to an ascendant roster paid immediate dividends for the Cavaliers, whose blend of frontcourt size and backcourt dynamism yielded instant success over the opening two-plus months of the regular season.
This month, Cleveland is 15th in offensive rating (115.9), and its 2.1 net rating in January is 11th overall. Even the Cavaliers' defensive rating (113.8 this month) has slumped.
"We just have to do a better job of sustaining what's working," Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "I think we've gotten away from that."
Returning to form will require an intentional focus on both ends of the court. Optimal health would also help as Cleveland has dealt with its share of nagging injuries undermining progress.
Mitchell returned from a three-game injury hiatus to face the Knicks, and he missed 15 of 24 shots en route to posting 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Issues with the left groin strain that sidelined him flared up late Tuesday, with Mitchell experiencing cramps in both legs in addition to groin tightness while tumbling to the court on the Cavaliers' final offensive possession.
Mitchell declared himself "all right" afterward, and he is listed as questionable for Thursday. Given how Cleveland has leveled off this month, his return to form is paramount to the Cavaliers regaining the stride that yielded such promise.
Meanwhile, the Rockets, who feature one of the youngest rosters in the league with 10 players 22 years old or younger, would seem by design inclined to push the pace and score in transition. And in the first half of their 108-103 home loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Rockets produced eight fastbreak points en route to building a commanding 19-point lead.
But the Rockets rank 28th in fastbreak points at 11.2 per game and 16th in pace with 100.08 possessions per 48 minutes. In the second half against the Wizards, the offense bogged down and Houston scored only four points in transition while shooting 38.5 percent.
For such a high-turnover team, running for the sake of running comes with additional risks. Still, given the Rockets' ample youth and the abundance of athletic players in their rotation, running more frequently would seem to present an avenue for Houston to generate easier offense, a necessity for a team ranked next to last in the NBA in offensive rating (109.1).
"I want us to run more," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. "I want us to be a better transition offensive team. There are times when we'll get out in transition ... and we just won't make a play. I want us to play a little bit faster."
--Field Level Media