CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff hopes took another hit on Saturday.
Two nights after allowing the Toronto Raptors to close the gap on them in the playoff race, the Cavs lost to the fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls, 98-94.
Struggling Chicago, losers of five of its previous six, entered the night with a slim one-game lead over Cleveland. It was an opportunity for the Cavs to make up some needed ground, stay in the top six — one of the guaranteed playoff positions — and even the season series. Instead, the Cavs have tumbled out of the Eastern Conference’s top six and down to seventh — one of the four undesirable play-in tournament slots.
They can blame their horrific start on the offensive end.
By the conclusion of the first half, the chilly Cavs had just 35 points, matching their lowest total in a half this season. They trailed by 18 points at the break.
“There wasn’t the aggressiveness that was needed,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “We allowed them to keep pushing, pushing, pushing and at no point in that first half did we stand our ground and say enough is enough and push back.”
Cleveland started fighting in the second half. Prior to the third quarter, in-arena announcer Ahmaad Crump implored fans to forget about the first half. The home team had 24 minutes to erase those negative vibes — and avoid a third straight loss. They almost did.
Around the 10-minute mark, the Cavs cut the lead to single digits. It was a two-possession game with 8:39 remaining. Then the Chicago lead, which increased to as much as 19 at one point in the second half, was only three with around five minutes to go, as the sellout crowd came alive. All the Cavs needed to do was finish strong.
They couldn’t finish — the story of their season.
Once climbing as high as No. 2 in the East, thanks to a stunning start, this second-half slide has caused them to plummet five positions and into a spot they wanted to avoid.
Insults. Defensive regression. Not enough offensive firepower. Lengthy in-game — and in-season — lapses. It’s all played apart.
“They’re all teaching moments for us. We have to be realistic through the frustrations and the disappointment,” Bickerstaff said. “From half to half, we learned. But in that first half we put ourself in such a hole that we had to be perfect down the stretch. We made the adjustment and that’s learning for us. That’s what we just have to continue to do.”
All-Star point guard Darius Garland led the way Saturday with a game-high 28 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, on 9-of-22 shooting and 1-of-7 from 3-point range. Garland had a chance to make it a one-possession game at the free-throw line in the final seconds. But Garland made just one of those three attempts and the Bulls held on.
Caris LeVert, inserted into the starting lineup with the hope of getting him comfortable ahead of the postseason, finished with 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting to go with five rebounds and three assists. LeVert scored nine of those points in the fourth quarter. Lauri Markkanen, the former Bull, had 14 points and nine rebounds before fouling out late.
The Bulls got a balanced scoring effort, with all five of their starters reaching double tricks. Zach LaVine had a team-high 25 points. DeMar DeRozan chipped in with 20. Nikola Vucevic added 16.
“You know and you’ve seen through time, most games are built through heartbreak because you understand what that feels like and then you have to figure it out and you learn from there,” Bickerstaff said. “The highs and lows of this, but reality is what reality is. We’ve got young guys that are trying to figure it out and you never figure it out until you’re in those positions. I’m proud of our guys that it wasn’t the entire game. It didn’t take ’em the whole game to figure it out. They recognized what they needed to do at the half and then they went out and did it. It was too big a hole to overcome at the end.”
Saturday’s loss isn’t only detrimental to Cleveland’s overall record. It cost them a chance for the head-to-head tiebreaker with Chicago — if it comes down to that.
The Cavs are now two games back of Chicago for fifth and a game behind Toronto for sixth.
Their margin for error has evaporated. Destiny is no longer in their hands.
Kevin Love’s 3-pointer late in the third quarter gave him 1,000 with the Cavaliers. Love and LeBron James are the only players in franchise history to reach that number.
All-Star center Jarrett Allen missed his 10th straight game because of a fractured middle finger on his left hand. Allen, who still has a wrap and splint on his finger, continues to improve and the pain has decreased to a point where he can participate in some basketball-related activities.
Wall of Honor
During halftime, the four newest inductees to the Cavaliers Wall of Honor were given their rings and honored during a special ceremony. After a touching video tribute, injured guard Collin Sexton and president of basketball operations Koby Altman handed the rings to World B. Free, Gordon Gund, Campy Russell and Lenny Wilkens.
The Cavs will continue their homestand against the Orlando Magic on Monday night. Tipoff is set for 7 pm
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