NEW ORLEANS — On the night their star returned to the lineup, on the night Kyrie Irving was supposed to make everything better, the same old problems resurfaced for the Cavaliers.
They couldn’t defend the pick-and-roll, they left shooters open around the perimeter, they showed little effort in a dismal third quarter and were ultimately smashed by the young and struggling New Orleans Hornets 112-92 for their eighth consecutive loss.
“What we showed out there tonight was regression,” Shaun Livingston said. “When we decide to set ourselves as a defensive first team … we work on it all the time, but it’s a combination of a lack of communication and inexperience. Those are vital instruments.”
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Irving had 31 points and six assists and showed little rust offensively, but defense has never been his strength, nor anyone else’s on this Cavs team.
Coach Byron Scott placed most of the blame Sunday on the Cavs’ bigs for not “showing” hard enough and rerouting the Hornets’ guards — particularly Greivis Vasquez, who was playing in his first game back from an ankle injury.
Vasquez tortured the Cavs for 25 points and nine assists, including 16 points and three assists in the third quarter when he made all six of his shots.
“I didn’t do a great job of getting up and changing direction of the ball,” Tyler Zeller said. “Part of it — most of it — is probably on the bigs tonight.”
The Cavs carried a 49-48 lead into the half, but the Hornets scored 15 consecutive points in less than three minutes on an array of 3-pointers, lobs and transition dunks.
“It was bad coverages and no communication,” Livingston said. “They got whatever they wanted on the pick-and-roll.”
Irving was a surprise addition to the lineup about 90 minutes before the game. He has been campaigning Scott to play for about a week, Scott said, and he participated in his first full practice Saturday. The decision was made during Sunday’s breakfast meeting that Irving would play, but the team will be cautious with him over the final 10 games.
He won’t play tonight when the Cavs finish this back-to-back at Atlanta. The team hasn’t officially declared Irving out on the second night of back-to-backs the rest of the way (there are only two more sets the rest of the season), but it seems unlikely Irving will reach the 36 minutes he typically played prior to the shoulder injury. He played 28 minutes Sunday and looked tired throughout the second half.
Irving missed eight games over three weeks. The Cavs went 1-7 without him.
Scott was hopeful his return would provide a lift for a team desperately seeking some positive energy, and Irving was brilliant offensively in the second quarter with 15 points, but any momentum he provided died in the locker room at the half.
“I think we started off the game with a little bit more energy than I’ve seen the team play with the last couple games,” Irving said. “But we came out after halftime and that’s our Achilles heel. They scored 36 points and that was the game.”
It doesn’t get any easier. After the Cavs face a Hawks team trying to stave off the Chicago Bulls for the fifth seed in the East, they’ll get two more playoff teams in the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics.
As the contenders line up to take their shots at a weary Cavs team, the questions far outweigh the answers as to why the Cavs can’t make any progress defensively.
“It has been an ongoing problem,” Irving said. “Obviously we’re just trying to finish it out on a high level. We know what we need to improve on.”