DENVER -- Following a 126-113 drubbing at the hands of the Nuggets on Wednesday, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James called out his team's toughness with just a dozen regular-season games remaining before the Cavs begin their title defense.
"It ain't about a group. It's about individuals," James said after Cleveland allowed Denver to put up 73 points in the first half, score a whopping 70 points in the paint in the game and shoot 53.1 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from 3. "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."
James was asked how his individual defensive effort stacked up on a night when he registered a plus-minus of minus-30 in 34 minutes.
"Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better," James said before firing back with a rebuttal. "Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That's for sure."
What is also a sure thing is how dire the Cavs' repeat chances will become if Cleveland continues its porous defense. The Cavs rank 22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season and 29th in March, according to ESPN Stats & Information. No NBA champion in the past 20 seasons finished the regular season ranked worse than 19th in that category (the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, another repeat champion). Last season, the Cavs finished 10th in defensive efficiency.
Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving had no interest in reflecting on where the Cavs were at this point last season -- holding a 50-20 record and dealing with the fallout of James' bizarre social media habits after he unfollowed the Cavs' team account on Twitter -- compared to where they currently stand, at 46-24 and having lost six of their past 10 games.
"There's no comparison, man," Irving said. "Last year compared to this year, you can't even [compare]. It wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't be fair because you see how we go on [comparing] the record, what's our record at this particular date, and honestly, none of that s--- matters. We're trying to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Everybody is getting back. It's been a very, very weird season for all of us. Injuries here and there. Things to figure out. New player trades and stuff like that.
"We'll figure it out. I'm not concerned, though. These guys, our culture that is built here now over the last three years has been very great and something that we can all lean on to. We just got to stay more connected and just be there for one another, and we'll be all right."
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was less optimistic. He has seen his team's defensive efficiency get worse every month this season. The Cavaliers allowed 104 points per 100 possessions in October and November (15th in the NBA), 106.2 in December (14th), 107.0 in January (14th), 109.8 in February (23rd) and 114 this month.
Cleveland's defense has been particularly reprehensible when it comes to forcing turnovers (only 9.5 per game in March, worst in the NBA), guarding the 3-point line (their 10.3 3-pointers allowed per game this season are 26th in the league) and protecting the paint (their 47.3 points given up in the key per game in March are also 26th).
"They came and just kicked our butt in every facet of the game," Lue said. "Coaches, we got to be better, but players, they got to be better too. They got to be tougher. Got to [have] 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, I mean, whatever they wanted. And we got to be better than that. It starts with the coaches, but the players got to look at themselves in the mirror too. They got to be more physical, they got to bring a physical presence, and they've got to take pride in guarding their man."
Lue's frustration in the game boiled over, as he was called for a rare technical foul late in the third quarter for getting on referee Zach Zarba for what he believed was incessant physical play by Denver's Jameer Nelson.
"A team's up 40 points and they're just playing physical and hard," Lue said of the Nuggets, whose largest lead was actually 21 points. "We're down 40, and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever. So we got to take pride in that, and we got to be better."
Cavs center Tristan Thompson took the critiques of his coach personally.
"When it comes to toughness, that's an area that I'm definitely going to look at and take very seriously," Thompson said. "Because at the end of the day, I'm the man in the middle, so I got to make sure I bring that toughness, and if it's being questioned, I got to pick that s--- up."
Cleveland now holds just a one-game lead over the Boston Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference.
"I think seeding is always something you pay attention to, but we need to focus on ourselves," Kevin Love said. "It's not like we were out there tonight thinking, 'If we lose this game, Boston ...' We were thinking about getting better, and we didn't do that tonight."