CLEVELAND -- In what was expected to be about as one-sided a matchup as one can find in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers fell flat on their faces in a 106-103 loss to the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies on Monday.
The Cavs had all their top rotation players available, were coming off a day off, were playing at Quicken Loans Arena (where they had built a 27-5 record) and were riding a three-game win streak. They hosted a Grizzlies team that was missing four starters -- including Mike Conley (left foot soreness), Zach Randolph (rest) and Marc Gasol (right foot surgery) -- and had just eight players in uniform as it played on the road on the second night of a back-to-back. Even so, it was Cleveland that looked like the underdog from the start.
"I can sit up here and say that we're a team that's ready to start the playoffs tomorrow, but we're not," LeBron James said after the Cavs trailed by as many as 14 before losing at the buzzer when Kyrie Irving missed a potential game-tying 3. "We're still learning. We still have things that happen on the court that just, that shouldn't happen."
Chief among those mistakes was the Cavs' coughing up a season-high 25 turnovers, which led to 30 points by the Grizzlies.
"We gave up a lot of pick-sixes," James said. "In NFL terms, that means it's straight to the house. To have 25 turnovers for 30 points -- I don't care who you're playing, it could be my son's little league team -- you're going to lose when you give up that many turnovers just from carelessness."
Kevin Love was pragmatic afterward.
"We just could have done a better job of respecting the game," Love said. "A team like that, they were going to come out and swing for the fences, and they did. That was a real bad loss for us. ... Turnovers were terrible. That was what I mean, respecting the game."
Not only were the Cavs, at 44-17 before the game, in better position to win than the beleaguered 37-25 Grizzlies squad (now 38-25), but also, when the two teams met earlier this season, Cleveland beat Memphis by 30 points on the Grizzlies' home court. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook listed the Cavs as 15-point favorites coming into the night.
"I just thought they were tougher than us tonight," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "Thought they played hard and out-scrapped us. You got to respect everybody in this league. Everyone gets a paycheck. That was the message before the game."
When James was asked whether he was "fearful" of the Grizzlies before tipoff, considering that all the ingredients for a trap game were in place, he conceded.
"I was," James said. "I was, especially because we had gone over everything with the expectation of those guys being in the lineup this morning, and to get here before the game and to find out that no one, pretty much, that we went over [in the shootaround scouting session] played. But as professionals, you got to respect them. We're all in this league for a reason, and we didn't respect them tonight, and they beat us."
Irving, whose season-high seven turnovers marred the 27 points (14 in the fourth), five assists and four steals he registered, also pointed to the lineup change as contributing to the result.
"I just think for us, as a maturing, young team, we just have to come out and play everybody the same way," he said. "For me, last day-and-a-half I spend watching film on Mike Conley, and then damn near before tipoff I find out he's not playing and Z-Bo is not playing, and our shootaround was dedicated to stopping these two guys, and then we come in and the whole thing changes. We just have to get better as a team preparing for anybody that is out there on the floor -- myself included."
Lue warned reporters before the game that his team could be vulnerable, despite its apparent advantage.
"It's always dangerous because we tend to let our guards down," Lue said. "It's going to be my job tonight to make sure that we don't do that. We've done that a few times this year, and every time their star and key guys sit out, we tend to take a step backward and kind of relax a little bit. These guys coming off the bench or these guys proving that they need minutes or want minutes, they play hard, and we got to be able to accept the challenge."
After the game, Lue said, "I've already learned a wounded animal is the most dangerous." This season, Cleveland has lost to a Charlotte team without Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson and a Portland team missing Damian Lillard.
If Memphis coach Dave Joerger's attitude reflected his team's, then the Grizzlies certainly didn't have a problem respecting the Cavs.
"They're a great team," Joerger said. "Every shot that they shoot, you expect to go in."
Cleveland will try to bounce back with a four-game road trip starting Wednesday in Sacramento.
"It's going to be good," James said. "Going to be a good test for us."