MINNEAPOLIS – Internally, the Cleveland Cavaliers have numerous goals for the 2018-19 season.
At the very top of the list is what matters most: winning. And thus far, that column remains empty.
“We want to win so it’s not like we’re happy for the loss,” head coach Tyronn Lue said following the 131-123 defeat against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “It’s not a moral victory for us at all.”
Beyond winning, the Cavaliers want to play an inspirational brand of team basketball. At least, that’s how chairman Dan Gilbert has phrased it.
From that standpoint, Friday night was a smashing success.
All-Star Kevin Love led the way with 25 points on an inefficient 6-of-19 from the field and 3-of-7 from 3-point range. He needs to get that shooting percentage up for the Cavs to remain competitive. But even on a night when his shot was falling, Love found a way to impact the game in a positive way, getting to the free throw line 10 times, pulling down 19 rebounds and dishing out seven assists. Those are the gaudy numbers that the Cavs need from him on a nightly basis — minus the ghastly shooting.
But, more importantly, he got plenty of help, which is exactly what the Cavs want this season.
Cedi Osman reached career-highs in points (22) and assists (8). Jordan Clarkson poured in 19 points, proving why he was one of the training camp stars and quite possibly the team’s most reliable threat off the bench. Collin Sexton rebounded from a rough NBA debut with a 14-point night. Tristan Thompson recorded a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 boards. Even Rodney Hood, who struggled in the second half, hit double figures.
The Cavs have also talked repeatedly about their desire to get the young core experience in tough, high-pressure end-of-game situations. Check that box too.
Down nine points entering the final frame, Lue turned to Sexton and Clarkson, riding the tandem the whole way.
Sexton scored 10 of his 14 in the fourth quarter, attacking the rim with force, triggering jumpers with confidence and digging in on the defensive end with the fiery eyes the Cavs see daily on the practice floor.
“I think Collin grew a little bit tonight, having a chance to play in that fourth quarter,” Lue said. “Taking some big shots, big opportunities.
“I just thought he did a good job of running the team, pick and choosing his spots. When to be aggressive offensively, when to get other guys shots. I thought he did a good job picking up full court, pressuring the basketball, and his fight and his toughness. Just want to give him an opportunity and tonight he played well. G Hill is a professional so he understands and he was all for it. Kept talking to Collin every time out, staying with him, being positive, so, we’ve gotta great group. They all continue to help each other.”
Clarkson chipped in with eight points in the fourth, repeatedly getting to his favorite spots and draining pull-ups with a tweaked shooting motion that has led to a promising start.
For the bulk of the fourth quarter, Lue’s lineup was Sexton, Clarkson, Osman, Love and Thompson. Ante Zizic played the other five minutes while Thompson recharged to start the period. Larry Nance Jr. was unavailable because of a sprained ankle. Otherwise, he might have been the fifth piece.
Think about those names. Get used to them. That quintet is a big part of Cleveland’s future. And it scored all but four points during a furious rally, which trimmed the Minnesota lead to four on multiple occasions — once after a Sexton layup and the other after an Osman 3-pointer, one of his two made bombs in the final quarter.
“I’m right now full of confidence and I believe in my shots,” Osman said. “I was working really hard during the summer. I know before that my 3-point shots weren’t that good. But I was working really hard this summer and I know that I improved a lot.”
Osman made four triples on the night, the most in a game during his young NBA career, doubling his previous high of two.
The other part of Cleveland’s expected identity is a try-hard, don’t-give-in team. Things aren’t always going to be easy. Games won’t be as pretty as the past. There are going to be a bunch of losses. But the one thing that should never waver is the effort level, an unbreakable determination to believe they still have a chance even when it seems unlikely.
Isn’t that basically this season in a nutshell?
Many around the NBA are skeptical of this group. Experts tossed them aside in July. Few, if any, think this make-the-playoffs approach will last. Heck, their home opener is scheduled for Sunday night at 6 p.m. against the woeful and lottery bound Atlanta Hawks — hardly a prime spot.
And yet, the Cavs believe they will prove the doubters wrong. Just like they believed they could cap an improbable rally against the superior Wolves Friday night.
Down by as much as 21, the Cavs kept charging back. They made the crowd — one that packed the arena to celebrate the home opener and boo Jimmy Butler and coach Tom Thibodeau — start to get incredibly antsy. The comeback was eventually halted. Butler played a big role in that, scoring 33 points and hitting a dagger over Love.
Still, that second half is pretty close to how they need to play if they are going to show they are still a worthy foe even without LeBron James.
“I’m proud of the guys for continuing to keep fighting,” Lue said.
That sentiment was shared by other players afterward.
“We have to learn how to play defense for 48 minutes, not just three quarters or 20 minutes,” Osman said. “We will. We’re a young team and we have a lot of good players who work hard. We just have to learn, which we will. We just have to keep playing hard.”
In the loss, the Cavs accomplished plenty. It was a game filled with more lessons. The only thing absent: a victory. And until further notice, that’s still most important.