CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers spent the past few days talking about how different they are than the discombobulated and nearly-broken group that left Charlotte embarrassed less than two weeks ago.
Turns out, they were right.
The Cavs clobbered the Hornets on Tuesday night 113-89. That’s a long way from their 32-point defeat on Nov. 3.
No player epitomizes the team’s evolution quite like rookie Collin Sexton. After looking rattled and overwhelmed in his first matchup against Charlotte’s talented tandem (All-Star Kemba Walker and future Hall-of-Famer Tony Parker), Sexton played with poise and maturity in his second crack.
Sexton scored 16 points on 7-of-18 from the field and 2-of-2 from beyond the arc to go with five rebounds and four assists.
Nov. 3 was the worst night of Sexton’s NBA career. It was rock bottom for the Cavaliers. Turns out, it’s exactly what they both needed.
That night, Sexton matched his season-low with four points, going 1-of-5 from the field. He had more fouls (4) than assists (2). After the game, a stuffy and fed-up locker room of veterans questioned Sexton’s readiness, saying he didn’t know how to play yet.
Didn’t look that way Tuesday night. In a signature moment during the third quarter, Sexton attacked Charlotte starting center Cody Zeller, absorbed the contact, hung in the air and made the layup.
Then he flexed his muscles. Just like the Cavs did all night.
“Tonight we put ourselves in a position that we have not been in all year, where we have jumped out on someone and built a lead and able to maintain a lead,” head coach Larry Drew said. “It just feels good kind of getting that monkey off your back with the losing streak, but more so that we’ve been working hard the last couple of weeks and we’ve been coming away empty handed. But tonight we were able to sustain from start to finish and put together a complete game.”
It didn’t matter that Tuesday was just their second win of the season. The Cavs entered the game brimming with confidence, believing they were close to breaking through after a couple near-misses against Orlando and Chicago. They played hard on defense, holding the Hornets to 89 points on 33-of-95 (34.7 percent) from the field and 8-of-41 (19.5 percent) beyond the arc.
The Cavs executed repeatedly on offense, getting the movement and balanced scoring they demand while playing without five rotation players, including offensive focal point Kevin Love. Things got so tough one day earlier that they needed to use an assistant coach as the 10th player to scrimmage 5-on-5.
On Tuesday, they overcame those injuries and blocked out the noise, as six players reached double figures, led by Jordan Clarkson who poured in 24 points off the bench.
David Nwaba, glued to the pine for all but five minutes of that blowout loss against Charlotte nearly two weeks ago, tallied 18 points, bringing infectious energy and making an obvious difference during his 27 minutes. Nwaba made seven of nine shots, including a pair of triples, raising questions about why it took this long to get him into the mix. The Cavs outscored the Hornets by 22 points with him on the floor.
“David Nwaba was unbelievable,” Drew said. “He was absolutely unbelievable. And he sustained a full game. It’s kind of tough with David because I do play him out of position, but he’s been able to adapt. But yeah that’s a good feeling, knowing that when teams do make a run on us that we can weather the storm, that we know how to do it.”
Rodney Hood, aggressive from the opening tip, matched Sexton’s 16 points. Tristan Thompson scored 11 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, spearheading the Cavs’ dominance on the boards, crushing Charlotte 60-37.
Even little-used Channing Frye came off the bench to a huge roar and sent the crowd into frenzy with a pair of late-game triples.
“I didn’t deserve that ovation tonight,” Frye tweeted after. “I appreciate the Q and the Cavs fans. I’m humbled for real! Thank you.”
Less than two weeks ago, the Cavs were in the locker room at the Spectrum Center wondering if they had the right pieces to rebound from a miserable start. They were fielding questions about whether they were fractured.
Drew said how the team came through was the true measure of what’s in that locker room. He’s gotten his answer. Loud and clear.
“After that loss, guys kind of looked in the mirror and said, ‘Man, it’s a long season.’ You can go bald coming out with them kind of performances,” Thompson said. “If you had performances like that every day in Charlotte for a full season, a lot of us won’t have hair any more like that. I’m doing it to save my hair and keep me from being grumpy at home. So I’m going to come hard, play hard every night and I think our veterans are going to do the same thing. Tonight we got it done.”
The Cavs aren’t the most talented team. They will more than likely finish with one of the league’s worst marks, overmatched by many opponents. But instead of collapsing amidst the chaos, they came together as one and kept talking about how playing the right way would eventually yield desired results.
Tuesday night was evidence of that, showing just how much they’ve changed.
It wasn’t just the new jerseys either.
Cavs mistakes keep Hornets in it
After a near-mistake free first quarter, the Cavs committed eight turnovers in the second, which the Hornets turned into 13 points.
Those miscues, along with Cleveland’s propensity to foul, sending the Hornets to the free throw line 13 times in the quarter, kept the Cavs from building an even bigger lead going into halftime.
The Cavs will travel to the nation’s capital for a matchup against the Washington Wizards, who have won two straight, on Wednesday night. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.