MIAMI — When the final buzzer sounded, after Dwyane Wade handed his sweaty pink jersey to old teammate Chris Bosh and shared a few laughs with Channing Frye, Wade grabbed Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Collin Sexton for a chat at center court.
“He is a competitor,” Wade said of Sexton following Miami’s 118-94 win. “You could see that from high school. Just seeing the look on his face afterwards, you know, losing just isn’t fun. Even though you are a young team or a rookie, losing still isn’t fun.”
Wade has lived through these same struggles. His rookie year, the Heat started 5-15 and were just 13-19 before the new year. Sure, they rallied late to grab a playoff spot, but there were plenty of lessons along the way. Then in the 2007-08 season, the Heat finished with the league’s worst record, going 15-67.
“I remember when the vet guys pulled me aside and kept my confidence up,” Wade said. “I know it is important to hear words of encouragement. I just told him to keep going and don’t get too frustrated. Things can turn around quickly for him. I just want him to keep his head up and keep his confidence going. It is a long season and he is going to have a long career.”
Sexton’s woes continued against the Heat, as the Cavs dropped to 8-28. He finished with eight points on 2-of-10 shooting and 1-of-4 from 3-point range. He committed as many turnovers (three) as assists. Since having a streak of double-digit scoring games snapped against Milwaukee two weeks ago, Sexton has been in an offensive funk.
Friday night marked the third single-figure game over the last eight. During that stretch, the teenager is averaging 10.8 points on 36-of-110 (32.7 percent) from the field and 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc. The frustration is starting to build. It’s clear with each missed shot and every mistake.
Opponents have made adjustments. Not having Tristan Thompson freeing him up with menacing screens has played a role. It’s also life in the NBA.
Few players are immune to poor stretches and Sexton, who arrived with a reputation as an iffy outside shooter, wasn’t going to keep knocking them down at a high clip.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” head coach Larry Drew said. “He’s still learning and has a lot to learn. You bring in a young player and you hope they have that type of tenacity and that’s who he is and who he has been for us. As a young player you are going to go through some ups and downs and that’s all part of the growth process, but he’s willing to learn and that makes him a candidate for being a terrific player. Hopefully he can continue to learn, get better and improve.”
Sexton’s struggles have been magnified more because of who he is, what he means to the future of the Cavaliers and his short-term importance to the team’s success.
In wins, Sexton is averaging 20.0 points on 51.9 percent shooting. In losses, he is averaging just 13.1 points on 39 percent from the field.
Friday’s final score showed another blowout loss, Cleveland’s fifth in a row, with Miami pulling away on the heels of a brilliant zone-filled second half. But Frye doesn’t want the hustle, fight and competitiveness to get lost. Undermanned and outclassed, the Cavs were down just four at the break against a potential Eastern Conference playoff team. Another group, another night, perhaps that effort level isn’t there and it’s never that close. On this night it was — until the third quarter.
But with the Cavs forced to play nine guys, what can reasonably be expected?
Drew believes they wore down physically, especially inside as they were left with just two bigs to deal with Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo. That’s understandable. Cleveland’s two best players, Kevin Love and Thompson, are injured. Rodney Hood, the fourth-leading scorer, missed his third straight game. Both Two-Way players, Jaron Blossomgame and Jalen Jones, were called on for heavy minutes despite not knowing all the verbiage yet.
Frye jokingly asked one member of the media if he could provide a few minutes of relief.
“Me being the oldest guy on this team, I love the fight of our team,” Frye said. “I’m 35, this is my 14th year. We have six injuries, two guys from the G League, one rookie who’s 19, another guy who’s in his second year, but it’s his first year, and every night we’re coming out to compete.
“Honestly, we’re calling stuff out there that they’ve never even heard of, so it’s like, I’ve seen these plays, I’ve seen these guys and it’s just a lot for them, but I think they’re fighting through it, they’re trying to get better and I think that’s the biggest thing about these guys. Every night, they’re going to go out and fight.”
This was always going to be a tough year, one filled with growing pains. Still, it was hard to envision this level of strife, which is why any pick-me-up is helpful.
Sexton’s night began with him hoisting shots on the court where Wade became a Hall-of-Famer. It ended with some advice from the sage veteran. Then came more from Sexton’s locker mate Frye, who has also been in those shoes before.
“I think you got to disassociate yourself from the game when you watch film and say, ‘What’s the best option on this play, what should I have done?’ And then constantly learn,” Frye said. “It’s not always go on the court, ‘I’m just going to shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot,’ or ‘I’m going to work on this pass.’ It’s like, mentally, you’ve got to slow the game down. Should we play fast? Should we play slow? Are we going to push it? If (Collin) has the ball, what are we doing? I think, again, that’s also communication, but when you’re tired and you’re thinking. If you’re thinking inside your head, you can’t think outside. I talk a lot because I know what the hell I’m talking about, but I’m not thinking about anything. I’ve seen this, I’ve done this. I’m out there going, ‘He’s going left. He’s doing this. He’s doing this.’ They’re like, ‘What? What are you saying? Oh, weak means left hand?’ Then he’s already gone.
“I think for us, it’s slowing the game down and being more consistent at playing the right way. The consistency is frustrating, but it’s something you got to deal with and work on and I think we’re getting better slowly. It’s still fun. It’s basketball, dude.”