INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — It was Nov. 3, less than two weeks ago, when the Cleveland Cavaliers hit rock bottom.
They had just made a recent coaching change, one general manager Koby Altman believed was best for the immediate and long-term health of the organization. Instead, a few games removed from their first win, the Cavs were blown out by 32 points against the Charlotte Hornets — the same team that’s headed to Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night.
What followed was internal friction, which came out in the Spectrum Center visitor’s locker room, and a needed get-together in Orlando.
“The older guys came together and talked to each other and said let’s give everything we’ve got and teach these guys what it takes to win and put ourselves in winning positions for them to learn what it takes. If we do that then the wins will start to come,” Tristan Thompson said when asked to recall that message. “Just take more pride in this. Whatever is going on with our record and whatever is going on with the season, at the end of day we have to play with a sense of pride and have to leave it on the floor. We’re all NBA players and it’s unacceptable to get beat by 30 by anybody.”
That meeting — which Thompson said wasn’t the typical “team meeting” or “players only meeting” that franchises often have to reverse nasty starts — hasn’t yet led to victories.
The Cavs have lost three more games on top of the two prior, bringing their current losing skid to five.
But Larry Drew, named full-time head coach in the aftermath of that embarrassing defeat, believes the Cavs are a different team now.
They are no longer the one that left Charlotte dejected and frustrated. No longer the one beginning to crack.
“I think we’re starting to kind of figure out each other,” Drew said. “I think right now with the team and how we’ve been playing lately, I think they’re starting to understand what I’m looking for. I think we’re doing things a little bit better than the last time we played (Charlotte). I don’t think we are that same team at this point. I really feel like we’ve made strides since the last time we played this team.”
Since that inauspicious night in Charlotte, the Cavs have played two games decided in the final possession. They even had a five-point lead against the Magic in the final 40-plus seconds before gagging it away. They pushed likely-playoff-team Oklahoma City, even taking the lead from the Thunder in the fourth quarter, before fading once again.
Sometimes it’s tough to see without the most meaningful result, but for an undermanned group that has been ravaged by injuries and has quickly become the NBA’s doormat, that’s considered progress.
“We’re right there. I think it started in Orlando last Monday,” Thompson said. “Get those wins, two or three of them, and everything is different. I like our fight, how hard guys are playing. Guys aren’t giving up. At the end of the day, in order to teach these young guys what it takes to win have to compete every night and it starts on the defensive end. If we’re doing that then the wins are going to come.”
Since giving up a whopping 126 points to the Hornets, Cleveland’s defense has been stingier. In the last three games, only Orlando, with a little boost from Cavalier blunders, has reached the 100-point mark.
On Saturday night, the Cavs lost to the Chicago Bulls — another one of the teams near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. That night, Collin Sexton missed his first shot at a game-winner. Yes, the same player who was drawing the ire of the vets following that Charlotte loss, with them wondering if the rookie even knew how to play. Against Chicago, Sexton was again on the wrong end of a critical moment.
Only the postgame tenor was much different. The Cavs saw growth. They saw a kid who had earned minutes in crunch time with his stellar play throughout, rather than one who was being handed them because of draft position and franchise mandates. They weren’t lobbing insults or pointing fingers. They didn’t have the body language of a defeated group.
They were optimistic, bringing a sense of hope back to Cleveland.
“After the Chicago game, all the guys kept saying, ‘We’re getting close.’ Getting close means we’re starting to show that real competitive edge to us,” Drew said. “We’re starting to play with a sense of urgency. It really comes down to plays going down the stretch. On the road all you can do is put yourself in position to win the game and I thought we did that the other night.
“As long as we are in those situations, I feel very confident, I feel very good because I know sooner or later we’ll be on the other end of that score.”
According to Thompson, players have a better understanding of what Drew wants. Thompson also said there’s no reason for the team to grow frustrated. As long as they play the correct way and fight until the final whistle, they should be able to live with the results.
“Obviously you want to get the W, but these losses haven’t been bad losses and they’ve been losses where one or two minor tweaks and you win the ballgame. So that’s a positive about it,” Thompson said. “Think they all understand what is going on right now and we’re trying to come together as a group and teach guys good winning habits. That’s what matters at the end of the day. Teach these young guys good winning habits. That’s how you build a culture and a franchise and that’s how you continue building success.”
It hasn’t even been two weeks since that demoralizing loss. In that time, Drew has become the head coach. The starting lineup, out of necessity, has changed. Lineup combinations and strategies are different. So, too, is the mood. For now.
“My spirit is good,” Thompson said. “In a good place.”
It’s all led to the Cavs being much more competitive. That’s a start. And it’s a long way from where they were on Nov. 3.
Maybe the Cavs are wrong. Perhaps they are slurping the Wine and Gold Kool-Aid.
It’s possible they aren’t really close at all, destined to set a new mark for futility, which they are currently on pace to reach.
What better way to find out than playing against the team that trampled them once and nearly sent them spiraling into dysfunction.