As soon as the national anthem ends before every Cleveland Cavaliers game, LeBron James turns and sprints toward the hoop behind him, where a Cavs staffer is waiting to throw him a pass. James catches the ball, goes in for a dunk or layup, retrieves the rebound and then throws a pass of his own -- specifically one spiked off the floor straight up toward the rim for Timofey Mozgov to finish with an alley-oop dunk.
“It just happened,” Mozgov said of the routine.
But the lighthearted interplay often devolves during games. James will shout at Mozgov for a failed defensive assignment, criticize him when a play isn’t executed properly, implore the big man to make every part of his 7-foot-1, 275-pound frame felt by the opposition.
The hulking center seemed to fit in seamlessly last season. Mozgov averaged 10.6 points (on 59.0 percent shooting) and 6.9 rebounds after the January trade that brought him to the Cavs from Denver. He also stepped up in the NBA Finals with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out, scoring 16 points or more in four of the six Finals games (including 28 in Game 4) and grabbing double-digit rebounds in three of the games.
But Mosgov's averages through 11 games this season have fallen to 8.5 points (on 51.6 percent shooting) and 5.0 rebounds.
Cavs associate head coach Tyronn Lue even made an example of Mozgov at practice after the big man was repeatedly scored on in the post by Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor in the fourth game this season.
Lue showed Mozgov what he wanted -- crouch low, lean his weight into the opposition, spring up straight -- and then had Mozgov try. Over and over again, Lue stopped to correct Mozgov before hailing James over from an adjacent court to join in. Mozgov appeared anything but comfortable as nearly half the team gathered and watched him struggle.
“The spotlight is going to be on us like that as a team every game this season,” James told ESPN.com when asked about the scene. “He has to become comfortable with it.”
In James’ first stint in Cleveland, he pretty much wrote off J.J. Hickson, according to multiple sources. James was fed up with the big man’s shoddy work ethic. But James admits tough love might not be the best tactic with Mozgov.
“I think I may have to change my approach a little bit,” James said to ESPN.com. “A lot of it is predicated on how much he means to our success, how big of an impact he made once he got here last year. And when you see that type of impact, you expect it. And you expect it every single night and you expect it consistently, but I may have to change my approach how I lead him. I think I’ll figure a way out. I’ll figure another method.”
It’s clear Mozgov is testing James’ patience. When Mozgov collided with Anderson Varejao during a drill after practice this week and fell to the floor, clutching his forehead, James could be heard loudly telling a teammate, “You can’t make this s--- up,” gesturing to Mozgov laying down in the paint.
But James' ire hasn't been exclusive to Mozgov this season. During the second half of a recent comeback win against the New York Knicks, James was caught on camera shouting to his teammates, “Yo! You m-----f-----s gonna play? Y’all gonna play?”
“I’m the leader of this team, whatever it takes,” James said Tuesday. “So if it’s laying into them, I’ll do that. I also lead other ways as well. Obviously that makes more headlines than others, but whatever this team needs I’m going to do. I’m going to hold everyone accountable, including myself. And I expect nothing less than greatness out of all of us and if we’re not able to do that, then I feel like I’m failing.”
Tristan Thompson supported James’ direct approach, saying this week, “That’s what we expect from our leader. If he’s not going to push us, then who is going to?”
Cavs coach David Blatt echoed that sentiment when asked about James’ recent outbursts aimed at teammates. “I think he was encouraging them and I think he was pushing and driving his teammates to as a unit, individually and collectively, do better,” Blatt said. “I can tell you he pushes himself harder than he pushes anyone else. Believe me. 'Bron is the leader of this team and part of his responsibility is to push his teammates. And that’s a good thing.”
To his credit, James also has spearheaded an array of team-building efforts this season -- arranging a minicamp in Miami prior to training camp, hosting a Halloween karaoke party, suggesting players grow mustaches for "Movember," practicing one-on-one moves with Jared Cunningham, showing up before several shootarounds to get up extra shots with J.R. Smith.
“Well, everyone is different,” James said. “It’s like if you have multiple kids. You understand how you can’t raise your kids all the same way. They all have different personalities. They have different methods and outlooks on life, so you can’t lead everyone the same way. And when you figure that out, it’s a lot easier on you.”
Which is why James seemed to go easier on Mozgov in Tuesday's loss in Detroit.
Sure, James slumped his shoulders when Mozgov fumbled his pass in the first quarter, but he didn’t yell. And more importantly, he kept looking for him. When the Cavs came out of timeout with just more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and their once-13-point lead cut to one, James drove to the hoop and dumped the ball off underneath to Mozgov, who scored on a reverse layup. Later, with Cleveland down by one with under a minute to go, James found Mozgov for an open shot on the baseline. Mozgov missed the 12-footer with 23.9 seconds left, and Cleveland went on to lose 104-99, but James kept putting his faith in him.
Mozgov went on to play a season-high 28 minutes on a right knee that’s still bothering him from an offseason procedure, finishing with 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting, six rebounds, two steals and a block while contesting Reggie Jackson drives and battling on the boards with Andre Drummond.
“I think it’s a challenge for him,” James told ESPN.com of Mozgov’s health. “I think it’s frustrating him because he knows what he’s capable of doing and it’s hurt his play a little bit early on in the season. I think he can get back to form once his knee gets back so that’s why I feel like I need to change my approach, too. Because I wasn’t aware of it, actually, early on -- very early on -- that he had even had a procedure in the summertime. I didn’t know. So obviously it’s still bothering him.
"But he’s a big piece of our puzzle and obviously, if we’re not whole, we already saw that we can become a mediocre team if all our pieces are not in form and not playing at their level. Everyone can’t play at a high level every night, but [there’s no excuse for] not playing at the level that can help us compete.”
Mozgov was asked after the loss about how James has treated him this season.
“You know, you got to understand that he wants to win and he puts a lot of work on the court,” Mozgov told ESPN.com. “He wants to expect people to do the same. It’s simple.”
And does he respond to how James is choosing to lead him?
“Yeah,” Mozgov said. “I do.”