OAKLAND, Calif. -- The final box score shows the Cleveland Cavaliers lost by 18 points on Friday to the Golden State Warriors. The defeat accounted for their fourth loss in a row and eighth in their past 10 games. Yet there was more optimism emanating from Cleveland's postgame locker room than there has been in weeks, if not months.
It's amazing how much the direction of a team can change once its members change the perception of their situation.
Monday in Philadelphia it seemed as low as you could go, with the Cavs blowing an early lead and losing to the laughingstock of the league with Kyrie Irving not making the trip because of a back injury and LeBron James away from the team, also nursing strains to his back and left knee while making a quick rehab trip down in Miami.
Five days later, with the team having pulled off two trades (in essence Dion Waiters for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and a couple of first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov and a second-rounder), Irving back in the lineup, and James back with the team for its five-game road trip -- and even going through "minor" on-court activities for the first time since sitting out Dec. 30 -- there's some sunshine peaking through the clouds, according to coach David Blatt.
"It's tough right now and I know it's tough to see, but when we do get back to full strength, we're going to be good," said Kevin Love.
It was particularly noteworthy that Love was waving the encouragement flag because he took only 11 shots -- compared to 23 apiece for Smith and Irving -- but instead of focusing on his involvement in the offense after the fact, he set his sights on what the Cavs will look like in the near future.
"We feel like we have the pieces when Iman and 'Bron get back and Trix [Shawn Marion] is healthy that we'll be able to put this all together," Love continued.
Blatt took the same tone.
"I think you see we're a better team today than we were yesterday and we were a week ago," Blatt said. "I'm not even going to talk about the guys that aren't playing, because we're a better team today."
The following are stats from the moral victory department, but it's worth noting that in their past two games without James, the Cavs held a one-point lead over the Houston Rockets -- the No. 4 team in the West -- headed into the fourth quarter on Wednesday, and on Friday trailed the Warriors -- the No. 1 team in the league -- by only five with less than six minutes to go while playing on the road in an arena where the Dubs came in having won 13 in a row.
"I think we're making progress," Blatt said. "I know we haven't won the games, and at the end of the day, that's what you need to do, but we're a better team and we're only going to get better.”
The new faces are already making their presence felt, whether it was Smith's 27 points against the Warriors ("I told you coming in; I had nothing but a good feeling about J.R. joining our team," Blatt said), or it was Mozgov's nine points and eight rebounds in his debut and his reaction to how he was received ("The guys meet me so good," the Russian-born Mozgov said in endearing broken English, "make me be the part of the family on the first day. ... So, I love it"), or Shumpert's competitive side relishing the fact he was leaving a sinking ship for a team that's playoff-bound ("I didn't want my season to end early," Shumpert said).
There are no "gimme" games in the Western Conference, but Sacramento should be a winnable game on Sunday; and then, if James comes back just slightly ahead of his two-week rest schedule he could be in the lineup Tuesday in Phoenix, and if that happens you get the lame-duck Lakers next, and possibly have picked up a full head of steam going into the trip finale Friday against the Clippers.
Maybe the Cavs, a mediocre 19-18, have good reason to believe things are about to change for the better.
"When everybody's healthy, we'll be a lot different team," Love said. "So, I think yes, once we quit fighting that battle of guys being hurt and attrition, we're going to take a big step in the right direction."
A direction that will soon have them walking step-by-step with a four-time MVP on the court again.
"You learn and you grow from things and you just try to see the big picture," Love said. "I think like a lot of guys here, it all starts with Bron. I think he sees the big picture. I think we all do."