CLEVELAND – Tyronn Lue was in a nostalgic mood Thursday.
Following the Cleveland Cavaliers' morning shootaround, he noticed a couple of reporters hanging around the practice facility, and in a bit of a playful boast shouted across the court as he made his way to his office and pointed to the Cavs’ 2016 championship banner hanging near the ceiling.
“You see that right there?” Lue bellowed. “You can never take that away from me! You’ve seen ‘Above the Rim,’ right? I’m like Bernie Mac. ‘They can’t erase what we won, baby.’”
Lue’s film reference as he was messing with the reporters turned out to be a clue as to how he was prepping his team -- suddenly losers of three out of their past four games -- for their game against the Phoenix Suns later Thursday night.
Just like he did back in the NBA Finals, when the Cavs lost three of the first four games, including a particularly painful Game 4 in which they blew an eight-point third quarter lead en route to an 11-point defeat, Lue decided not to show his team evidence of their mistakes.
He buried that Game 4 video in the archives, and he found no use in rehashing the recent losses at Utah, Portland and Golden State, losses that came by an average of nearly 20 points. Instead, before Cleveland’s dominant 118-103 win over the Suns, he showed his guys a veritable highlight reel of the good things they've done on the court this season.
The message? Those 10 wins in your past 12 games that preceded the slump, that’s who you really are. Let’s see that again.
“I know we missed shots on the road, but I just wanted to show them before the month of January we averaged 23 assists per game,” Lue said, “And then on the road I think we averaged, I think, 16. That’s a difference of probably 17 points if you count 3s, so just showing them who we are and what we need to do.”
It was a reminder, as much as anything, that when you reinforce good habits, confidence will grow. There’s no need to dwell on a January road trip when you’re trying to reach the mountaintop in June.
“We’re a team that thrives when we play well together,” said James Jones, who embodied that ethos against Phoenix by scoring 14 points as a fill-in starter for Kevin Love, who was out with back spasms. “Individually when we play well, we struggle. But when we play well together -- moving the ball, sharing the ball, screening for each other, diving on the floor, hustling for loose balls, protecting each other -- it just energizes everybody, one through 15 and that’s when we’re at our best.”
The stat sheet reflected the attitude adjustment, as the Cavs shot 50.6 percent overall, hit 19 of 43 3-point shots (44.2 percent), doled out 29 assists and turned the ball over only 12 times.
The road trip also left LeBron James feeling bogged down as he looked at the Warriors' roster full of playmakers -- he rattled off seven names of players he felt can dribble, pass and shoot well enough to create scoring opportunities when the defense clamps down on them -- and wondered aloud if Cleveland had the personnel to compete.
He was hinting at the burden of the Cavs' construct that makes it hard for the team to win unless he and Kyrie Irving are carrying the load. That works just fine in the postseason, where there is more rest and more prep time and the cream rises to the top, but during an 82-game grind? It’ll mess with your mind, your body and your spirit.
Thursday, James was able to play freely, finishing with 21 points on only 12 shots, 15 assists, nine rebounds and two blocks. That's because Irving put up 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting, Jones filled in amiably for Love, Iman Shumpert put up a season high with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting and Cleveland’s bench, led by Channing Frye’s 18 points and 10 rebounds and Kyle Korver’s 9 points, outscored the Suns' subs 38-14.
“Any time we get contributions like that, it just opens all of our games up,” James said. “Obviously for me and Ky, we want to try and do what we need to do to help our ball club win and lead those guys the right way, but those guys were locked in and we needed it.”
Included in those contributions was the approach of the Cavs’ coach, cribbing his own tricks that helped his team to the title.
“With this team, our guys are very conscious and aware,” Jones told ESPN. “So when we make mistakes, we know it right away. You don’t have to show us the replay. We can tell you to the minute, to the second, what that instance was when we failed our teammates.
“But it’s a lot harder to remember the good moments on the offense because we have so many of them. So, Coach, he’s just reminding us, giving us visuals of how we should play. Because a lot of times when you’re playing this game, playing a long season, you tend to start looking at the wins and loss column and you might start defining yourself by wins and losses, rather than actually seeing the type of basketball that gets you those wins and losses.”
Or, more specifically, the type of basketball that gets you those banners.