CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers hosted an Indiana Pacers team on Monday that came into the game having lost three out of four games and with their star, Paul George, telling reporters “there’s no toughness” on his team.
The Cavs, meanwhile, also losers of three of four, prefaced the game with guard J.R. Smith telling reporters his level of concern was “extremely high” and questioning whether the team even deserved to wear the wine and gold uniforms placed in their lockers every night.
And thousands of miles away, out in the San Francisco Bay Area, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green was apologizing to his teammates on the league-leading 53-5 squad for flipping out at halftime of their epic overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.
All of this is to say that every team in the league -- even potentially record-setting ones -- have their problems that come up during the course of a season. It’s how you respond to those tough times that defines what you’re really all about.
The rut that Cleveland found itself in after a listless performance against the Wizards and a terrible finish in Toronto that allowed the Raptors to gain ground in their two-team race for first in the Eastern Conference caused some consternation in northeast Ohio.
It halted the momentum the team seemed to be building after it replaced coach David Blatt with Tyronn Lue. And it brought up questions about just how well the roster truly fits together.
But then Monday came and the Cavs beat the Pacers 100-96 in a game they finished on an 18-10 run by making big plays on both ends of the court down the stretch. Suddenly the doldrums disappeared to reveal a team character trait.
“When our backs are against the wall, that’s when we tend to play harder,” Lue said.
For a relatively new team -- one that’s barely played a full 82-game season together after a couple of roster-changing trades last January -- a trait like that can seem counterproductive to building a culture of consistency. But then again, it also means that the Cavs often rise to the challenge when the stakes increase.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” conceded Smith, agreeing that a makeup like that can be a major asset in the postseason, when it’s win or go home.
“I think the fact that we can handle a little adversity, if you want to call it that, and be able to respond like we did tonight, it’s a good sign,” forward LeBron James said. “We shouldn’t have to get to that point sometimes, but hey, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. It’s not a book that you can read and say, ‘Hey, this is exactly what is going to happen.’ You have to be able to adjust no matter what type of game or situation that will be going on. And we’re a team that, we put ourselves in dark spots and we have to build our way out of them.”
The Cavs haven’t found the light just yet. They’re still searching for the switch. And there will be plenty of more obstacles in their path that will try to trip them up in the meantime.
“I mean, we go on a two-game losing streak, we lose three out of our last four, you know things get a little tough, our backs are against the wall, but it’s really not,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. “We go down [three] points [late] against the Indiana Pacers, it’s not even adversity yet. We haven’t even hit anything that’s going to be a test for us yet. Going forward, we just have to have that mental attitude that the only thing that matters is that everyone in this locker room knows what’s going on here.”
James said his Miami Heat teams were equipped to deal with setbacks. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all ascending in their careers and had developed a steely resolve from their first season together, when they became widely viewed as villains everywhere except in South Beach.
“Dark spots? Wasn’t nothing but dark in Miami,” James said, going on to recall the 3-2 deficit they came back from in the Eastern Conference finals in Boston and the 2-1 deficit they came back from in the East semifinals that same postseason in Indiana. “That’s how we played, though. That’s how we played. We played dark. We could play that way.”
The Cavs, James said, are different. When he joined Miami, Wade already had a ring and Bosh had led Toronto to the playoffs on his own. When James came back to Cleveland, he was teaming up with guys like Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, who had zero playoff games combined between them.
“We got a lot of guys that haven’t played meaningful basketball in their career,” James said. “And it sucks. ... You got to understand that. So, these guys are still learning on the fly. ... It’s no knock on them. It’s just the situation that they were in.”
The group picked up some postseason experience last spring, albeit with Irving and Love’s lessons being cut short by injuries. And they’ve continued to experience challenges since then, be it responding to a trade or a coaching change or living in the pressure cooker that comes with being James’ teammate.
All things considered, they have it pretty good. They’re in the fight. They are a team with a chance. As Irving put it, “I know what we have and the opportunity ... to be something special.”
Whatever pitfalls present themselves -- and they will present themselves, as James agreed with Irving by saying, “This will not be the most adversity that we face” -- as long as the Cavs prepare properly to respond to them, they can live with the results.
“It’s just basketball,” James said. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. ... You go out and you give as much as you can, you leave it all out on the floor and then be able to sleep great at night. I mean, I’ve missed game winners all the time. I turned the ball over in the postseason before. I’ve lost in the Finals. And sometimes, if that situation comes around again, hopefully you left it on the floor. That’s all you can do.
“I mean, it shouldn’t be much pressure, I don’t think. I’m going to get the blame anyways.”
How’s that for perspective?