CHARLOTTE -- In the first game the Cleveland Cavaliers played since it became known they'll be missing LeBron James for a couple of weeks rather than just a couple of nights, the Cavs' rhythm was understandably out of whack to start things off.
They trailed by nine after the first quarter on Friday, scoring just 16 points on 6-for-21 shooting (28.6 percent) against the Lance Stephenson-lacking and Al Jefferson-less home team Charlotte Hornets. It brought to mind the ineptitude they showed in the third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, when they mustered only seven points.
With such little time to prepare for life without LeBron, Cavs coach David Blatt admitted before shootaround he'd be taking things out of the playbook in the interim rather than adding things in, hoping a simplified approach would lessen the obvious void felt in James' absence.
The coach's instructions?
"A lot of ball movement and player movement and obviously less target one-on-one situations," Blatt said.
Naturally, the other two-thirds of the Cavs' big three in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving would carry more of the load with James back in Cleveland rehabbing strains to his lower back and left knee, but Blatt wanted everyone on the team to feel responsible for making up for their star, not just Love and Irving.
"The most important thing is the 'next man up' theory," Blatt said before the game. "The next guy up has got to step in, and he's got to contribute."
And so, yes, Friday's eventual 91-87 win over the Hornets to snap a three-game losing streak was somewhat about Love scoring a game-high 27 points (one shy of his top scoring game as a Cav) and connecting on a turnaround jump shot on a play called for him with 23.4 seconds left that put Cleveland up five and effectively sealed the game, but this wasn't as simple as "The Kevin Love Game."
"I don’t look it at all on an individual basis," Blatt said afterward. "I look at it on a team basis. It's an opportunity for us to execute on offense better, to move the ball, to find the right shots for the right people at the right times."
In the second quarter, it was "The Tristan Thompson Game," as the backup-turned-starting center once Anderson Varejao went out for the season played all 12 minutes and racked up seven points, four rebounds and two blocks to get Cleveland back into things by halftime.
In the third quarter, after Love had a roller-coaster 1:22 of game time in which he first got a dead leg from contact with Bismack Biyombo and then all of the sudden hit back-to-back-to-back 3s to give the Cavs the lead they would never relinquish, it became "The Dion Waiters Game," as the mercurial guard extended Cleveland's cushion with eight points and two steals in eight minutes, firmly grabbing control of the momentum.
In the fourth quarter, it was "The Kyrie Irving Game," as the Cavs point guard led the team with nine points in the period and was quite comfortable in the fact that he went 2-for-9 in doing so (en route to an 8-for-27 shooting line for the night) because he felt like it was what was required.
"For me personally, forcing myself to take a lot more tough shots than I usually do," Irving admitted, surely not escaping the corner 3 he jacked up at one point that missed off the top of the backboard. "It's just error on the side of aggression right now for our team. That's just the way it’s got to be."
Waiters was Irving's accomplice in inefficiency, going just 8-for-21 himself, but Blatt gave them both a pass.
"Those are two experienced, high-level players," Blatt said. "They took the shots that they should take, and we'll take our chances with their shots."
Perhaps the leeway was because the Cavs did one thing better on Friday than they did in any other game this season: take care of the basketball. Cleveland coughed up a season-low seven turnovers as a team (which happened to be the same amount of turnovers James had personally in the last game he played, that blowout loss to the Detroit Pistons).
Both Blatt ("We're missing the best player in the world right now. We want him to come back. Fast") and Love ("Obviously, we're better with the big fella out there as well") made sure to give James his credit, but there was some pride from the group in what it was able to accomplish without him -- even if they shot only 37.9 percent as a team and even if they were playing a depleted, 10-23 Hornets team.
"It's not easy to play with a different roster every night, and that's basically what's happened to us since [Varejao] went down," Blatt said, happy with how he was able to find a mix that worked. "That throws a team into a certain kind of flux You’re trying to figure out how to play together with different lineups and different types of players on the floor, you do need a little time to find your way. What I liked was that we competed, that we played the game intelligently and that we know how to hold onto a lead when we had it."
Love was feeling himself, too: "It's an opportunity league. I think with 'Bron out, I'll have more of a chance to show what I can do and try to help this team."
As was Thompson, after he turned in his fourth straight double-double (14 points, 14 rebounds) and tied his season high by swatting away three shots: "Like you guys always say, we got nobody to protect the rim. I got to step up to the plate I know I can block shots and I got to do it. That's part of my job as a big. It's the reason why I got drafted, because I blocked three shots a game in college. So I got to continue doing that in the NBA. I was disappointed in myself that I wasn't being called a rim protector."
And Waiters is always in that mode, of course, explaining that he started off the game looking to facilitate before ultimately scoring 17 points off the bench because "I know I can get mine."
What the Cavs could very well get is a wake-up call Sunday at home against the Dallas Mavericks, playing a contender that Irving warned could score 40 points on them in the first quarter if Cleveland comes out as flat as they did Friday.
But for now, they passed the first LeBron-less test of this two-week rest period after previously being 0-3 this season without the four-time MVP.
They did it together, and that should count for something.