There were flashes of hope mixed with far too many crippling stretches, adding up to Cleveland’s first loss of the season against the Orlando Magic, 94-85.
“Defensive concepts were there some of the time and I think against a team that’s played together and know what they want out of their coach and their system, more times than not they’re going to have the advantage, so it will be a lot that shows on the film,” Kevin Love said following the loss.
"Overall, we have to put the ball in the hole. A lot of them the first night that just didn’t fall for us. Little lapses on both sides of the ball. We will clean that up and there will be ups and downs early on because we have to get everybody on the same page, together and adjusted to Coach’s system.”
The Cavaliers are far from a finished product. They need to be judged as such, no matter how challenging that can be in a bottom-line business, where results are typically the final determination.
Beilein admitted on the eve of training camp that success for this rebuilding team — one with plenty of youth, an overhauled coaching staff, new system and a few injuries already to navigate — won’t be measured solely by a number of wins.
That means pulling lessons from each game. Maybe even finding positives in losses. The Cavs shouldn’t have to look that far to find a few from Wednesday night.
“We’ve got to have this growth mindset this year that every time we play a game, we are going to learn exponentially how to get better,” Beilein said. “I mean, we’re going to do that. There will be enough basketball plays that we’ll be able to say, ‘This is how we play.’ I think that’s exactly what you see — what works and what doesn’t.”
Cleveland had an encouraging first quarter, battling the Magic, a 42-win team from a year ago that returned many of the same players, and trailing by just four points. There was sharp ball movement, dishing out seven assists on 11 made baskets. Six players had at least one helper in the first quarter, showing elements of the spaced-out, democratic, continuous offense the Cavs want.
Only they couldn’t sustain that production, fizzling during a chilly and sloppy second quarter, leaving them too much of a hill to climb the rest of the night.
“A lot,” Love replied, when asked what went wrong during a second quarter in which the Cavs were outscored 27-17. “How much time do you have?”
At one point, the Magic pushed the lead to 20. But the Cavs kept fighting, pulling back within single digits multiple times in the second half, including the 42-second mark of the fourth quarter following a Cedi Osman 3-pointer that trimmed the deficit to six. That feistiness, perseverance and togetherness — traits that Beilein has stressed throughout camp — was another good sign.
On a night where Love, the team’s best -- and most important -- player was a figurative no-show on offense, others stepped up. Tristan Thompson scored 16 points to go with 11 rebounds. Collin Sexton matched that output, tallying 16 points on 5-of-15 from the field and 3-of-8 from 3-point range. Osman finished with 13.
Top draft pick Darius Garland, the crown jewel of Cleveland’s three-pronged 2019 draft class, made some customary rookie mistakes, but didn’t look overwhelmed. About an hour before tipoff, Beilein approached Garland in the locker room with a simple message: You’re No. 1 tonight. That meant Garland was getting the starting nod. It also meant an extended look at Cleveland’s backcourt of the future.
“I mean, there was a lot of good to see. There was also times that they are still trying to get that playing together,” Beilein said. “I think as that gets better and Collin realizes we probably need him more often off the ball — Darius is really an elite passer — he’ll get more and more used to it, because they are both going to be really good players.”
Garland finished with eight points and a team-high five assists.
On defense, the team that ranked dead last in defensive rating last season, held the Magic below the century mark. That didn’t happen until Game 11 during the 2018-19 season.
In many ways, the tone-setting first game of the season showed what the Cavs could become with more growth and time to jell. For now, they are still very much a work in progress. They know it. It will be a while before the final product is ready for judgment.
“It is going to come eventually,” Garland said. “Looking forward to Saturday and going straight to the drawing board tomorrow. That’s what we asked for.”
With his lone basket of the first half, Larry Nance Jr. reached 2,000 career points. Nance, a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2015, is in his fifth NBA season. Nance finished with nine points, 14 rebounds and two assists.
The Cavs will return to Cleveland for their home opener Saturday night against the Indiana Pacers. Tip-off is at 8 p.m.