It was all there for them — a chance for a perfect road trip, a .500 record and the first three-game win streak of the post-LeBron James era.
But then it slipped away. And the Cavs haven’t been able to regain their grip.
“This isn’t just a tough loss like it was in Philly where we competed,” head coach John Beilein said following Sunday’s 114-95 loss. “We got blown out in our own arena on a Sunday afternoon in front of a great crowd. It measures you a little bit. We’ve got to bounce back from it and find a way to make the changes in everything that we do. Effort areas, defense, offense, rotations, everything. Just keep looking at it because these last two games have not been in the right direction.”
No, the Cavs couldn’t just brush off Sunday’s defeat. They couldn’t chalk it up to inexperience or a lack of talent — even though both are certainly factors when playing against the elite. This was the kind of game that demanded a different message. Beilein has been measured, balancing the need to stay positive in a difficult rebuild while also not having his guys accept losing.
With this double-digit loss coming on the heels of a blowout that turned into a respectable defeat because of a late fourth quarter surge against the Miami Heat on Thursday night, Beilein felt it time for a different tone.
“It’s kind of a somber mood, but the beautiful part about the NBA is we get another chance tomorrow,” Kevin Love said. “Not a message you typically like to hear, you have to take it on the chin and be better tomorrow.”
It’s not so much about the loss itself. Everyone knew these would be coming, especially with a brutal early schedule. It doesn’t get much easier as the Cavs played the Knicks on a second game of a back-to-back Monday night before heading to Miami and Dallas.
In every sense, Cleveland-Philadelphia is a mismatch. So was the game against the Heat Thursday. As Beilein said after that one, there’s a reason Miami is perched near the top of the conference standings and the Cavs have just four wins this season.
Prior to the year, Love estimated that the 20-game mark would be fair for real, honest evaluation. That’s a quarter of the way through the season, a point where things should begin to crystallize. But prior to that, the Cavs want to journey down the right path. Even in losses, they want to be able to say they’re playing hard, smart and together, making up for a lack of quality individual defenders, rookie mistakes or not having enough court time together.
The how and why matter.
On Sunday, after a tough film session that centered on a lack of passing, the Cavs finished with just 14 assists, their second-lowest total this season.
“It was ugly," Love said. "We are charting our passes. A lot of one-pass shots. Even when they went zone, we weren’t moving the ball like we should. It just wasn’t there tonight. It was worse I feel like than last game. I don’t know what the numbers say, but sure felt like it. Playing Miami and playing Phily tonight, you see it’s infectious with them and they’re sharing the ball and different guys are stepping up. They feed the guy who is hot, continue to pass and make the right play. Tonight showed what a lot of the players on their team are capable of, especially when they share the ball like that.”
It’s easier to accept defeat against Milwaukee on the road if the team is competitive and within striking distance in the fourth quarter. Battling Boston all the way to the final buzzer isn’t the night to tear the team down because of a few costly errors. There’s no reason for somberness when the team plays well, only to squander a lead late in Philadelphia. For this team, in the infancy stages of a rebuild, those are all positive outcomes. Those are “good” losses.
Sunday wasn’t. Neither was Thursday. Two straight. That’s regression. There’s no room for that. This is about establishing a culture, one where laughers — and steps back — can’t be justified.
“Really disappointed again,” Beilein said. “The other night the same thing. We’re playing a really good team. The first half again, one lapse at any time and all of a sudden it’s 10 and then it’s 20. Didn’t have any answers, didn’t get good enough shots on offense. One hundred percent as coaches, as a team, we’ve got to continue to look at this one. We just had a nice talk with our team.”
Prior to this homestand, the Cavs could say that they were taking steps toward playing the right way. They could preach that they were headed in the right direction, seeing results — in wins and losses. They were building proper, sustainable habits that could become the foundation for future success.
Sunday was a chance to see how far they had come, what they learned from throwing away a win in the earlier matchup against the Sixers.
Answer: Not much. How quickly things have changed. But as Beilein, ever the optimist, said following a third straight loss, it can turn back the other way just as fast.
“We’re one win away from feeling really good,” Beilein said. “You just have to look at it that way as you play again.”