NEW YORK -- It was a hellish couple of days for the Cleveland Cavaliers. For a group whose players should be waking up every morning with a smile on their faces, looking forward to a chance to compete as the most handsomely compensated collection of talent in the league, life shouldn’t be so hard.
But a bottom-fell-out loss to Golden State on Monday dashed that perspective, prompting even the normally even-keeled LeBron James to momentarily move off message. Following a win in Houston last week to cap off a 5-1 road trip, James declared “I know” that his Cavs could beat any team in the league in a playoff series. A mere 72 hours later after the Warriors debacle, he said the loss was “an example of how far we’ve got to go to get to a championship level.”
It felt like the walls were closing in. Yet, the Cavs’ response to that adversity -- banding together rather than tearing apart -- suddenly gave them more room to operate.
Before Cleveland could right its course with a 91-78 win on the court over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, it had some work to do on its team connectivity.
Like James, Kevin Love was in soul-searching mode after Golden State held him to just three points on five shots -- his worst offensive showing since becoming a Cav. Love suggested that in order for Cleveland to improve, it was “going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror, and it all starts with our leader over there and dwindles on down.”
Many, myself included, took the statement to be a shot a James, especially because Love nodded toward James as he got dressed in front of his locker while he said the words “our leader.”
That perception only fed the speculation surrounding the Cavs since Golden State sliced their gullets. Because if Cleveland still couldn’t beat the Warriors, and James and Love were still bickering, how far had the Cavs really come since last season?
Love explained that the intent of his words was misconstrued.
“The only thing I thought was funny was just how my words were taken out of context,” Love said after the Nets game when asked if he felt the pressure of mounting criticism coming into Wednesday. “All I meant was that LeBron is our leader and we follow him at the end of the day. We all got to be better for each other, him, our fans, our organization, each and every player on this team, our coaches.”
Cleveland held an air-it-out meeting prior to practice on Tuesday, something James casually referred to as a “conversation,” to get those factions that Love mentioned back on the same page.
Then, at some point, James and Love addressed the power forward’s supposed dig, James told ESPN.com.
“We talked about it,” James said. “I take the man at his word.”
Even if Love had meant it to be a critique, James dismissed its importance.
“It’s irrelevant,” James said, adding in a few curse words for good measure. “All I want to do is win.”
And win they did on Wednesday with a balanced attack against a moribund Nets franchise. Think the Cavs have problems? Try being the 11-32 Nets with an interim coach, interim general manager and few players, if any, a franchise would want to build upon.
The way they played was a good reminder of what they can accomplish with some defensive effort (the Nets shot just 41.7 percent and scored just 55 points through the first three quarters) and sharing the ball.
“It's painful to get knocked down, but it's shameful not to get back up if you get knocked down,” Cavs coach David Blatt said.
Love redeemed himself with 17 points, 18 rebounds and two steals while attempting only three 3-pointers out of his 10 shot attempts and earning eight free throws. James had 17 points and five assists. Kyrie Irving had nine points and five assists. All three of them shot better than 50 percent from the floor and all three of them got to rest the entire fourth quarter as the Cavs held a comfortable lead with a second night of a back-to-back looming Thursday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“Just saw it in their eyes, saw it in their mindset, saw it in their intensity toward the game,” Blatt said. “We're not out of the woods by any means. We got to keep working.”
If that’s the lesson the Cavs can take from the Warriors loss and apply it for the rest of the season then the defeat wouldn’t have been in vain. Cleveland is going to be in the spotlight with marquee games against the Clippers, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs right around the corner. Public sentiment could swing from praise to damnation to back again in a matter of days. The Warriors could keep dominating the league -- as they did with a 29-point win against the Bulls on Wednesday -- and Cleveland could even be written off further than they already were on Monday.
The only way the Cavs can make this season matter is to realize what they have, relish it, cultivate it and turn the parts into something that’s greater as a whole. It’s not too late, no matter what a 34-point loss to Golden State might make others say.
“I actually wish they continue to forget about us. Completely forget about us,” James said. “For the first time in my career I could fly under the radar. For us, we as a basketball team, we just got to go out and prove it to ourselves. It’s not about what everybody else thinks. We need to be with each other and get better every night. I think tonight it was very easy to look each other in the face and know that we got better out there.”