CLEVELAND -- A little more than two weeks ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers went into Minnesota and handled the Timberwolves 125-99, hitting their season high in points and burying the young Timberwolves squad by halftime.
With a supposedly revamped, up-tempo offense at home Monday, the Cavs mustered only 114 points and clung to just a four-point lead with a minute remaining before holding on to win by seven.
There was no pomp and circumstance after the first Wolves win, just a couple of the guys chiding Timofey Mozgov in the postgame locker room for the Minnesota fan that wanted a piece of his rump and LeBron James, upon hearing that David Blatt canceled practice the next day, questioning out loud to no one in particular, "Wait, why aren't we practicing?"
That James' quote reads like an alarm bell now, of course, after everything that's changed. From the seismic shift of Tyronn Lue replacing Blatt as head coach to the downturn in the team's confidence since that 34-point drubbing by the Golden State Warriors a week ago, the Cavs team that competed at The Q on Monday was a wholly different group.
Nothing symbolized that transformation quite like James presenting the game ball to Lue in the locker room on Monday, commemorating his first career win as a coach.
It wasn't just the gesture of appreciation or the presentation of the ball that made the moment noteworthy, it was the words that James shared.
"Anytime something happens with our teammates, our coaching staff, with our franchise, anything that's monumental, we definitely want to represent that," James said when asked to sum up his speech.
For a guy who spent the first several months of the season cracking the whip, using the team's championship goal to push and prod his teammates, this was an abrupt adjustment of his approach.
Here was James, declaring that it was time to embrace the journey, not just stare ahead at the supposed destination. It was time to celebrate the little victories rather than reserve those emotions for games that can win you a trophy, or ring, or legacy bump.
It seemed like a direct response to general manager David Griffin's statement, "I've never seen a locker room not be as connected after wins as they need to be," during his press conference to explain the Blatt dismissal.
Maybe it was an over-the-top course correction by the Cavs, who looked like a giddy group in the locker room after barely eking out a win over a Minnesota team that's 18 games under .500, but you have to start somewhere.
So after the Wolves game you saw Kyrie Irving lamenting that his personalized terry-cloth towel skirt, a gift the entire team recently received, had only the boring "Ky" stitched into his, whereas James Jones' had his nickname, "Champ," on his.
"Why couldn't mine be 'Deuce' or 'Young God'?" Irving said, feigning devastation.
And you first heard the fashion-conscious Iman Shumpert shout across the locker room to Mozgov while he was getting dressed, "OK, I see that V-neck sweater you got, Mozzy." And you later heard Shumpert say, "Later, Gryffindor," when saying goodnight to Griffin, exposing Shumpert as a Harry Potterphile.
And you saw the smile on Matthew Dellavedova's face after he put up 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds while the Cavs' celebrated Australia Day. He heard James rib him for wearing green and yellow sneakers and a green arm sleeve to make himself look like the Aussie flag.
And there was Mozgov, striped sweater and all, holding his head high during his postgame interviews, feeling good about his rim-rattling, left-handed dunk that was the highlight of the night rather than dwelling on his stat line, which showed he totaled only four points and three rebounds.
"It was a good one, yeah," Mozgov said of the dunk. "I wish I could have like 10 of those in the game."
And you noticed the self-deprecation in Kevin Love's voice when a reporter posited that it would be impossible for him to play his preferred elbow-oriented offense while his teammates are implementing Lue's up-tempo instructions.
"Not if I'm trailing the plays," Love quipped, acknowledging just how gassed he has been by the quickened pace.
All in all, the night provided a much-needed pressure release for a team that had its feet to the fire the last few days after the Blatt firing was followed by a disappointing home loss to Chicago.
The reality of Cleveland's situation is that it has a long way to go before it will be executing at the requisite level to beat a team such as the San Antonio Spurs, who come to town this weekend. For now, every shootaround and practice has to be morphed into a mini training-camp session to focus on team conditioning so that this quicker-pace thing will actually work without leading to missed shots, as it did in the Chicago game, or turnovers and porous defense, as it did in the Minnesota game.
For a night, the emotion of joy and camaraderie was more important to the Cavs than how their execution would be viewed as a referendum on how they will perform against a more formidable foe in the future.
"We want to get back to that, understanding how precious these moments are," James said. "Just trying to not take it for granted and have a good time while we're out there playing for one another, and I think we did that tonight."