CLEVELAND -- Perhaps the most damning facet of David Blatt’s coaching tenure in Cleveland was the perception within the organization that he treated each game as its own entity, rather than building for the big picture.
It is for that very reason that Blatt started to lose the locker room on Christmas Day, when the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors. It was not because of the result but because the atypical lineups he put on the court left the team thinking that whatever rhythm and identity it had cultivated to that point of the season were compromised to chase a single win.
It was with a keen understanding of that story of what went wrong under Blatt that new head coach Tyronn Lue answered a pregame question on Saturday. Just how much importance would he place on his squad's performance against the only team other the Warriors with a better record than the Cavaliers'?
“I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it,” Lue said. “I just want to make sure our style of basketball is what we want to play. I know it’s a big game because it’s the San Antonio Spurs, but it’s only one game for us. If we take care of our business and do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t have to beat this team until June.”
Skeptics will say this was a classic case of an underpromise and overdeliver by Lue. If you set expectations low, you can control the threshold for what is deemed a success.
However, after watching the Cavs completely handle the Spurs 117-103 while playing a get-it-and-go brand of basketball that Lue introduced the team to when he took over a week ago, it's easy to see the merit in Lue’s point.
If the Cavaliers can beat a great team such as the Spurs, albeit without Tim Duncan, just a week into playing this way and can look like the best version of themselves while doing so, how good can they look in four or five months, when the games really matter?
“I think our team responded well, playing fast, getting easy shots, Kyrie and LeBron attacking early, and then Kevin in the low post and making jump shots, so I thought tonight was a picture-perfect way of how we want to play,” Lue said. “The guys came out and executed it.”
The Big Three seemingly took turns calling their own numbers, like members of a band wailing out solos during an epic rock song. Love did his damage first, by scoring 14 of his 21 points in the first quarter as Cleveland built a double-digit lead. Then it was James scoring 16 of his 29 points in the third, while the Cavs maintained their healthy 17-point halftime lead. The fourth belonged to Irving, as he scored 11 of his 21 points in the final stanza to put the finishing touches on the victory.
“It was by design,” Lue continued. “Kevin had it going early, so we wanted to keep featuring Kevin. LeBron was being a facilitator, and I wanted Kyrie to keep attacking, keep being aggressive, and it kind of all worked out. Kevin carried us in the first half, and LeBron and Kyrie carried us in the second half. The Big Three came through for us. It was great.”
With the team 4-1 through Lue's first five games, there is tangible evidence of the new coach hitting the right notes. Yet the Cavs won about 3.5 out of every five games they played under Blatt, so it's not too dramatic an improvement. The difference is the confidence Lue is inspiring in the approach.
Before the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked if he ever sees qualities in a player he coaches against -- such as Lue -- that make him think the player could become a coach someday.
“I think it also has to do with what kind of people they are,” Popovich said. “How interested they are in the game. How much they study it. What their relationships to other people are like. Do they command respect? Are they leaders? All of those things go into figuring out whether a player is cut out to be a coach. They have to be goofy enough to want to do it. It’s a stupid job.”
Indeed, it can come off as a pretty inane occupation when you can be fired when your team is in first place, as was the case with Blatt. Yet there is no question Lue is devoted to the NBA, and that devotion has resulted in buy-in from his players through five games.
“For us, Coach Lue is the captain,” James said. “He’s the captain of the ship. We got to do whatever it takes, do whatever he barks out. And to see it coming to fruition out on the court definitely helps for sure, but it all starts with us. He can only put us in position, but we got to go out and execute, and it’s great to have a leader like Coach, and we go out and execute it offensively and defensively.”
To James’ point, as much as Lue’s game plan was a factor in the win, a team source told ESPN.com that just as important were James’ and Irving’s pregame words to the Cavs. Rather than focusing on revenge of the Spurs' beating them earlier this month or bringing up Popovich’s sarcastic dig at general manager David Griffin or mentioning Cleveland’s troubling 0-5 record against Golden State, San Antonio and Chicago up to that point, the pair kept it simple.
Come out with energy. The Cavs were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. James and Irving figured that if Cleveland could come out with an initial wave of effort, the rest would take care of itself, through Lue’s quickened pace, the home crowd and adrenaline.
It was mission accomplished for the night, but it is meaningless if not continued.
“We got to keep it going,” Lue said. “We don’t want to just let it be a six- [or] seven-game process and then we go back to being who we were before.”
As James added, “We want to continue to get better, no matter our opponent. This was a very good win against a very great team. We know that. But it doesn’t stop the season and stop our process from starting.”