The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Thursday night's nationally televised matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers reeling. They'd lost six in a row and nine of their last 10, sitting a game under .500 with their stars underperforming and their reserves offering little support, and finding themselves surrounded by static that made the situation on the ground seem downright miserable. The only thing on which everybody seemed to agree — well, beyond the Cavaliers being one of the league's bigger disappointments through 39 games — is that the only way for LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and head coach David Blatt to scatter all this static would be to win some actual NBA basketball games for a change. They did just that on Thursday, beating the Lakers 109-102 at Staples Center.
It wasn't the prettiest win — LeBron had some rough moments there, and Cleveland's perpetually porous defense allowed L.A. to score 61 points on 59.5 percent shooting in the first half, with Kobe Bryant carving up the Cavs to the tune of a career-high 17 assists. But LeBron got LeBron-y in the second half (23 of his game-high 36 points after intermission), the defense tightened (the Lakers managed just 41 points on 41.2 percent shooting in the third and fourth quarters) and Love gutted out a 17-point, seven-board, 37-minute performance through back spasms; and anyway, when you're flailing as wildly as the Cavs have been of late, style points aren't nearly as important as results, and the win offered a much-needed life preserver.
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So with chaos roiling and the buzzards circling overhead, how did Blatt get the Cavs refocused enough to notch their ninth road win of the season? With a little bit of trickery and, according to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, a little bit of Dude-and-Walter-style therapy:
The Cleveland Cavaliers were of the understanding that they were on their way to practice on the campus of UCLA on Wednesday afternoon. [...] But what should have been a six-minute bus ride from their Beverly Hills hotel to the campus turned into 10, then 15, then a 20-minute ride.
"I was like, 'Where are we going?'" Tristan Thompson recalled to Northeast Ohio Media Group. "I was confused."
Head coach David Blatt had something up his sleeve. When the bus finally stopped, it was in front of a bowling establishment in Hollywood. To their shock, they learned practice was never in the plans. It was about getting away from basketball and bonding as a team. [...]
"I think it was a surprise for most guys," Kevin Love said. "It just helped so much. We all needed a break from it all." [...]
"[Bowling] didn't seem to affect too many people's jump-shots. This man [J.R. Smith] was throwing a six-pound ball around," Love revealed. "Those events are fun. We were able to go out there and bowl, eat bad food and enjoy ourselves. It had us loose for the game."
Smith, for the record, put up 13 shots on Thursday, including 10 3-pointers, en route to scoring 14 points in the win, so yes, I'd have to agree with Love's analysis that J.R. wasn't impacted by the exertion of the surprise excursion. Then again, 11 years into his NBA career, we've yet to find the element that would deter J.R. Smith from jacking jumpers, and I suspect we never will.
Now, to be fair, taking a group of grown men on a surprise trip to the bowling alley for some wholesome family fun might not necessarily be everyone's idea of a grand time. But given how difficult things have been for the Cavs lately — on the court, in media sessions, in the locker room, etc. — there might have been something to at least shifting the setting of the team's regular interactions, trying to get away from the grind and try to just build familiarity among a still-coalescing group of individuals in a pressure-free setting. From Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports:
"You know ... I'm just so tired of all this personal stuff," Blatt said when asked how he was handling the criticism. "I'm a coach of a basketball team, and we're all a part of this. A lot of things have been said, and most of them unfairly, not truly depicting the situation. We've been struggling. I readily admit it. [But] within the team, things are fine. Guys are working hard. Guys are very, very much listening and attentive. And you know, we're not out of the mud yet, but we're going to be because we're going to get our team fully stocked and we're moving in the right direction. And all that other stuff, the personal [stuff], I really don't think about it. I don't listen to it, and I don't worry about it." [...]
"We know that we have to figure it out," Love told USA TODAY Sports. "The best thing we can do is quiet the noise — and do it internally. That's how it's going to be, though. I think when you have the best player in the world, there's just so much — I mean it's no secret that we're in this foxhole together and there's going to be a million people trying to get in. It's just something we've got to live with, and build on, but I think as far as the noise, [expletive], there's a lot of it. We just have to ignore it."
And, most importantly, figure out a way to diffuse it all together. With so many new faces in the locker room and on the sideline, so many people trying to figure out how to do different things than they're used to doing, so much riding on the success of the experiment and so many observers breathlessly documenting every stumble and stutter along the way, some semblance of esprit de corps seems like it'd make moving forward easier, and emphasizing it (even in a way that some might find pretty corny) seems like a fairly reasonable idea.
Of course, no field trip in the world is going to make a significant difference if the emphasis on togetherness doesn't make its way to the court, which made Love's willingness — despite the back spasms that nearly made him a healthy scratch — to save a basket by taking a charge on a driving Jeremy Lin in the fourth quarter just the sort of play that a team in the Cavs' position sorely needs.
"You have instances during the season where you feel like you got closer," James said after the game, according to Amick. "What Kevin did tonight, playing through the injuries, he could've easily sat down for the rest of the game. He was able to tough it out. I said, 'Whatever you've got, whatever you can give.' He did that. He knocked down a three, he battled on the glass and even with his back feeling like he couldn't play no more, he took a charge. Those are moments in the season where you know your team is making a step forward. To have one of your big guys do that was huge."
J.R.'s response to Love's sacrifice had a bit less "soaring oratory" to it — "I thought he was dead," Smith joked — but that, too, might indicate a bit of puncturing of the balloon that could help stabilize things. That said, the Cavaliers could find all the positive vibes scuttled in just 24 hours' time, thanks to a significant upgrade in the level of their competition when they take on the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday. If they can come away with a Staples Center sweep, however, the Cavaliers could return to Ohio for their upcoming four-game homestand with a newfound appreciation of the power of simply abiding, and takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.
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