For Cavs, culture change leading to cool results
Random stuff following the Cavaliers’ 93-89 comeback victory over the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Wednesday:
— There’s something different about the Cavs, something that’s making you start to believe, something that goes beyond the fact they’re winning. But let’s start with that, because winning is the bottom line in this business. And the Cavs have won four straight for the first time since 2009-10, when LeBron James was on the team.
— It should be noted Mike Brown was the coach then, too. I think we tend to overlook that a lot. We tend to bash Brown a lot. We tend to make Brown out to be the villain when the Cavs lose, and ignore him when they win. You may hate Brown’s defense-first and sometimes-ugly brand of basketball. But you gotta love the results lately.
— During the first quarter Wednesday, the Cavs looked lost. (Actually, you could say that about the first three.) But it was during the first that I tweeted they had "no chance" if they tried to play a grind-it-out game. I implied they needed to run and get down the floor before the Pistons’ large and athletic frontcourt of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe. I was wrong. There’s a reason my coaching career lasted all of one season as a 19-year old assistant at Akron Christian School.
— Later, I sort of backtracked by making fun of myself in the next tweet, as the Cavs kept it close for most of the first half. Still, they trailed 51-40 at halftime and looked entirely out of sorts. I assumed, "Here we go again." I even got a little angry. It’s not like the Pistons are a great defensive team, I thought. And the Cavs could only manage 40 points in a half? C’mon.
— When the Cavs took their first lead at 83-82 with 2:06 remaining, I tweeted that "I know nothing about basketball." I don’t really believe that. I think I know something. But I probably don’t know as much as I sometimes think I know.
— The point of all this is, yes, Brown has a clue. That became increasingly difficult to believe when we watched the Cavs lose eight of nine prior to the winning streak. That was capped by an awful defeat to the undermanned Lakers at home. Former general manager Chris Grant was fired the next morning.
— So what happened? Did Brown suddenly become smarter after his good friend was let go? Uh, not likely. Chances are, Brown has known what he’s doing all along. It’s just that over the past four games, the players finally started to execute better. They’ve started to trust their coach, trust each other, and play harder and smarter.
— So while we all give a lot of credit to acting GM David Griffin for the sudden surge (and rightfully so), we shouldn’t forget about Brown. His message is finally getting across.
— As for Griffin, sources close to the team said he got the job and immediately made it a priority to change the culture in the locker room. It sounds silly, but he let the players know it was about having fun. Yes, it’s a business, but it’s also a game. Griffin wanted to remind the team, sources said, that people ought to enjoy themselves.
— Griffin also worked to repair what appeared to be a broken relationship between Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. That’s a big key, since those two are the Cavs’ most gifted players. If they can’t get along, the whole thing is bound to be a mess. But according to sources, Griffin told Irving and Waiters to ignore the rumors, that the Cavs aren’t looking to trade them. And if Irving and Waiters aren’t going anywhere, they may as well get used to (and again, enjoy) each other.
— A lot of this Griffin talk sounds like an indictment of Grant. That’s not the case. Grant had his own management style, but it was more of the tough-love variety. At the end of Grant’s tenure, some players seemed to be on edge. Griffin’s approach may not be better, but it is different, and so far, it’s working.
— OK, about those players. Out of all the heralded big men on the floor Wednesday, guess who was the best? Well, how about Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson? He compiled his second double-double in two nights, finishing with a game-high 25 points and 15 rebounds. No one was saying Grant should have drafted Drummond instead of Waiters in 2012 on this night. Thompson looked just fine, thank you very much.
— Of course, Waiters had one of those nights, scoring just nine points without an assist. He also went 0-of-4 on free throws in a close game. But he leaped off the bench and cheered wildly when Irving hit a big 3-pointer late in the game. And it’s OK to struggle through a less-than-stellar performance when you’re supporting your teammates. Waiters and the Cavs suddenly seem to be grasping that. They are having fun as a team even when they play poorly individually. That’s basically what Griffin is looking for.
— Irving (23 points) joined the Cavs Radio Network with play-by-play man John Michael and color analyst Jim Chones right after the game. "I’m on the radio!" Irving repeatedly said, playfully. Then he mentioned the "turmoil" experienced by the Cavs leading up to the previous four games. He strongly suggested that all that junk is a thing of the past.
— You could go on and on about this team as it heads into the All-Star break. No one outside of Thompson and Irving was very good, and some guys were downright atrocious, at least statistically. Yet for the fourth straight time, the Cavs won as a team. That’s quite promising. And to think in the previous two games, the Cavs were without Anderson Varejao, who’s suffering from a sore back. Also, C.J. Miles is battling a sore foot (although he played nine minutes Wednesday).
— The Cavs return from the break to visit Philadelphia on Tuesday, then host Orlando on Wednesday. They are three games out of the final playoff spot with 29 left. If they continue to play like this, you can bank on it, they will get in.