CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ frustrating week began with an embarrassing loss against the San Antonio Spurs followed by a message from veteran James Jones, who felt it was his time to address the team.
Jones, a 14-year veteran and one of the most respected voices in the locker room, believes March is critically important. It’s the final push. The time when title contenders are continuing to sharpen championship habits.
Instead, he saw some flaws. The frustration built up. So he said his piece, rejecting the notion that the Cavs can simply flip the switch in the postseason.
“Whoever said that, they lie,” Jones told cleveland.com prior to Friday’s rout against the Philadelphia 76ers. “There’s no sport where you’re playing with the world’s best athletes and particularly in basketball, there is no switch to be flipped.
“This is a game of rhythm. This is a game of feel. This is a game of runs and trends. You can’t just flip it on. We understand that. I think flipping a switch sounds good but trust me there’s never been and never will be a team that can flip a switch.”
A meeting after a loss of that magnitude isn’t unusual. Sometimes teams will let emotions die down and meet the next day, following practice or film sessions. Sometimes teams wait until hitting rock bottom. According to Jones, the Cavs like to air out their grievances immediately. It’s what works best.
“Get it out of the way,” Tristan Thompson said. “We’re going to say it and then move forward. For Champ, he was frustrated and it built up so that’s what you want. Been around a long time. We respect him.”
A veteran team, with the league’s second oldest roster, a number of players are willing to speak up, sharing advice on how to troubleshoot chaos.
Sometimes it’s LeBron James, who said he would voice his opinion after he calibrates enough necessary data and thinks it’s the right time. Kyrie Irving has been outspoken about the team’s recent struggles. Late Monday night, inside a somber locker room after being outclassed by the Spurs, Jones stepped to the forefront.
“He’s like mastered the timing,” Love said. “He always seems like he knows when to speak and the right thing to say. It’s always from a place of positivity. It’s natural and human instinct to be frustrated when things are down, but for Champ you always find a positive out of it and he always has a good way of viewing things. He has that old man wisdom. When he speaks he’s pretty on point with what he’s saying.”
So did Jones pick the right time?
“I think it was a good time for us to address that,” Love said. “At the time we had eight (games) left so I think the time, you have less than 10 games left in the regular season and you’re heading into April, I think it was the right time.”
Jones asked rhetorically what everyone wanted out of the season. And after a ninth loss in 15 tries, he felt the struggles were more than a March malaise, losses stemming from a rigorous schedule, which featured 12 road games and travel through different time zones.
“It’s go time,” Jones said of his message. “This is the part of the year where all your energy and effort becomes focused on getting better and laying it all on the table. Just try to reiterate and make sure guys understand that we all our focused on leaving it all out there every night. We can’t pick spots, we just have to be ready to go. We have to go full tilt for 48 minutes per game.
“You can get a lot done the last two or three weeks in the season. You can go to another level or you can take a step back and we’re in an adverse situation right now where if we do what we set out to do, which is make a hard push down the stretch, we will come out better for it in a few days.”
The change didn’t happen immediately. The Cavs followed up the Spurs clunker with their 10th loss of the month.
No one really knows exactly what that chat in San Antonio means in the big picture. Maybe it will be a turning point. Or maybe it will be just another team meeting for a group that, for better or worse, has a few of them per year.
“We’re doing some good things,” Jones admitted. “We’re doing it in stretches, but not as long as we would like and we haven’t put together a complete game in a long time and we haven’t had a complete team in a long time. But right now we’re at the point where we just have to get it done. As we continue to go out there and play hard every possession and test our minds and test our bodies we will develop that extra mental toughness that we will need in the playoffs.”
Jones wouldn’t term the Cavs a complacent team. But guys are obviously in new territory trying to repeat as champions. That’s not easy.
That pressure, combined with the losing month, has been weighing on Irving, who admitted Thursday that the team is “all over the place” mentally.
“I tell him that adversity builds character. Gotta figure it out,” Jones said. “(Kyrie) will figure it out, but as teammates we will help him. Ultimately it’s those three guys (James, Irving and Love). They make us go so they have to find a way to inspire us, to ignite us and to lead.
“That means playing every possession. That means making every right play. That means making every right decision and when you don’t make the right decision owning up to it and moving on and making the right decision the next time down.”
In the Cavs’ get-right game against the Sixers Friday, the trio stepped up.
Cleveland’s Big Three scored the team’s first 10 points and 14 of 17 to open the game. By the end of a dominant first half, building an 18-point edge against the wounded 76ers, James, Irving and Love had combined for 45 of the 70 points.
“The time for talking is over,” Jones said. “Our three guys know what they need to do to right this ship and to make us better. Now it’s on them to go out there and do it.”
The Cavs are preaching a sense of urgency. That’s why there was another team meeting following Thursday’s loss against the Bulls.
But being back home, crushing an inferior opponent, led to a different locker room vibe Friday. There was no need for a postgame address this time. Winning has a way of calming nerves. It fixes problems that speeches can’t. It builds confidence.
“We need to continue to progress and move forward,” Love said. “We have far more than enough to win. We’ve shown that.”