CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Nov. 7, the night before the Cleveland Cavaliers were set to leave for their first extended road trip of the season, LeBron James — moody about the team’s sluggish start carrying over into the second month — was asked whether the trip was coming at a good time.
“Well we’re going to see,” he said. “We’re going to see. It will go one of two ways.”
The roadie opened against the high-powered Rockets, one of the few legitimate NBA title contenders. Not the best matchup for a struggling team with a leaky defense and an old roster that was giving up oodles of transition baskets.
The Cavs entered having lost five of their previous seven games, sitting below .500 on the season while staring up at lesser teams in the Eastern Conference standings. They were also without starting point guard Derrick Rose and center Tristan Thompson.
Early on, Cleveland looked like a team still searching for that identity.
A slow start. Poor defense. Looks of bewilderment. Finger pointing. Palms raised to the sky. The trip was supposed to help the new-look Cavaliers bond — on and off the floor. It was supposed to help them escape the recent frustration while providing a springboard into the next segment of the season.
Instead, the opener in Houston looked destined to be another embarrassing loss, threatening to unhinge an ornery locker room.
But the Cavs kept fighting back, rallying from multiple double-digit deficits and responding to every Houston haymaker. The effort was there, as they dove for loose balls and sprinted to contest 3-point shots. Head coach Tyronn Lue changed the lineup on the fly, going with Jeff Green to get more speed and athleticism to match the up-tempo Rockets.
Despite the late rally, the Cavs lost that night — a defeat that became the team’s launch pad to this current winning streak.
“It definitely was a turning point for the team,” Dwyane Wade told cleveland.com Wednesday night. “That road trip that we went on — as we talked about before we went — everyone knows most teams try to use the road to build some kind of team camaraderie, to build some kind of team togetherness and we were able to do that on that trip.
“Every game that we’ve won after that, they weren’t pretty, but we’ve won them. That’s what you have to do in this league, you have to find — even when you’re not playing great — you have to find ways to win games until you get to the point where you’re getting to where you want to be.”
Moral victories don’t typically apply to three-time finalists. But at that point in early November, the Cavs were looking for something, anything to lift them out of their funk.
And they found it. Who knew the answers would be hidden in a loss against the Rockets?
“I think that game really made us focus on what we needed to focus on as far as getting better from where we came from,” Jeff Green told cleveland.com. “I think it was a very important game to the success we’re having now.
“To get back into the game against a team like Houston we picked up our effort and we felt like we should’ve won that game, but came up short. It also showed us the blueprint of what we needed to do.”
In the first few weeks, the Cavs seemed to lean on the idea of effort correlating to wins. Play hard and win. Mess with the game and lose.
Delusional as it was, it became an interesting narrative. Only it was never really that simple. That night against Houston, the Cavs put forth the requisite effort. They scrapped and wanted the win. The Rockets had their attention, unlike some other teams on the schedule in October. And yet, the Cavs still lost, proving there were other corrections to make.
“No one likes to lose. But understanding in this league, especially when you’re bringing a new team together, you have to take every moment as a teaching point. In losses and in wins, but more so in losses early on,” Wade said. “Because every time you lose it’s not as bad as it looks. You have to go and make sure you see that. Just like every time you win its not as good as it looks. You have to make sure you stay on top of that.”
Following the loss against the Rockets, there was no state-of-the-team address from one of the leaders. There were no rah rah speeches. There was no group huddle or immediate film session — something Kevin Love recalls the Cavs doing following an Opening Night loss against the Chicago Bulls in the 2015-16 regular season, which helped spur an eight-game winning streak.
But there was a different feeling in the locker room. This wasn’t the team getting their doors blown off, as Wade termed it, against Orlando, New Orleans, New York or Indiana. This was something to build on.
“I thought we all took positives out of that game that gave us confidence moving forward that we were on the right track, we were getting to where we needed to get to and we had the fight as a team,” Wade said. “You could tell the guys were tired of losing at that time. We were making those steps to get there.”
Love recalled that same vibe.
“I just think, as far as how we felt in the locker room after the game, that we gave ourselves a chance to win,” Love said. “We know that they’re a really good team and we felt like defensively we were a lot better and just the overall feeling. We felt like if we played like that we were going to give ourselves a chance to win every night.
“I think he’s right in saying that was a point when we just said as a group, ‘We did a lot of good things.’ It was really as simple as that. It wasn’t, ‘Oh f— we lost another one.’ We gave ourselves a chance that night to beat a really good team and it was a step forward for us.”
Love also joked that the team drank a lot of wine that night. Hey, whatever works.
Either way, here the Cavs are. They finished that important season-changing trip with three straight wins, exactly what they talked about following the loss against Houston. Then they ripped off 10 more, pushing their winning streak to a franchise-tying mark of 13 games after edging the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
Not every win has been a masterpiece. The Cavs had to rally against the Clippers and Hornets. They were again tested by the Hawks and Grizzlies.
Still, there’s an obvious difference between the team that showed up in Houston searching and the one that currently sits No. 2 in the East.
There’s more confidence. There’s more focus on the defensive end — even if the numbers are a bit deceiving — with communication picking up. Lue has settled on an effective rotation. The team is in even better physical shape, understanding how they need to play in order to win games consistently. Offensively, they have become one of the league’s most prolific again, relying more on the 3-pointer.
It’s been nearly one month since their last loss, one that changed everything, sparking a turnaround that didn’t seem likely at that time.
“We’re night and day,” Wade said. “Not just because we’ve won. But because we’ve gotten to know each other. I think we’ve settled into our roles. And for coaches as well. Because it’s a different team than they had here. We had to do it on the fly. Unfortunately it came with some ugly losses early to teams we should have beat, but it’s just going to make us stronger down the line when we play better competition.”