Surprising, entertaining Cavs going through growing pains, learning how to win at a higher level

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Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine (8) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers' Isaac Okoro (35) and Jarrett Allen (31) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Chicago Bulls’ Zach LaVine (8) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers’ Isaac Okoro (35) and Jarrett Allen (31) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Heading into this season, the general notion toward the 2021-22 Cavaliers was that it’d be yet another rebuilding year in the lottery. They were projected to win fewer than 30 games. Outside of their locker room, they were again seen as a younger team still a few years and a few pieces from being able to make any noise in the Eastern Conference.

But those inside the locker room bought into the idea that they didn’t need to wait. They bought into head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. They bought into the underdog label they’d carry into almost every single game they’d play. And they bought into the idea that they could win games through sheer chemistry and scrappiness. And it has worked.

“I don’t want to sound grandiose here but like what it is, is at the beginning of the year, we talked about how we can be most effective and we said that every night, we had to be the best team on the floor. That’s not the best group of individuals. That’s not a disjointed bunch. It’s that togetherness that we talk about,” Bickerstaff told reporters recently. “It’s that selflessness that we talk about, and it’s the trust that we have in one another. And that was the way that we were going to give ourselves a chance to be successful this year. And then the second piece of that is we had to go out and be the most competitive team on the floor. And that’s what our guys would live in by.”

This youthful, resilient, supremely entertaining bunch of Cavs haven’t yet established themselves to the degree they’d like, but they have demanded attention, from both the rest of the league and the fans watching at home.

They have simply become too much fun to miss on a nightly basis. Something has been brewing within the Cavs’ locker room that has pretty much coincided with the release of the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s beloved Christmas Ale this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love (0) drives against Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young (11) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love (0) drives against Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young (11) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

But it also doesn’t mean they’ve reached their intended destination — not by a long shot. They’re dreaming much bigger than a 14-12 record. Two recent stretches help to tell the story of where this young, pesky group of Cavs stand.

From Nov. 27-Dec. 3, the Cavs won four consecutive games, including three in a row on the road. It featured their first win in Miami in a couple decades and a statement win in Washington. It helped to show that they have the potential to punch back against some of the league’s top teams.

The Cavs then dropped two consecutive games, a one-point loss to Utah and an eight-point loss to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. But for a young team that is surely going to go through some additional growing pains, going toe-to-toe with some of the game’s top teams can have significant value, win or lose. Winning comes with a learning curve.

“Yeah I think it’s good it’s happening now,” said Kevin Love, speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “I think the schedule and the teams we’ve played, understanding how and where we need to get better is huge for us. … I think getting a lot of that stuff now and understanding, ‘Hey, this is our guiding light, this is our North star, this is where we need to get to,’ the fact that it’s happening now is great for a team like this.”

In a way, Love went on to say, teams have to learn how to really win at a higher level. Just about anybody can surprise a contending team on a given night. Being able to compete with a 60-win team in a seven-game series, or really battling with elite rosters night after night, is a learned attribute. And it starts with preparation.

“For sure. It’s 100 percent mental. It’s a mental hurdle you have to get over,” Love said as one of the few veterans on the roster. “That’s the type of stuff you do in practice, execution, Xs and Os, you’re subbing guys in, offense, defense, everything has to be crazy attention to detail and you have to be in your spots and you have to pay attention. All this work we do in film, all this work we do on the practice floor that people might not necessarily see, that’s when it counts.”

The Cavs unquestionably have some exciting momentum on their side, even if the odds are still heavily against them when considering a series against some of the elite teams in the game. But they’re always nowhere near to the level of which they’re dreaming.

“The mood is, we’re not satisfied. We know that we have a long way to go,” Bickerstaff said. “And the NBA season is a long season. And you can find pockets of success. You can find pockets of failure, but it’s how consistent you are over the 82. And we have to find that consistency that has to last the remainder of the season. So we’re not satisfied.

“We don’t believe we’ve accomplished anything yet. We’re still out earning the league’s respect. And that’s our goal. Our objective is to be respected by our peers. Because at the end of the day, that’s what this league is about. And that’s what we all search for is that respect and you get that respect by competing.”

Ryan Lewis can be reached at [email protected] Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cavs. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Entertaining Cavs learning how to win at a higher level

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