CLEVELAND: Apparently for the young Cavaliers, pride is not a 24/7, 365 virtue.
Apparently it ebbs and flows, depending on whether anyone in the NBA is watching.
For them, not every night is “Showtime,” even though they have a former Los Angeles Laker as their coach who knows it should not be a once-a-week or a when-they-feel-like-it occurrence.
Those who have pride in their work agonize over a sales call that didn’t go well or a pizza prepared with the wrong toppings or a sports story that didn’t make the words sing.
Apparently the Cavs, who have four starters 23 or under, figure pride can wait until next season.
They seem fine pushing a pepperoni pie across the counter when the customer ordered sausage.
How else to explain that nine of their 16 victories have come against opponents that are .500 or better? That their record is 6-14 against sub .500 foes? That they looked pathetic in an 18-point loss at the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 1 and the next night won by five at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which now boasts the second-best record in the league? That they came in with a three-game winning streak Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were without six regulars, and turned in a stinker?
In their last game before the All-Star break, the Cavs stuck to their M.O. Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs showed energy from the start, never falling behind by more than four points, but Kawhi Leonard nailed a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining to give the Spurs a 96-95 victory.
The Cavs came within one point of beating the three Western Conference division leaders this season.
Cavs coach Byron Scott has racked his brain trying to figure out why the Cavs don’t go all-out unless it’s the NBA’s version of Ohio State vs. Michigan or North Carolina vs. Duke.
“The only thing I can really think about in why we play good against good teams is you don’t want to be embarrassed,” Scott said after Wednesday’s shootaround. “You know they’re good so your antennas are a little bit more up. Your awareness is much more heightened. Your focus is much more there. When we’re playing against teams that are bad, we don’t have that same type of focus. That to me is youth and inexperience.”
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the big three of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, have a combined 36 years of NBA experience. But even with a veteran team, Popovich understands Scott’s frustration.
“We want to believe it’s your players’ jobs to get themselves up,” Popovich said before the game. “The plumber and the doctor don’t get motivating speeches every day. Players should be no different. Having said that, it doesn’t always work that way. Especially with a young team, it’s much easier to get wired up for teams with the better records because that’s like a measure for you.
“So I’m expecting the Cavs to come out with stuff coming out of their mouths and their veins popping.”
Popovich was exaggerating, but he wasn’t far off. The Cavs were aggressive from the tip. Rookie center Tyler Zeller came through with a surprising driving slam in the opening three minutes and seemed to be having an out-of-body experience against Duncan, finishing with 16 points and nine rebounds. Even the Cavs’ second team was on point, with Shaun Livingston batting the ball between Ginobili’s legs and turning it into a fast-break dunk. In the third quarter, Zeller stood his ground to draw an offensive foul from a spinning Parker.
Luke Walton offered a theory, figuring the Cavs have a difficult time changing in midstream when things aren’t going their way. That’s not necessary when they’re focused from the start.
“With us it’s more being pretty much a new team, sometimes we don’t make the adjustments on the go as well as we should, as teams that have played together longer,” Walton surmised after the Cavs’ shootaround.
Scott didn’t agree, perhaps because it might reflect poorly on him. Whatever the Cavs are doing or not doing, trying to turn their effort on and off doesn’t work. Northeast Ohio fans learned that during the LeBron James era.
Yet these Cavs of the SportsCenter generation seem to know when they have a chance to make the worldwide leader’s highlights and are “disinterested” — as Kyrie Irving put it against the Pistons — when they assume they won’t. They figure a massive slam against the Timberwolves will get them no glory.
“It’s natural and it’s easier to get up for the big games,” Walton said. “But we’re [16-37] … There’s no little games for us.”
Some Cavs might not realize that it takes the sight of a Duncan or a Kevin Durant to get their hearts pumping. But the maddening trait, if not eventually nipped in the bud, could be enough to get a player benched or traded or a coach fired.
Scott seemed confident the Cavs will grow up and learn what it takes to be pros, although he acknowledged it might not be this season. Wednesday surely will not be the last we see of the big-game Cavs.
“See you after the win,” said a smiling usher near the elevators before tipoff.
If the man had the opponent in mind, he came within 2.9 seconds of knowing of what he spoke.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.