ATLANTA — Following a discouraging performance in the preseason opener one night earlier, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff issued a challenge to his team.
Play Cavaliers basketball.
Wednesday night in Atlanta provided an opportunity to respond. The Cavs did. They beat the undermanned Hawks, 99-96, for their first victory of the preseason.
While clearly displeased with Tuesday’s clunker and admitting they needed to be better, there was a belief throughout the organization that the issues were addressable — and preseason is never the time to panic or overcorrect. No matter the outcome, the same two goals exist every night: Be the most competitive and selfless team. Bickerstaff asked for more spirit and cohesiveness. He demanded the team approach he’s been preaching since training camp opened less than two weeks ago. Fewer turnovers would’ve been nice too.
This much is clear: Cleveland remains a work in progress. It’s a young, mistake-prone team that needs plenty of seasoning. There are more bad nights coming. Wednesday wasn’t pretty either. But there were signs of growth — and this time, the numerous blunders didn’t sabotage their chances.
Somehow, the Cavs overcame 22 miscues — a majority (15) of which came from guards Collin Sexton, Ricky Rubio and Darius Garland. Sexton was the main culprit. He had seven in 33 minutes.
Just how important was a bounce-back performance? In the second preseason game, after getting into Atlanta around 2 a.m. and less than 24 hours following a miserable night in Chicago, Bickerstaff used a tight 10-man rotation, the same one that will likely be his go-to when the regular season starts on Oct. 20. He also finished the game with his starters, giving them an early test of poise in a competitive, late-game situation.
Wednesday wasn’t as much about experimenting with different lineup combinations or getting a closer look at the players fighting for a spot. It was about putting words into action. Fighting back. Proving something.
“The challenge was laid, and you wanted to see if the guys were willing to accept the challenge, and if they were capable of accepting the challenge,” Bickerstaff said. “I think they proved that they were and the most important thing is they proved that it mattered to them.
“Preseason, exhibition, regular season, like whatever it was, it was important enough to them to go out and do the right thing over and over again, and help this team win a basketball game. They scrapped. They laid it out on the line for us. They helped one another. They played Cavaliers basketball, even though it wasn’t always pretty. The response from last night to tonight is huge.”
Sexton led all scorers with 19 points on 7-of-17 from the field and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. Garland added 15 to go with seven assists. Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro each had 12. Rookie Evan Mobley finished with eight points, 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, helping anchor a defense that held the Hawks to 38.9% shooting and forced 19 turnovers.
“His defensive instincts are extremely unique for player his age and experience level,” Bickerstaff said of Mobley. “His understanding of the game and where to be and what’s next is phenomenal.”
Mobley also had a few highlight-reel plays on the offensive end, including a thunderous two-handed dunk over fellow rookie Jalen Johnson in the first half. As Cleveland’s youngster hung on the rim, he let out a roar and stared down at the helpless defender. Garland followed, hopping off the bench and flexing. On this night, there was something to celebrate.
The usual preseason qualifiers exist. Add in the missing pieces from Atlanta, which played without Trae Young, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, Solomon Hill and Onyeka Okongwu, and it was the perfect setup for Cleveland to wipe away the sour taste from the opener. But the Cavs still had to capitalize. As they’ve been saying for weeks, it’s about them, controlling what they can control.
The vibe around the Cavs Wednesday afternoon was simple: Tuesday wasn’t us. That’s not how we play. That’s not how we’ve been practicing. That’s not good enough. It can’t happen again.
It didn’t. Not Wednesday anyway. And that’s a positive — and needed — step forward.
“The whole world knows how we played [Tuesday] and that’s not to a standard we want to play. It’s not to a standard of winning a single game in the NBA,” Allen said. “We were disappointed in ourselves, how we played. I’m pretty sure that fueled the fire to come out here and play better tonight.”
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