CHICAGO — If LeBron James didn’t know it before Tuesday night, by the time he was sitting half-naked, feet plunged in a bucket of ice water and surrounded by a few dozen people standing in front of him waiting to hear him speak after the game, a reality check surely had to have set in.
As he sat trapped in the position until a smart-phone timer would tell him his ice treatment was up, James chatted with a Cavs staffer, their conversation winding its way to Cleveland’s game against Golden State on Christmas Day.
“When were they flying out to San Francisco, again?” he asked. “Why not fly out the night of the 23rd after their game against New York instead of during the day on the 24th?”
It was harmless stuff. Filler, really. But symbolically, there was a bit of escapism going on. The more pertinent questions that begged to be asked: Wouldn’t it be nice for this Cavs team to simply fast forward to Christmas for a marquee rematch against the Warriors? Won’t it be better when Kyrie Irving‘s left knee and Iman Shumpert‘s right wrist are recovered and the Cavs are whole again?
That’s not how this goes, of course. There’s no escaping the grind. It’s time to punch the clock again. And there is a whole lot of work ahead for James and the Cleveland Cavaliers if they hope to get back to the Finals for the second straight season to capture the first major professional sports championship in their city since 1964.
It’s not that there was anything in the Cavs’ 97-95 opening night loss to the Chicago Bulls that should make anyone believe the Cavs can’t or won’t do the work to get them back to contender status, it’s just that the process will bring its fair share of pain.
The venue, a place the Cavs hadn’t been in more than five months since finishing off the Bulls in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, was as good a reminder as anything of just how far there is to go and just how long the process will be to get there. And the United Center’s special courtside guest, President Barack Obama, was a representation of the fact that the process, warts and all, will play out in public with the world watching, or at least a world leader or two.
“We’re not yet where we’re going to be, and I said that coming in,” Cavs coach David Blatt said after the game. “Not to be someone that knows what’s going to happen ahead of time, but that’s natural. You haven’t played and haven’t practiced with your full unit, you’re going to struggle a little bit timing-wise, you’re going to be a little bit off with some of your shots.”
“Struggle” was putting it lightly Tuesday. Cleveland shot just 40.4 percent from the field, 31 percent from 3-point range and 58.8 percent from the foul line against Chicago.
But the not-so-hidden secret, which became abundantly apparent last season, when the Cavs started 19-20 only to end up two wins away from winning the whole thing, is that the result of the Bulls game isn’t all that representative of anything, really.
“Every team has its own unique arc,” James Jones said. “You have contenders, you have upstarts, you have teams on the rise, teams that are holding on, teams that are falling. So, depending on where you are, you approach different points of the season with a different level of urgency. And so for us, winning is important, but building continuity and getting stronger and better at every facet of the game is most important.”
It’s why James’ line of 25 points on 12-for-22 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists and just one turnover was encouraging, but what was even better to see was him putting on a pair of compression leggings for the flight to Memphis later Tuesday night in an effort to help blood circulation and maintain his body for the first back-to-back of the season Wednesday.
It’s why Kevin Love‘s 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists look good on paper, but what was more significant for him was that he overcame the mental hurdle of playing in a real game for the first time since dislocating his shoulder six months ago.
“I think on the bus ride over here I was kind of thinking that,” Love said. “Thinking, ‘This is going to be a little bit different.’ There were going to be times, and it happened a few times tonight, where I’m not going to be going against a coach or hitting a coach or waiting for somebody like that to come and contest my shot. It’s going to be guys (on) a team that really blocks a lot of shots, contests shots at a high level. … Coming over here it definitely set in.”
It’s why Tristan Thompson couldn’t be too satisfied with 12 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, because he still knows he has work to do to prove to everyone he’s worth the contract he received and that missing camp during his holdout won’t hurt his game.
“Maybe if I grab some more offensive rebounds, then I’ll feel like I’m back,” said Thompson, who had only two offensive boards against the Bulls.
It’s why the team won’t dwell on Mo Williams‘ turnover on the final inbound pass that could have set up a game-winning score, just like it won’t celebrate Williams’ 19 points in his debut. It’s why the Cavs’ 13-point comeback to take the lead in the second half will be couched by recognizing they shouldn’t have trailed by 11 points after the first quarter to begin with.
And it’s why James admitted he was “kind of surprised” by Cleveland’s positive measures — 26 assists on 38 field goals and only 10 turnovers — because the mix the Cavs are playing with is a work in progress at best.
And the work is only beginning.