From NBA.com staff reports
Even after falling in Toronto to the Raptors last night, the Cleveland Cavaliers still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with an 11-4 mark. The troubling sign for them, though, has come on the road, where they are 3-4 and have lost three straight. After last night’s loss, Cavs star LeBron James questioned his team’s mental toughness and reports of a players-only meeting began to surface.
ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin reported the team did in fact have a players-only meeting while Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group did not report the same. Whatever happened after the game, this much is certain: there were some harsh truths doled out by James and some of his veteran teammates to the team’s younger players.
Following a 103-99 road loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers held a players-only meeting during which LeBron James and James Jones got on the team for its inconsistent play through the Cavs’ 11-4 start to the season, multiple sources told ESPN.com.
The loss to Toronto marked Cleveland’s fourth defeat at the hands of an Eastern Conference opponent this season — all of them coming on the road — and left the Cavs’ vocal leaders questioning the team’s mental toughness, something that has been a bit of a recurring theme so far this year.
Cleveland was outscored 31-16 from 3:46 remaining in the third quarter until 2:01 remaining in the fourth quarter, as Toronto ran away with the game.
“It’s all mindset,” James said after the game, still visibly frustrated. “It comes from within. I’ve always had it; my upbringing had me like that. It’s either you got it or you don’t.”
Cavs coach David Blatt absolved his team of any fault after the game, citing the fact that the Cavs were missing four key rotation players in Kyrie Irving (left knee), Iman Shumpert (right wrist), Timofey Mozgov (right shoulder) and Matthew Dellavedova (left calf).
“I thought that we got tired for obvious reasons. Very short-handed. Thought our guys played hard and I thought we ran out of gas,” Blatt said. “I thought fatigue played a big part of that, I really did.”
James, however, rejected his coach’s softer stance.
When asked whether fatigue was a factor, James said, “No. It’s not an excuse.” When another reporter asked whether injuries were to blame, James repeated, “It’s not an excuse.”
With the conference improving around them, James and Jones, who already have delivered halftime speeches this season to turn around stagnant team efforts, are trying to instill a sense of urgency in the group.
“It’s indicative of how we’ve been playing all year,” Jones told ESPN.com. “We haven’t been consistent. We haven’t been playing to the level of physicality and with the sense of urgency that we need to, that we set out to maintain.”
“For us, the season is about getting better,” Jones said. “It’s way too early in the season for us to even think that we’ve done anything or we’ve reached a level where we can’t continue to improve. So, we’re solid right now, but we have to get better. We’re not a team that’s chasing mediocrity. Being ‘solid’ isn’t good enough.”
As soon as you entered the room, the mood was tense. There was a somber feeling of a squad that had just lost a playoff game. Players were visibly frustrated and shocked. Tristan Thompson’s head was tilted downward, as if he were ashamed of himself.
“It’s up to the bigs,” he said to cleveland.com. “We’re playing too soft. Not tough enough. We have to step up.”
This would be the theme of the evening.
Kevin Love and Mo Williams were sitting at their locker stalls quiet, with puzzled expressions glued to their faces. LeBron James emerged from the shower with a nasty snarl. The reverberations of an unacceptable outcome was everywhere.
Before the media was granted postgame locker room access, the players addressed a lack of toughness, heart and defensive awareness displayed in the fourth quarter Wednesday. James and James Jones demanded more.
“It wasn’t a team meeting. It’s just another game,” Mo Williams said of the postgame team chat. “When you lose games, we just discuss things we could have done better and we need to do going forward. That was basically it.”
After James addressed the media, he walked over to Jones, Kevin Love, Williams and J.R. Smith and began breaking down their defensive shortcomings very animatedly. He wasn’t quiet about it. He was trying to get a message across. Jones subsequently joined in agreement. It soon became a group discussion in the middle of the locker room.
Bismack Biyombo‘s name was mentioned. He came up with six boards and six points in the final quarter. He had two uncontested dunks in the final minute and a half that eliminated any chance of the Cavaliers making a comeback. Toronto had six “and-1s” in the quarter.
Cleveland didn’t intimidate Toronto at all. When asked, Bismack didn’t mince words about their roughhouse nature.
“The most important thing is that we played tough,” Bismack told cleveland.com. “Cleveland is a good team, but when they come in here, they feel like we are the tough ones and that’s what we want to accomplish as the definition of the Toronto Raptors.”
While players-only meetings haven’t been a harbinger of great things at other outposts this season (see: Sacramento and Houston), those were held in NBA cities where the squads are more or less failing to meet expectations. How the Cavs take this heart-to-heart talk may very well shape how their performance goes on the road (and beyond) as the rest of the 2015-16 season unfurls.