As the gold confetti fell from the rafters and “Cleveland Rocks” blared, once again, from the Quicken Loans Arena sound system, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown stood proudly on the sideline as his players, one by one, came off of the floor with their first win in what stands to be season of questions which will slowly be answered as the calendar turns to 2014. It was a typical Mike Brown game in that it featured a second-half sputter on the offensive end, but would be countered by defense and timely rebounding efforts which ultimately willed an inexperienced team to victory over a team many have pegged to be one of the final few teams to represent the Eastern Conference this coming spring.
The final outcome was undoubtedly aided by a near triple-double from star point guard Kyrie Irving, even when his shot was not falling at an efficient rate; Tristan Thompson, Irving’s fellow third-year comrade, quietly led the team in scoring; a surprising and crowd-igniting appearance by free agent center Andrew Bynum understandably drew headlines. It could also be said that it would be Brown who would have felt the brunt of the narrative had the Cavaliers dropped what was a 10-point lead in the waning seconds of the third quarter—it didn’t help matters that the Cavs, led by Irving, were pressing at times, dribbling and standing and hoisting more than moving and passing. But the concerns, for at least one game, were all for naught as the Wine and Gold would manage to prove victorious in a game that Brown described as “gritty, grimy and ugly.”
Ugly in the way that his team, fresh off of roof-raising introduction that featured crowd interaction fueled by the hopes and energy that surround post-season expectations, crawled out of the gate, allowing the Brooklyn Nets to amass a 10-2 lead before fans even knew what hit them. Wasting no time, Brown cashed in one of his timeouts, hit the proverbial reset button, and reaffirmed his expectations. Not ignorant to the star power which stood across from his players, Brown, win or lose, demanded consistency; he demanded 48 minutes of hard-fought basketball.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Brown said of the night’s festivities. “It wasn’t pretty at all…and I’m OK with that.”
But just as the game could have been classified as “typical” from the Mike Brown spectrum, fans were also greeted with a the new version of the head coach which they have heard so much about since being reintroduced this past summer. Certainly, Brown’s résumé has it’s warts—after all, he still doesn’t have a title attached to his name. But there were subtleties, small idiosyncrasies which showed the progress had not just by the young players littering the roster, but by the man pulling all of the strings. Brown was willing to pull Dion Waiters from the game after a bad pass led to a turnover. Smoke no longer billows from his ears like a papal conclave when Anderson Varejao takes a jump shot. He stuck with Earl Clark in the final minutes of a close game despite the fact that he looked lost at times and had been abused by Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce earlier in the game. It would be these moves which would allow Waiters to hit a 19-foot jumper from the top of the key; it endorsed Varejao to confidently sink a 14-footer; and it provided the time needed for Clark to pull down the offensive rebound which subsequently led to the floppy-haired center becoming the late-game hero.
There was a point late in the contest, just over one minute remaining, where Pierce hit a three-point shot to bring the Nets within two. Thompson, a minute away from sealing one of his best games as a young professional, was called for an offensive foul as Brooklyn’s Jason Terry ricocheted off of Thompson and fell to the floor as if he were the victim of a Loudville sniper. A Brook Lopez lay-in knotted things up as the game clocked turned from minutes to seconds. Things could have unraveled from there—the Cavaliers, underdogs, could have easily folded up their tents and set their sights on Game 2. But they didn’t. When I asked Brown of the very sequence, the coach
“We talked about it in [the locker room],” Brown said of the game’s final minute. “There were many times through the course of that fourth quarter where we could have folded. Literally, when we folded, we could have all said ‘Hey, we played hard, we gave it our all. You know what, they’re a better team than us, they’re more veteran than us, they’ve got seven All-Stars…” You can have gone on down the line and done that any time. Some of the guys in the locker room, because they don’t know, might have felt all right about it. But that didn’t happen at all; they just kept fighting and fighting. That’s what I like.”
It may be a bit premature to crown Brown as an MVP of any kind. But in a day in age where last-place teams with undeniable talent—the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Chiefs—can turn things around with a change at the top of the pecking order, a head coach who demands more, requires accountability and manages to bring out the best in his players even in the event they be overmatched by a litany of future Hall of Famers. A head coach who can yank a player one year removed from being a lottery selection, have a heated conversation with him in front of the public eye (Waiters would later refer to the discussion a “motivating”), and then redeploy him into a moment of heroics. A head coach who can trust that his wiry big man, who once took one of the worst clutch-time shots in NBA Finals history, can be counted on when needed. A head coach who can trust that his free agent small forward can shake off the first-game jitters when needed, adding possessions when they’re needed the most.
“The fight and the belief was there the whole time,” Brown said. “And that’s a good thing.”