CLEVELAND, Ohio – After Clarkson's potential game-winner rolled out of the Los Angeles Clippers snuck away with a two-point victory against the 19-win Cleveland Cavaliers, the opposing coaching staff had a message for Larry Drew.
Cleveland's easy-going room.
"They just came up to me and said, 'You guys are really playing hard.' And we've been hearing that," Drew said. "Actually they are playing for something, it's called pride. When you get into this situation, it's easy to roll over. But the one thing I'll say is that you take the bitter with the sweet. Sometimes it's just going to get you through it. You have to play through tough times. You have to play through adversity. You have to play when you're not feeling well. You have to play when you're having nicks and pains, and our guys are doing that. I'm proud of them from that standpoint. "
The Cavs recognize many want them to lose. They know it could lead to better draft position ̵
But Drew has helped establish a culture centered on competitive focus, mental toughness, resilience and accountability. They have been fixed on instilling good, winning habits. They do not want to tarnish that for the sake of a few more ping-pong balls – even if that's better for the franchise in the end.
"We knew in March we were going to play a lot of really good Kevin Love said following his 22-point night in the 110-108 loss. "I think we're gaining a solid foundation at the very least and some sort of identity heading into the off-season, which is key for us. In this league we have so many guys out and young guys trying to find their way through this league. "
Take Love. The team leader was forced to watch helplessly as the Cavs wilted, going 8-33 in the season's first half. He could not stop a 12-game losing streak. He was not around when frustration and disharmony crept into the locker room in early November. When Love returned on Feb. 8, following a 50-game absence, the Cavs were 11-43, one of the worst teams in the NBA.
There was never any discussion about shutting him down. He wanted to return. He worked tirelessly, inside Cleveland Clinic Courts, to get himself ready.
When he finally reached that point, he came back on a mission. He wanted to help the Cavaliers finish and lay a sturdy foundation for the 2019-20 season, believing these moments can become a springboard.
"I was on teams (in the past) where there was a tone of changeover," Love said. "If there's familiarity or continuity, I think that's always key, at least going into next season just so we know our guys. I think ending the season the right way, yes, there is some sort of carryover. I know there's four or five months in between. I think LD always wants us to do that because he's been playing one day, that can only be a positive one. It can not be a negative heading into the off-season. "
Yes, sometimes building momentum at the end can be meaningless. But for the Cavs, many members of this surge will be back. Love is under contract. He's the centerpiece of the rebuild. Along with Love, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic and Larry Nance Jr. make up the core. Add in David Nwaba who the Cavs will likely extend a qualifying offer to, making him a restricted free agent. There's Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight and Clarkson – all of whom are under contract.
The biggest change is coming with the coaching staff, so the caves are expected to conduct a wide-ranging search. But even if they are a new voice from outside the organization, which is the most likely outcome, there are some promising pieces in place. This group has provided a glimpse of its potential.
Nance has been through this before, playing on losing teams and counting down the days until vacation. But this situation is different.
"For me it does, I feel like I do not want to say I'm more invested, but I feel like "Nance said. "And it makes me a whole lot more accountable, I feel. My voice in the loose weight room where in L.A. The team has invested in me, which makes this my rebuild as well. Yeah it feels a bit different, but in all positive ways. "
During this homestand, the Cavs got exactly what they wanted. Before the season is over, they are pushing back on the idea of tanking. Instead, they set a goal to compete. Of course, that was before injuries – the primary reason for the poor record – wrecked that plan. Sexton and Osman as well as others in meaningful, pressure situations against quality opponents – just like the closing moments against Detroit, Milwaukee and LA
"You can practice, you can shoot in the gym until you 'Blue in the face,' Nance said. "But that's when you really grow is at the end of games from those kind of experiences. It helps guys like Kevin and Tristan, you can never get too much experience with that. It really, really helps the young guys, so next year we'll be ready to roll. "
On Monday night against Detroit, Sexton and Osman, the most important pieces of this rebuild, made the clutch plays to the Pistons. Two nights later, the duo did it again, picking up the slack for injured Love who left the game in the second half after banging heads with Eric Bledsoe. On Friday night, the Cavs battled the clippers until the final seconds. Even though it did not end in a win, it envisioned the situation members of the organization when constructing their initial no-tanking plan.
"Everybody got pride," Clarkson said. Everybody wants to come out here and compete. I do not see why you would not. Everybody loves to hoop, especially me. I'm just going to lay down for nobody. We're going to come and compete every night. Try to get wins still, try to ruin some guys' seasons and have them on break early with us too. "
Shortly before tipoff Friday night, one clippers staff member was scrolling through his phone, glancing at the other matchups around the NBA. The Spurs and Thunder – Los Angeles' playoff positioning – were both on the schedule. The Utah Jazz had lost the night before, allowing the clippers to move up in the stands.
A trip to Cleveland in late March usually does not have much significance. This one did. And the clippers treated it that way. This is not the Cavs going toe-to-toe with a wounded Milwaukee team playing on the second game of a back-to-back or an enigmatic pistons squad that rested Blake Griffin. This is a full-loaded, red-hot, mission-oriented team that made a cross-country business trip. And yet, the Cavs were right there, counter-punching in the second half, earning one last chance to put on a rock in that slingshot and fling it at the Western Conference six seed.
Battered around like a piñata for most of the The Cavs have not cracked.
They are confident. The players walk with their chins up, wearing those jerseys with pride while sporting smiles. They do not act like one of the league's worst. They do not talk like that either. And they sure do not play like it.
"When we're healthy we're a problem," Nance said. "I genuinely believe that, and I just hate this year to come to injuries, but I think we're promising for next year. Kevin's back, Tristan's back healthy. We're a dangerous club when we're healthy. "
It's late March. The caves are destined for the lottery. Some might wonder why a 54-loss group is playing these games like they mean something.
It's because they do.