CLEVELAND (AP) — The mood in the Cavaliers' locker room alternated between disbelief and delight in the raw moments following their play-in loss to Atlanta.
Pain mixed with pride.
And as Cleveland's players — many of them with zero postseason experience — reflected on falling short of the playoffs after all they endured over the past months, one sentiment trumped all others.
“We had a hell of a year,” said All-Star center Jarrett Allen, who returned Friday for the last game after missing 19 straight with a broken finger. “A lot has happened this year — positive, negative, but we look at all the times that we did play well, and we came together.
"And that was all positive.”
The Cavaliers seemingly came out of nowhere to double their win total from 2021 (22 to 44) and make the play-in tournament, doing it despite losing leading scorer Collin Sexton and veteran guard Ricky Rubio to season-ending knee injuries and adversity that might have fractured other teams.
But these young Cavs were connected, woven together by a combination of youth, dedication and sacrifice. They acted and played more like a college team, willing to share the ball and spotlight.
“This was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the NBA,” said coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who received a contract extension in December and then played 29 different starting lineups due to the injuries. "I didn’t have one bad day with these guys going to work. Wins, losses, ups and downs, but every single day we went to work together we enjoyed each other and that’s special.
"We’re headed in the right direction for sure.”
With a talented core led by All-Star guard Darius Garland and rookie forward Evan Mobley, who not only lived up to expectations as the No. 3 overall pick but exceeded them, the Cavs have the look and feel of a team on the brink of something big.
While there was major growth during this turnaround season, the Cavs, who won just 60 games in the previous three seasons, had some recurring problems that never got fixed.
They got up for big games, raising their intensity and physicality when taking on some of the league's elite teams. But there were too many letdowns and struggles against lesser opponents, ones the Cavs should have beaten.
Cleveland never corrected a bad habit of blowing leads, with Friday's the latest example. Led by the irrepressible Trae Young, who made 10 of 14 shots and scored 32 of his 38 points after halftime, the Hawks overcame a double-digit deficit to finish the Cavs' season.
But as the team walked off the floor of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, which rocked again the way it did when LeBron James was in Cleveland, fans saluted the Cavs with applause that was as much about anticipation as appreciation.
The future appears bright.
“We’re set up to be good for a very long time,” said forward Kevin Love, “and set up to make potentially some very special runs.”
His season ended after just 11 games, but Sexton stayed close to the Cavs while rehabbing following surgery. He was a constant positive presence on Cleveland’s bench, acting as part-time cheerleader and coach.
“It was good just to be around the guys and even though we came up short, we still had a phenomenal season,” he said Saturday in his first interview since getting hurt. “It was tough watching. But I know I’ll be out there my my team real soon next season, ready to go.”
The Cavs couldn’t finalize a contract extension with Sexton before the season, and he'll be a restricted free agent this summer but he’s hoping to stay in Cleveland for years to come.
“I want to be a part of this organization,” he said. “I want to be part of this team and I feel like we’re at a point where we’re almost there. I feel like I can be part of that and get us to the playoffs.”
Motivated after a summer working with the U.S. Olympic team, Garland had a gold-medal season.
The 22-year-old established himself as one of the league's top point guards, improving in virtually every statistical category (21.7 points, 8.6 assists) in his third year while developing as a leader.
“He grew so much,” Bickerstaff said after Friday's loss. “He separated himself from the pack and he needs to keep going. This one moment, it doesn’t define him. What I know this moment will do is motivate him."
Not even 21, Mobley had moments where he played like a 10-year veteran.
He averaged 15 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, but most impressive was that he got better and better as the season progressed and there's a league-wide belief Mobley will just keep ascending.
“We fully expect him to be the Rookie of the Year,” Love said. “He has earned it and obviously crossing our fingers for that. But to me I think about the journey from his first practice to even last night how much he’s grown, and at the same time I laugh because he hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.”
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