CLEVELAND — For two days, Mike Brown sounded encouraged about what he had seen in practice, felt confident he was getting close to a lineup and rotation he felt comfortable with and sounded cautiously optimistic the Cavs could soon emerge from the storm clouds that have engulfed the start to the season.
Then a dunk from John Wall extended the Washington Wizards’ lead to 27 midway through the third quarter and all of those manufactured good vibrations circled the drain.
The Cavs lost, 98-91, Wednesday night despite a furious fourth-quarter rally by Kyrie Irving and the bench crew over the game’s final few minutes. The rally did little, however, to soothe a veteran tired of losing and a coach who appears to be struggling to reach his team.
“One through 15, we all have to get control now,” Jarrett Jack said, “or we’re going to lose control of this before it’s too late.”
Brown has tried reshuffling the lineup multiple times, the players held a meeting last week and all of them continue saying all the right things after deflating losses, but progress has been difficult to see through 12 games.
“We didn’t compete. We had one guy compete the entire time he was on the floor — Matthew Dellavedova,” Brown said, adding later, “I’m going to find guys who are going to play hard.”
The Cavs finally began slicing into the Wizards’ lead once Brown yanked his starters and relied on Dellavedova, Jack, Henry Sims, Anderson Varejao and the recently benched Dion Waiters. The Cavs still trailed 84-67 when Irving returned with 7:33 left, but he scored 13 consecutive points for the Cavs and 18 in the quarter.
Irving’s scoring and Dellavedova’s gritty defense and timely shots pulled the Cavs within four a few times in the final couple of minutes, but they couldn’t get any closer.
“We played good enough to lose. Period, point blank,” Jack said, unimpressed by the rally. “We’re too grown to be thinking about moral victories.”
Brown’s new lineup, which included C.J. Miles at shooting guard, was the fifth he has used in 11 games. It was short-lived, however, since Miles injured his calf two minutes into the game and didn’t return. It’s the same calf Miles injured during training camp, but he’s hopeful he won’t have to miss much time.
“I just turned to run, I was pushing off and it gave on me,” Miles said. “Just frustrating.”
Brown didn’t want to start thinking about juggling the lineup again so soon after a demoralizing loss. He shuffled things around the last time he felt like he wasn’t getting a good effort out of guys, but frankly he doesn’t have many moves left to make short of starting Henry Sims, Dellavedova and Varejao alongside Irving and Tristan Thompson.
The bench crew consisting of an undrafted rookie (Dellavedova) and a fringe NBA player (Sims) were key in chopping the Wizards’ lead down to a manageable level.
“We didn’t do anything tricky, we finally found five guys to play hard,” Brown said. “We started attacking the rim, passing on time and passing on target, setting screens offensively. Anybody could see defensively the difference the last 18 minutes of the game and the rest of the game. We didn’t do anything different defensively when I put those five guys in, we just played harder.”
Asked if he is having difficulty reaching this team, Brown said “it’s a young team. You’re going to go through ups and downs with a young team. Some nights you may get it, some nights you may not get it. ... I feel like they’re listening, they have responded, but to go through lulls like that or lulls like we did in Minnesota, I’m not going to sit back and watch it. We’ll find someone who can go out and compete and play the right way for us.”
Tyler Zeller missed the game with a sprained right ankle.