Learn From Losing
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
CLEVELAND, June 14, 2007 — “Playing basketball this long is new for everybody in the locker room,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said after his team was officially eliminated four-games-to-none in the 2007 NBA Finals, “except for Eric Snow. So just waking up every day in the month of June and having to go lace them up and win ballgames is an experience in itself.”

What the Cavaliers players, coaches and organization will experience in the morning when they wake up is the bitter taste of having gotten ever so close, only to fall short leaving Cleveland looking for its first-ever Finals win.

Call it the maturation process.

It’s certainly not easy to accept that the pain the team is feeling now their season is over will do them any good in the future, but they must take solace in the fact the lessons learned over the past week will only make them a better squad in the long run.

“You know, you’re definitely disappointed,” LeBron James said of falling short of the ultimate goal of a championship. “I’m not disappointed in our effort the last two games, not at all. I think we played well. We definitely just faced a better team in this series, simple as that.”

Despite James’ best efforts, that San Antonio team prevented the Cavaliers from experiencing a championship, not to mention the franchise’s first-ever Finals victory. And it was evident to most reporters asking James questions afterward that one of Cleveland’s biggest issues it must address during the offseason is just who will be a reliable second option behind James.

“I really think the team we have now is good enough to win a championship,” James said, “and I really stressed that from the beginning. It just shows we went up against a better team, simple as that. We went up against a better team in this series, and everybody has to be better coming into next season.”

Some of that improvement will take place as a result of what each player and coach learned here in The Finals, while still more will occur as this young team grows a year older together. But a few of those potential second options were inconsistent, at best, this series.

There were moments when rookie Daniel Gibson stepped up and hit his shots, especially during the first two games in San Antonio. But as the Cavs returned home, he seemed to have left his shot in Texas.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas waited a long time to get to this point, but he was nowhere to be found throughout the first two contests. Big Z came to life, though, at the Q, pulling down 18 rebounds, with 10 of those on the offensive end, in Game 3 and following that with 13 boards in the elimination game.

And Larry Hughes, injured as he often is, was only partially available in The Finals, sitting out Games 3 and 4.

Gibson, as well as “Wild Thing” Anderson Varejao, will certainly get better with a little age, but, now that Cleveland has been to The Finals, expectations are high for a return trip in the near future.

Of course, it’s conceivable the Cavs simply arrived at this point a year early, skipping that whole learn-by-losing step.

“You do learn from losing,” Robert Horry, who has the most rings of any non-Celtics player ever, said on Wednesday when asked if the Cavs had to lose before they could win, “but you don't want to lose. I'd rather learn from winning than learn from losing, because you can learn from winning.”

The team, however, cooked past Detroit in the Conference Finals and advanced to the big stage despite a near complete lack of recent playoff experience, forcing the team to learn as it went along.

“It’s huge,” Brown said of the team’s championship drive helping James grow as a player. “Going through this experience, just like going through the experience last year, is irreplaceable, not only for him, but I can feel it for myself and I'm sure for the rest of the guys in the locker room. This has been a great experience, and we're looking forward to it lasting a lot longer.”

The experience might have been shorter lived this year, had Cleveland followed a more standard learning curve.

“I think Cleveland got here a year early,” one Eastern Conference scout told me earlier in the week. “If you think back two months ago, I think the most important night in Cleveland’s season was when New Jersey beat Chicago. That gave them their best shot at The Finals, because, with Washington as hurt as they were, you know they were going to win Round 1.”

Because of that Bulls’ loss on April 18, the Cleveland and Chicago flipped spots in the Playoff positioning, with Cleveland moving up to the No. 2 seed and avoiding a first-round matchup with the defending champion Miami Heat. As we know now, that allowed them to play New Jersey in the second round and then catch Detroit, the early favorite to represent the East, by surprise in the Conference Finals.

Had Chicago won that lone regular-season contest, the Cavs, if they got by Miami, would have had to face Detroit a round earlier, when the Pistons appeared much more focused. Up next, then, likely would have been the Bulls in the Conference Finals.

But, you can’t take anything away from this team, as they still had to win the matchups presented to them. And they did. In the end, they just ran into a better, much more experienced team.

“We know the Spurs are definitely the better team in this series,” James said. “They played like it. They never got rattled when we made runs. They never sped up. They played their own tempo, and they kept us off balance. I think we learned that as good as we thought we was, there was still a team out there that was better than us.”

“You’ve got to give San Antonio credit,” Brown concurred. “It’s a hell of a team. They did everything they were supposed to do in order to win the basketball games, tonight and the three games before.”

So, Mr. Brown, James, Gibson, Ilgauskas, among others, take a good long time to fully realize just what went on, what kind of team you faced and what it will take to return to this point as well as get over the hump and celebrate a championship of your own.

Do that and I have a feeling good things will come, as does Brown.

“You know, the direction that we’re heading in as a group is something that I’m really excited about. I’m looking forward to seasons to come.”

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