CLEVELAND — They had hoped things would be better after a night of bonding. The entire Cleveland Cavaliers organization had their collective fingers crossed that a Halloween party hosted by LeBron James would allow the struggling reigning Eastern Conference champions to play looser, to communicate better, to instill more trust. Wives were there. Girlfriends and friends flew in. Kyle Korver, dressed as Willy Wonka, arrived with a human golden ticket and two Oompa Loompas.
The thinking was that their preseason was rife with distractions and lineup changes, but several hours of laughing, dancing, snapping and uploading videos to Instagram would be just the trick to get the team headed in the right direction.
If Sunday's double-digit loss to the New York Knicks was deemed "unacceptable" by head coach Tyronn Lue, another loss—a 124-107 drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday—helped matters none.
It was their fourth straight loss and fifth in a six-game stretch estimated to be the second-easiest in the NBA this season. A host of high-fives was disseminated before the tip, but the result was another defense-optional contest that ended with the Cavaliers' walking off the floor with their heads down. Their leader was the most upset of them all.
"The other game, we got our butts kicked," Lue said postgame, attempting to couch their latest loss. "In this one ... I'm seeing improvements. We just have to sustain it."
When asked about any positive takeaways from their most recent loss, James simply shook his head in disgust.
"We need to get in better shape, be mindful of what's going on," James said. "There are a lot of things we can do."
James has been aggressive on the offensive end all season, scoring 25.6 points per game while dishing out 8.9 assists. He has five double-doubles on a very young season. Defensively, however, the Cavaliers are falling victim to a nightly barrage of fast-paced, transition offenses from teams that are younger and playing hungrier.
It was just six months ago when the Cavaliers swept the Pacers in the first round of the NBA playoffs only to have the latter trade away its superstar in Paul George.
Throughout stretches of Wednesday night's game, the Cavaliers made runs, but the starting unit was once again dominated by a roster of opposing players who would barely register one household name.
Internally, the team believes that while turnovers have been costly, missed corner three-pointers are leading to long rebounds with a would-be defender stuck in the corner. The eye test coupled with an offensive efficiency ranking that puts Cleveland in the middle of the NBA, however, shows something different. The last three games have been lost by a combined 58 points with the Cavs favored in each contest, and opposing teams are scoring from the three-point line with ease.
"We have an opportunity to be good," James said, rife with frustration. "Unfortunately, we're trying to learn on the fly. We're trying to make the right play. It's just not working out."
"We have to defend for a whole game, and we haven't done that yet," Kevin Love said. "We have to get better."
What the Cavaliers have is the oldest roster in the league, both on average and on a minute-weighted basis, falling victim to their own tricks of drive-and-kick styles of play. Not only are they getting lost in transition, they're occasionally finding themselves out of place, collapsing the lane only to leave shooters open outside the arc. Not helping matters will be the absence of their most versatile pick and roll defender in Tristan Thompson, slated to miss the next three-to-four weeks with a left calf strain. Lue will now be forced to move Love (who has the lowest defensive plus-minus of all main rotation players thus far in 2017-18) back into the center spot with raw players like Ante Zizic and equally rough defensive options like Channing Frye potentially earning playing time. Jae Crowder is expected to rejoin the starting lineup in Thompson's place.
Lue would like to play with pace, but if practices and game flow have shown anything, it's that they continue to struggle with their physical conditioning and the ability to sustain runs.
This six-game stretch that saw the Cavaliers pull out one win, a come-from-behind victory against the Chicago Bulls, was easy on paper. But the schedule will take a turn very quickly with a stretch that features the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, as well as a four-game road trip as the Houston Rockets wait in the wings.
To James' point of "learning on the fly" without the ability to practice for stretches at a time, the team faces some headwinds thanks to new league rules that feature an earlier start, shorter preseason and a month of November that has a game every other day the majority of the way. That allows little time to string together practices and game plans with certain teams in mind.
Lue, who held an extra-long practice that included a 90-minute air-it-out session Tuesday, has thrown around several counts of statements that deserve a bit more explanation. Several days earlier, the Cavs head coach said some of his players were playing "intimidated," only to backtrack a bit and expand that he was discussing a comfort level that takes time to build for players alongside James for the first time.
Following Sunday's loss to the Knicks, Lue referenced the team's "spirits" being down. When asked by Bleacher Report to expand, Lue said that off the court, the team has great chemistry and a great bond. On the court, however, they're playing like a host of individuals rather than a team.
"We need to enjoy the game together," Lue said. "Having fun. Right now, guys are not having fun. We need to get our chemistry right."
As it stands, improved chemistry for the Cavaliers will take much more than a night of costumes, cocktails and camaraderie.
All quotes obtained firsthand.