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Young Cavaliers growing into winners

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 5:49pm  ET

In this photo taken, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, Cleveland Cavaliers' Tyler Zeller walks out of the Cavaliers locker room pushing a doll in a stroller, given to him earlier in the season by coach Byron Scott for rookie initiation, after an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors in Cleveland. With one of the NBA's youngest rosters and a brutal schedule, the Cavaliers took their lumps in the first two months of the season. It toughened them up, and now a group led by 20-year-old star Kyrie Irving is developing into a team to be reckoned with in the future. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller slipped on his cute "Dora the Explorer" backpack, grabbed the handles of the pink stroller carrying his baby doll and headed out of Quicken Loans Arena after a win over Toronto.

It was time to go home.

But not before some humiliation.

Such is life for an NBA rookie, who must tolerate some playful hazing through the course of a season. But in less than two months, Zeller and teammates Dion Waiters and Kevin Jones can ditch the new toys given to them by Cavs coach Byron Scott as a reminder that they have some growing up to do.

And after a rough start, the young Cavs have done just that.

"We're just playing ball," Waiters, the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft said after scoring 23 points against the Raptors. "We're growing every game."

Now three seasons since LeBron James last wore Cleveland's wine and gold, the Cavs are showing signs of becoming a contending team again. They went 7-5 in February, their first winning month since March 2010, and are 4-1 since the All-Star break with the only loss by four points in Miami against James and the defending champion Heat, who have won 12 straight.

The Cavs are scoring, sharing the ball and playing good defense. It took a little time, but it's coming together.

An early-season stagger has given way to swagger.

"It's night and day when you talk about November-December and January-February and the way we're playing," said Scott, in his third season with Cleveland. "It takes time. They're young and they've got to get to know each other and they've got to understand what this game is all about. They've got to understand it's 'we' and not 'me.'

"That's always big when you've got a bunch of young guys, and they're starting to really understand that."

On Wednesday, the Cavs won their second game in a row without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has a hyperextended right knee. Cleveland ended an 11-game losing streak against Chicago earlier in the week and followed it by shaking off a horribly slow start -- the Cavs opened 1 of 15 from the field -- to beat the Raptors.

Waiters, averaging 19.8 points and 54 percent shooting since the break, had another strong game and the Cavs got major contributions from second-year forward Tristan Thompson (14 points, 8 rebounds), Shaun Livingston (15 points), Wayne Ellington (13 points) and Luke Walton, who chipped in with just 5 points but had 7 rebounds and 7 assists in 21 minutes.

Walton and Livingston, who was claimed on waivers in December, are two of the veterans Scott is counting on to show Cleveland's kids what it takes to be a pro. They've embraced the leadership roles and are seeing their younger teammates mature.

"It's been a process all year long," Walton said. "It's not only a young team but there's a lot of new guys, and in this league there's definitely a learning curve. But it's a lot of fun to see the growth and see the team getting better."

There's no denying the Cavs have been on a steady climb. After a loss on Jan. 2, they were 7-25 and tough to watch. But they've gone 13-13 since and done it without center Anderson Varejao, who was having an All-Star caliber season before undergoing knee surgery and developing a blood clot in his lung.

They are far from a finished product, but with a talented, young core led by the marvelous 20-year-old Irving -- and two first-round draft picks this season, the Cavs may be close to moving back in among the Eastern Conference's top teams.

"It reminds me of 1986," said former majority owner Gordon Gund, who attended Wednesday's game. "We had four rookies all starting on that team, too, in Brad Daugherty, 'Hot Rod' Williams, Mark Price and Ron Harper, which was a darn good group. This reminds me very much of that. If they get the playing time, they're going to get much better, and Byron is willing to let them do that.

"The more time they get, the better they'll get."

Scott has mostly been patient with his young team, which got a huge boost when general manager Chris Grant acquired Ellington, center Marreese Speights and a future first-round pick from Memphis in January. However, there have been times when Scott wondered if the Cavs would ever learn.

He stayed on them, and in recent weeks, they've shown an attention to detail that has allowed the Cavs to pull out some tight wins.

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