This was Cleveland’s fourteenth back-to-back for the season. Heading into the evening, they won one on the back-end. Of course, they were playing their lottery-mate kryptonite, the Toronto Raptors. After sweeping last season’s series, the Raptors destroyed the Cavs in Cleveland earlier this season, by double-digits, despite missing two starters. So this should be fun, right?
The first quarter started well, with the starters forging an 11 to 10 lead. Highlights included awesome Kyrie to Gee and Kyrie to Tristan pick & rolls, a delightful Gee drive & dunk, a Dion drive for a lay-in, and a Dion assist for a Kyrie three in transition. The Kyrie to Alonzo play resulted in a massive slam; why does it feel like one of very few examples of this combo running this play? Unlike last night, some unraveling began with the subs, obviously due to Luke Walton sitting with an injured foot. Toronto mounted a 13 to 2 run, highlighted by a slew of DeMar Derozan jumpers, and repeated bloopers from Zeller: missed bunnies, a travel, a fumbled pass, a weak foul that allowed an and-one…Derozan’s twelve points guided the 19 to 25 margin in favor of the Raptors.
The second quarter started miserably, with Toronto stretching their lead to eleven. The Cavs whittled away, fronted by Marreese Speights’ 11 first-half points, but seemingly everytime the tally drew near, the team failed to get a critical stop; the Raptors would grab an offensive rebound or hustle down a fifty-fifty ball. Toronto took advantage of Cleveland misses, sprinting out against poorly defensed fast breaks; the Cavs allowed 61% from the field through the first twenty minutes. The defense tightened up over the final few minutes, and Kyrie played his unique brand of hero-ball, bringing the game to the half with Cleveland trailing 46 to 50. Kyrie shot fourteen times to tally thirteen points, taking impossibly difficult shots, but of course also making some (including a one-on-three fast break). Zeller finished with nine boards, but shot 0 for 4 and botched two turnovers. Cleveland registered seven assists for the half.
The third stanza featured various mini-runs, with Toronto never pulling away, and Cleveland not attaining a lead. The entirety of the second and third quarters bounced around between a margin of two and eleven points. Thompson scored six, while Alan Anderson scored an equal amount in the final two minutes of the quarter. Anderson piled up seventeen for the game, and isn’t having a bad season as a bench-sparkplug. The Raptors carried a 66 to 75 lead into the fourth.
After Toronto scored the first bucket of the fourth, the new bench-guys spurred a twelve-to-nothing Cavalier run. Speights hit two buckets and Ellington drained a pair of long threes to snatch an 80 to 79 lead. The two teams kept trading buckets; a Kyrie and-one, a Speights post-move, an Ellington three…but Toronto matched each time. At 88 to 87, a four-point Kyrie mini-run provided separation, before the team started exhibiting reminiscent closing woes. Against a set defense, Kyrie iso-ed off his foot for a turnover, then missed a tough layup; Dion jacked a 22-footer; Kyrie threw away a pass; a series of defensive break-downs allowed Toronto to re-attain a 94 to 96 lead. Alas, we have seen this story before.
Except tonight featured a surprise ending. First, after a Thompson block, Kyrie received the ball in transition…well, it wasn’t really a fast break; more like another 1 on 3. Of course, he needled through every defender and converted the circus lay-in…tie ballgame.
But, OH @$#! Stupid Defense!! Jose Calderon drives and scores to give Toronto the advantage with ten seconds remaining.
I’m thinking “Allright…we have Kyrie Irving…this is OK.” He’s dribbling…probably another tough iso drive against a set defense; I hope it works out…except he rises, he shoots, HE DRILLS THE THREE FROM THE TOP OF THE KEY!! UNDER A SECOND TO GO!!! CAVS LEAD!!!
Toronto couldn’t score in the final half-ticks, and Cleveland strikes their first three game win streak of the season; a stretch that gives them 8 wins and 9 losses in the last five weeks. This was a very nice win, on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against a team the Cavs struggle with. Ideally, they develop more creative offense (12 assists on 37 baskets?) and airtight defense, and make these finalies a little less heart-attack inducing in the future…but a win’s a win, right?
Onto a few bullets (all “in January” numbers are prior to tonight’s game):
- As a young core, Toronto carries several nice pieces. Kyle Lowry is a fantastic point guard. I think that Amir Johnson, Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas provide a strong big man rotation for several years. Now they need to determine which of their under-25 wing contingent of Landry Fields Terrence Ross, and Demar Derozan stay healthy, and produce effectively and consistently.
- The trade makes Cleveland’s depth look brighter. Marreese Speights drained some jumpers, scored some bruising back-to-the-basket buckets, and even finished a swooping reverse layup. Ellington stroked a trio of silky threes. Without their 29 points on 69% true shooting, the game probably slips away early in the fourth.
- Through December, Luke Walton’s per-36 minutes averages were 5.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on 34% true shooting. It was absolutely as ugly as everyone remembers. In January, those increased to 11, 7.3, 4.6 and 48%. Combining excellent ball movement with passable shooting and rebounding turns him into a reasonably playable back-up. Come back soon, Luke?
- I don’t know which statistical leap is more impressive though. Tristan’s November featured per-36 of 10.3 & 9.8 on 47% TS. In January, those rise to 15.2 & 12 on 53.5%. He finished tonight with 14 points, 8 boards, and 3 blocks, but also lost 4 turnovers. The refs were critical of his footwork in the post and on screens.
- How about Dion’s improvement in shot distribution? In December, he took 30 of his 114 field goals from inside of three feet, approximately 26% of his attempts, and only lined up for one freebie of every seven shots from the field. In January, those numbers increase to 54 of 156 shots attempted at the rim (35% of tries), and a free throw per three field goal attempts. This helped turn around his appalling 39% true shooting in December, into 52% in January, a completely respectable mark for a high-usage guard that turned 21 last month. Tonight was not a good night for Dion though; he is alternating good & bad games. He picked-up four fouls in his first eight minutes of play, turned the ball over three times in the third quarter, missed a completely-all-alone layup, and shot 3 of 10 with a couple of ill-advised jumpers. Maybe he stayed out too late last night. Reasonably aggressive though, he did take six of his shots inside 8 feet, but never received the benefit of a foul call. In a plus/minus anomaly, he finished a team best +15.
- Even Kyrie raised his game to another level in January. 26.3 points per game on 49 / 42 / 93 shooting, including more steals in the last eleven games (30), than in the prior twenty-two (28 thefts). 49 / 42/ 93!!! Of course, this night adds to a growing legacy: 32 points, 5 assists, and another buzzer-beating gamewinner.
- Might as well give Tyler some mention. Through January 22, according to hoopdata.com, T-Zell lead the league in charges. For total defensive plays (steals + blocks + charges), his total of 81 ranks 51st of all players. He certainly has work to do, but he makes some things happen. Tonight was not pretty, his vaunted offensive touch still lacks most games, but he snagged twelve boards…at least there’s that
The Cavs won 8 of their last 17. Player development is equalling wins, and nightly viewing provides much more excitement lately. With eight of the next nine at home, and the one road game in Detroit, everyone gets to sleep at home until late February. Enjoy the respite, guys.