Well, Milwaukee battles Houston as I type this, with Cleveland potentially moving within 8 games of the playoffs (actually Milwaukee won on a buzzer-beater). I jest, but who thought this four-games-in-five stretch would net three wins? Or what about dual wins on back-to-back nights minus Kyrie? What was the money line in Vegas for that? The Cavs polished off Toronto to move to 15 and 15 in their last 30 games. Thirty games! Five-hundred! This is fun.
The early stretch of the first quarter served as a worst-case scenario. The Raptors sprinted to a 21 to 7 lead. Tristan started 0 for 4, with a charge, while Jonas Valanciunas repeatedly abused Tyler, scoring a couple of times early and man-handling Cleveland’s rookie center for two offensive boards. Toronto stretched a 19 to 2 run, as the Cavs played like a tired team that lacked their best player. But then, in checked the bench unit…their hearts beat as one; their voices fuse into an immutable chorus…they forge 13 – 4 runs at the end of quarters to cut depressing early deficits.
That squad started the second frame, but with Waiters stepping in for Livingston. Dion netted two free throws and assisted Walton and Miles for threes; Speights hit a put-back; Ellington drilled an and-one off a fadeaway post-move; Dion hit a jumper; and finally, a laser pass from Walton to Ellington for a reverse layup. Midway through the quarter, Cleveland leads 40 to 35. As the starters returned, Waiters maintained the momentum, upping his first half tally to 14 points, while TT pitched in four points, two rebounds, and an assist in a handful of minutes. The Wine & Gold carried a 57 to 48 margin to the locker-room.
The second half initially saw Toronto trim the lead to two. DeMar Derozan found twine on four jumpers and seven free throws, while Rudy Gay routinely abused the smaller Alonzo Gee. The Raptor wings posed defensive issues all night, as this duo totaled 58 points. Then, just as things got nerve-racking, Tristan scored six points in three minutes, guiding a seven-to-nothing run…
That the super-subs carried into the fourth quarter. It wasn’t always pretty; Speights missed two dunks…one possession lasted 66 seconds…but after a beautiful Walton / Livingston give & go garnered a filthy reverse-slam, suddenly Cleveland’s lead sat at fifteen, 86 to 71. Alas though, as soon as things got comfortable, Toronto mounted their own surge, cutting the lead to six as the squads entered crunch-time. Fortunately, just like last night, Cleveland comported themselves as the composed, unflappable unit. Walton found Miles for a MONSTER dunk; Waiters drained a huge jumper after Toronto cut the lead to three; Livingston found Gee for an easy slam; and then the show-stopper…a between the legs pass from Walton to Ellington…jumper is good, 99 to 92 Cavs (back to the Wellington?). Cleveland closed on a 10 – 2 run, as grown men cried across Canada.
This was a tough stretch of games: four cities in five nights, two playoff-bound opponents, and the young Cavs finished with three wins and a +32 margin, while missing Kyrie for two games. Things have definitely gotten interesting at the Q.
A few bullets:
- Is there competition for Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month? Dion netted 16 points per game on 57% true shooting with 3 assists and 1 steal. Cleveland won 7 of 12…I would put his February over any rookie in the NBA, really. Waiters finished tonight with 23 points, 6 assists, and 3 turnovers, on 59% true shooting, as he manned the point for the Cavs for significant stretches. He played the entire second and third quarters. Take a day off, young man; the Clippers come to town on Friday.
- An odd season continued for Tristan. For nearly two months, he paced the league in getting his shots blocked. Then, for six weeks, he legitimately played liked an All-Star. Now over the last 8 games, a return to 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 44% true shooting. Early in the third quarter, Tristan made old-reliable, his righty-hook, while Dwane Casey screamed, “No middle, no middle, no middle” at his guys; they didn’t listen. Time for Tristan to head back-to-the-lab and master additional moves and countermoves. As long as he keeps hustling on the boards and busting his ass on D, his future looks rosy. His free throw shooting sits around 66% for the last three months, and certainly this season displayed flashes of a scintillating future. Tonight featured 14 points, 8 rebounds and perfect 6 of 6 foul shooting, bolstering his TS to 51% for the evening.
- Has there ever been a less likely, amazing bench unit? Ellington, Speights and Walton were given to the Cavs as salary-cap fodder. Livingston couldn’t cut it with the Wizards. CJ Miles ventured into free agency and netted a guaranteed $2 million. None of them has played together before this season. And they’re AWESOME…night-in and night-out polishing off their over-matched substitute foes. Heading into tonight, in 291 minutes, Cleveland outscored opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions when Wayne Ellington played. Against Tonroto, he was +18, Walton ended +20, and Miles +11. Walton posted 5 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists; he and Livingston netted 13 assists with one turnover. Ellington offered 13 points on 70% true shooting, and Miles, 10 and 56%. They are wily and smart, move themselves and the ball well, and have been a great surprise.
- Tyler Zeller needs put on a massive HGH program in the summer…I jest…6 points and 2 rebounds tonight.
- It was not a great game for Speights. Eleven points on 3 of 12 shooting, with two missed dunks, and an odd play where he knocked an apparent CJ Miles made-three out of the basket from underneath. He snagged nine boards though, and plays tough. His 12 points per game with the Cavs rank fifth in the Eastern Conference of bench players.