Whew. Close one here. Some of the Cavs were playing really well tonight, and the team was in severe danger of screwing up the third worst record in the league with a win. With four games separating 28th and 18th place, this was a win the Cavs could ill afford. Fortunately, Byron Scott is a master of coaching just poorly enough to lose.
The Cavs played three and a half quarters of fairly solid basketball, in a game that was at times very ragged. This game saw extended minutes by Cavalier Chris Quinn and Celtics Shavlik Randolf and Terrence Williams, all on 10 day contracts. In 35 combined minutes they scored 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and 4 turnovers. To say both teams were scraping the bottom of the barrel in this one would be an understatement. Still, some of the Cavs had their moments.
The Rook: Tyler Zeller Looked really sharp in this one. According to Austin Carr, the key to his success is playing with his knees bent, and it certainly seemed to be help ZPA tonight. His jumper was pure, and he had a very nice pump fake and go for a soaring one handed Jam. Furthermore, his individual defense was very solid. In one stretch in the first quarter, he stopped a Jeff Green drive on a switch and then he stopped two straight possessions, first cutting off Bass who tried to bully him on the right baseline, and then giving Chris Wilcox no quarter on the left. He finished 5-6 for 11 points and 9 boards in 24 minutes. In a masterful move Scott left him on the bench for much of the fourth quarter, knowing that his play might turn the game in the Cavs’ favor late.
The Bishops: C.J. Miles was really influencing the game, and it wasn’t with his shooting. He had a regular season career high 6 assists tonight off some pretty nice passing. He hit Walton on a 3-on-2 with a nifty behind the back pass that Luke bounced in off the square. Then, early in the fourth he hit a cutting Speights two plays in a row for easy buckets. Though he finished 4-13, he helped the offense flow, and chipped in four rebounds. He also had two big free throws with 39 seconds left to stretch the lead to 3. It was really nice to see him contributing despite his jumper not falling. He really had some clutch plays in helping the Cavs lose tank down the stretch too. With 2:23 left and 7 seconds left on the shot clock, Miles launched a 26-footer that led to a nice Boston possession, where he fouled Pierce and gave him two free throws, and then after a Livingston turnover, Miles helped Jeff Green score an “and 1.” This kind of awesome collapse doesn’t happen without players taking dumb shots and dumb fouls at key moments.
Shaun Livingston had his usually solid floor game with 12 points, 3 boards, 5 dimes, a steal, and a block. But he missed some key jumpers on his way to 5-13 shooting, including a late post-up over Jason Terry that hit the back iron like a rubber missile. Gee also had a nice game with 12, 5, and 3 and a couple enormous steals, but his inability to stop Pierce from scoring with 32 seconds left was one of the real keys to losing this game.
The Knights: Tristan Thompson had a strange game. The Cavs went to him a lot early and he responded with a lot of bricks. He seemed to be playing slightly too fast, but mainly his shots weren’t falling and the Cavs didn’t want to go back to him. In the third he reverted to 2012 Tristan with a tentative play around the basket which was promptly blocked from behind. Still, he had 9 boards and some mostly decent defense, except for a wide open Bass dunk in the third where TT helped and never recovered on the pick and roll. His defense was good enough that Byron had to pull him in two crucial possessions late, lest he keep Boston from scoring.
Wayne Ellington was simply the best player on the floor for three and a half quarters. He led the Cavs with 16 points on 7-16 shooting, with 3 boards, 2 dimes, and 3 steals and only 1 turnover. He scored off drives, pullups in transition, and a sweet baseline reverse on Jeff Green for the hoop and the harm. Green was key in the 13-4 run the Cavs had to start the 3rd, scoring or assisting on 9 points. His handle was tight, his decisions were solid, and though his jumper was just ok, he was completely in control on offense and defense. Until Pierce started doing his thing late, Wayne was better than anyone in the gym.
The Pawns: Mo Speights had a solid night with 13 and 6 in 17 minutes. But his 4 fouls in that time helped Boston get into the bonus in the 4th and really propelled their run. Daniel Gibson had a couple moments reminiscent of 2007 when he hit a stepback three from straight away against Jason Terry at the end of the 3rd, and then came back and did it again from the right wing to start the 4th. Though that was the extent of his scoring, he also pitched 6 assists, but had some brutally bad turnovers and some horrific missed layups that were more in keeping with the narrative of 2013 Daniel Gibson.
The Queen: Luke Walton (with the help of Byron Scott) was really the MVP of fail tonight. His -14 +/- tells you how bad he was on defense, and he really had the fail of the game towards the end. When we’re all watching Oladipo or Porter dunking next year, we’ll be able to look at tonight and remember how Luke Walton really laid it on the line for that draft pick.
So just how did the Cavs manage to save this game from the win column, leading 86-72 with eight minutes left? Things were looking dicey for the Cavs. Fortunately Brandon Bass, Pierce, and Avery Bradley checked back in for Boston. Wisely, Byron Scott did nothing to counter and stayed with Gibson, Walton, and Quinn. King’s gambit accepted, Doc Rivers. Daniel Gibson obliged by taking two ill advised pullups with plenty of time on the shot clock — one from a Luke Walton bounce pass between his own legs, which Boobie promptly airballed from the the left baseline. Livingston got back in for Quinn at 6:28. and TT and Gee return for Speights and Walton at 5:07. Livingston turned it over on a lob to Miles off of a pick and roll, proving yet again that Livingston is awful in the pick and roll. Gee took a terrible isolation pullup from the left baseline with 9 seconds left on the clock and then Livingston airballed a shot on a post-up with 11 seconds left. In the meantime, Ellington finally came back in for Gibson with 4:20 left in the game after sitting since 2:04 in the third. Pawn sacrifice… Well played, coach Scott. Well played. Not only did you sit your top scorer for 20+ minutes of real time, and let the Celtics get back within striking distance, but you subbed him out for ten straight minutes for a guy shooting .160 from the floor and .063 from three in the last 5 games.
After a particularly ugly 2 minutes where the Celtics and the Cavs played hot potato with the ball, Livingston made a driving layup and Pierce countered on a ridiculously easy layup where he walked to the basket after a terrible Gee closeout. Alonzo was perpendicular to Pierce, who simply took the right lane and scored. After a wasted Cavs possession, Pierce drew a foul, the Cavs called a timeout with a 6 point lead and 2:15 left. Pierce made both, and then Livingston threw it away on a bad post-up attempt by Thompson. The defensive match-ups for the Cavs were bad, but Byron made sure that the Cavs got the worst of them. TT guarded Bass, Gee guarded Pierce, Miles guarded Green, Ellington guarded Crawford, and Livingston guarded Bradley. Because why wouldn’t you put your worst defender on the floor on a guy who hung 43 on Miami the other night? Of course, as we mentioned earlier, Green posted up Miles and got an and-1. 90-89, Cleveland, 1:43 left.
After a Livingston miss, The Cavs did manage a nice defensive stand and fast break that turned into two made freebies for Miles. And then with 39 seconds left and the Cavs up three, Byron’s white queen entered the fray: Luke Walton in for TT to guard Jeff Green. After an easy post-up by Pierce over Gee for two (cause it’s not like having some shot-blocking there might help…), Livingston bricked, and then Boston called a timeout with 9.2 seconds left. On the ensuing play, Boston ran the ball down to Pierce for an isolation on the right wing, but Gee poked the ball away with 2.1 seconds left.
Just don’t give up a layup. That’s the defensive mantra there (if you’re not tanking). A foul, a contested jumper… they’re acceptable. The only thing Cleveland needed to avoid was a layup — I mean if they wanted to win. Boston got a free timeout, which they didn’t have, because of the official review of the out of bounds. (The NBA really ought not allow teams to meet with the coach on these types of scenarios). Byron Scott made sure that he didn’t make the mistake of having no timeouts at the end of the game. He had three, because they can be be used to buy 1up mushrooms at the general store, right? Anyway, Boston ran a beautiful play. Green set a screen at the left elbow with Terry coming from the left wing, diving down the lane, but Terry stopped, screened Walton who was guarding Green (was he? was he really?). Green caught the inbound at the top of the key. Walton tried to push Terry into Jeff Green, which allowed Green to run right by Luke at what appeared to be the speed of light, but only appeared that way because Luke Walton is so incredibly slow that he slows down the perception of time. Green: down the right lane, finger rolled it high off the glass over Livingston and Ellington as Gee and Miles watched him and no one thought of, you know, fouling. The ball slowly fell through the net as time expired. Crisis averted. Draft pick saved. Check and mate, NBA standings.