As the season winds down, there are two Cavaliers that I am particularly interested in: Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller. Tonight, that duo faced-off with the Orlando Magic’s 22 / 23-year old, second year / rookie starting-lineup front-court. In the previous two games versus Nicola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson, the young Cavaliers emerged victorious, however on February 8th, the Magic-pair combined for 46 points and 21 rebounds, routinely abusing their counterparts. Over the next ten years, Tristan and Tyler will need to leave Nicola and Andrew in the dust; let’s see how that progressed tonight.
The affair started poorly; after the game’s first possession when Tyler helped Tristan to block a Nicholson shot, the first quarter performance declined. As the Magic sprinted to an early lead, Tristan missed three shots and was called for a traveling violation. While Tyler nailed a jumper and a running bank-shot, he also allowed Vucevic to push-him-around and grab an offensive board, and Nicholson canned two hook shots over him. Worse than that though, following a pinpoint laser from Kyrie that provided an uncontested dunk for Tyler, he instead floated up a lefty layup, missing, and ending the possession. TZ headed to the bench with the Cavs trailing 10 to 16. Orlando had three offensive rebounds, as Vucevic and Nicholson combined for ten of their early points. Over the rest of the quarter, Cleveland’s defense tightened, they held Orlando to one opportunity per possession, CJ Miles stroked some threes, and the deficit dissipated to 22 to 24 at the quarter.
When the Cavs’ young front-court checked-in for the second, the team trailed by one. The duo looked revived, with Zeller forcing a Vucevic air-ball. Tristan finished a fast-break on a sweet between-the-legs pass from Kyrie, then on the ensuing possession, Tyler obstructed an Orlando shot at the rim, proceeding Tristan swishing a right-handed hook; Cavs lead 43 to 41. Unfortunately, the closing minutes unravelled for Zeller: a dunk attempt was blocked; he missed a ready-made tip-in; and a third foul was assessed as he mismanaged some pick & roll defense. He routinely provided minimal resistance to the ball-handler in the pick and roll, precipitating a Beno Udrih and-one that took Orlando into the half, leading 48 to 44. Austin Carr ranted for at least a minute about throwing people in the basket, dunking with authority, and how players will take advantage of you if you’re not physical in this league…exhibiting poor body-language through this stretch, Tyler also seemed upset with his play.
In the third, Tristan’s shooting continued to struggle, but his impact came in other ways. Contesting shots at the rim, he forced a couple of Magic misses, and also blocked an Andrew Nicholson shot, leading to a travel. And he just kept rebounding, snagging four on the quarter, to improve to twelve for the night. Tyler unfortunately continued providing ineffective pick & roll hedges, and was routinely abused by Vucevic on the offensive glass; the second-year Orlando big was en-route to piling up 21 points and 21 rebounds (8 offensive). Cleveland trailed 62 to 66, as the game entered the finale.
And Tristan Thompson had enough of losing. Constantly active, in addition to three offensive boards, Cleveland re-gained possession three other times due to TT batting the ball & keeping it alive. Thompson scored off a tough pick & roll with Kyrie, a sweeping right-handed drive into his hook-shot, made two free throws, and tossed a nice high-low pass to Zeller, netting Tyler a trip to the line. Over the last 5:13 after a Cavalier time-out, largely defended by TT, Vucevic was limited to 2 points and 2 rebounds, and Cleveland cruised to the 91 to 85 victory. Tristan finished with 15 points, 16 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He struggled with his shot (43% TS), but made several plays down-the-stretch, including putting-a-lid on Orlando’s primary big man; Vucevic and Nicholson combined for 29 points on 44% true shooting.
I really wanted this to be an all-around feel-good story: Tristan dominates like on Friday, Tyler scores efficiently…but instead Zeller struggled towards 5 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes, looking over-matched by the sizable and physical Vucevic. Keep your head up, Tyler, and come back strong next year. The Cavaliers got the win though, beating another of the Eastern Conference’s youngest teams.
I will be at Tuesday’s game against Indiana. Looking forward to that, so go Cavs!!