I’ve developed a strong aversion to how losing teams finish out seasons in the NBA. Sometimes, it stinks like my socks after a pickup game. This week, the stink in Cleveland got so high that it reached a tipping point. Sports radio, fans around the water cooler, the blogosphere, and the media finally got fed up. People felt embarrassed after the lack of effort in the Brooklyn game, and the Boston game was probably a referendum on Byron Scott and the team’s future. That referendum wasn’t fair. The mob hadn’t been paying attention for the previous nine games. Their problem with the Brooklyn loss? It wasn’t entertaining enough. It was embarrassing. But how can fans and the media expect effort when it seems to some that this team is being sabotaged to prevent winning? And for what? …draft positioning in a mediocre draft. So with that in mind the Cavaliers had a lot to play for tonight (for once).
1st Quarter: The Cavs went to Tristan early and often, both in the post and in pick and roll, to good effect. The team seemed focus early. Unfortunately, Zeller got foul trouble again early. He doesn’t seem to know how to stop a penetrating player other than to foul. He’s going to have to work on that. Tristan had a couple shots blocked early by Chris Wilcox, mainly because he wasn’t warding off Wilcox with the off-ball shoulder, and because he doesn’t dunk one handed. He’s going to have to work on that. But TT mixed in some nice one handed push shots in traffic and two handed slams off feeds from Kyrie and Luke Walton to finish with a 9 point quarter. The Cavs were up 24-16 with about 3:30 left, but with characteristic bad shots, bad fouls, sluggish offense, missed rebounds, and plentiful turnovers they gave up a 14-0 run until Mo Speights got to the line to break the lid on the basket. The quarter ended with Boston up 28-26, with Boston shooting 62%.
2nd Quarter: Shavlik Randolph who was recently out of the league for almost 2 years, and has only played in 53 games since 2006, outrebounded three Cavs and then scored on them to open the quarter. He drew the third foul on Zeller on the next play, leading to Randolph’s 10th point in 6 minutes. Luke Walton turned his ankle, and since Boobie was out, we saw a lot of Kevin Jones after that, not that I noticed him much. Randolph continued to score at will, getting to his career high in points, 13, with 9:30 to go in the second quarter. Thompson continued to be a go-to scoring option in the pick and roll, transition, the post, and off the offensive boards. He had a beast of a first half with 21 points (a career high for a half), and 10 rebounds on 9-12 shooting. But he was routinely abused by Brandon Bass and his 16 foot jumpers (and ahem, Shavlik Randolph). Gee followed up two horrible shots with three straight buckets to finish the first half with 10 points and 6 boards. Kyrie was passive, but his 5 assists and 2 steals and general orchestrating of the offense was adequate, and enough to match the Celtics as the half ended with the score 52-52.
3rd Quarter: Jeff Green scored the first five for the C’s who dominated at the outset. The only points the Cavs scored in a 10-3 Boston start were from a 25 foot Ellington parabola as the shot clock expired. But after a coach Scott timeout, the Cavs notched 11 straight – 6 off of Kyrie threes — to counter as the quarter started to get ragged. Go-to Celtic Jeff Green was relegated the bench after picking up his fourth foul, and the Cavs played scrappier during this stretch as Kyrie asserted himself. But in words that have never been uttered in the NBA before, Fred McCleod quipped that the Cavs needed “to score before Shavlik Randolph comes back in the game.” Randolph, fortunately reverted back to his old ways: fouling and flailing. Gee, on the other hand, really looked sharp this quarter: playing from the corners with shots and dribble drives, and of course high percentage finishes in transition. TT kept getting to the line and kept converting. Furthermore, with Green on the bench, the Cavs defense was solid: holding Boston to 6 points over the final 7:50. Cavaliers finish the quarter up 74-68.
4th Quarter: Livingston played ok without his Herculoid running mate, Luke “Tundro” Walton who never came back after his injury. Shaun fed Zeller with a funky bullet pass at his face, and ZPA’s quick hands saved himself from another broken schnozz as he converted around the basket. Jason Terry made an inexplicably stupid play taking out Darius CJ Miles with a midcourt forearm shiver — an obvious flagrant foul. Miles made the freethrows to put the Cavs up 10. After a Zeller 22 footer, and a Miles runout, the Cavs were up 14. Of course Terry canned a three and Boston sicked Avery Bradley and his full court pressure on Livingston who coughed it up for 5 quick Boston points. After a Bradley three, Livingston scored a layup, which was countered with a Shavlik layup… UGH. Miles really attacked the basket and thankfully (WTF?) fouled Randolph out.
TT and Kyrie came back in with 6:40, and after a Boston miss, TT leveled Avery Bradley under his own basket with a unexpected but legal crack back screen that will make Bradley reconsider full court defense for the rest of the season. But Terry answered on the next possession with a corner three to cut the lead to 4 because of an inexcusably lazy closeout by Kyrie Irving. This led to a much needed Byron Scott timeout, 87-83, Cavs.
Crunch Time: Out of the timeout, TT thumped a putback after throwing his body around for two offensive rebounds. Canadian Dyamite! was absolutely Varejaoian: extending possessions, tipping balls off other players, fighting for each possession… Then, off a TT extended possession, Gee drove — out of control — and jumped with no where to go and as he hovered a foot above out of bounds and at the last second spotted a cutting Ellington who swished a mid post pull-up.
Avery Bradley is one of the premiere perimeter defenders in the NBA, and he caused havoc in this quarter, constantly hounding the ball. But what he gives Boston on defense, he takes away on defense. He had a crucial turnover by stepping out of bounds, and a couple big missed shots, and Doc Rivers was eventually forced to substitute Terrence Williams in to try to pick up the offense.
Free of Bradley, Kyrie kept shooting in isolation and kept missing. This was ill conceived considering how well all the other Cavs were playing on offense. But with two minutes left and a six point buffer, the lead held and so did the defense. The Cavs beat the constant press and Kyrie hit a pull-up from the free throw line to stretch the lead to 8. Out of a Boston timeout, Jeff Green flushed one to finish a drive from the right wing. Alonzo Gee yelled Olé! after the score. A subsequent Cleveland shot clock violation, a Boston miss and loose ball foul on Tristan closed this one out as TT swished his ninth consecutive freethrow to stretch the lead to 8 with 40 seconds left. Final score, 97-91 Cleveland.
Conclusions: It’s tough to know what to make of this one. After the first quarter, the Cavs held Boston to 34% shooting, but this was a Boston team missing its three best players from the beginning of the season. The Cavs won despite a fairly terrible Kyrie Irving shooting game of 4-20. Kyrie did have a few defensive highlights with a couple blocks and a couple steals, but he had some big lapses with rotations and that noticeably lazy closeout on Terry. He finished with 11 points, 8 assists, and 4 turnovers. Zeller was OK. He had a couple very timely buckets on his way to 9 points and 6 boards of 4 of 9 shooting. Ellington’s 12 points, 6 boards, 5-8 shooting from the floor, and decent defense were key contributions. CJ Miles’ 5-6 from the freethrow line were also key. Though his jumper wasn’t falling, he attacked the basket and got to the line, finishing with 9 points in 15 minutes. His defense wasn’t great, giving up 3 fouls in that time, and I counted more than a couple blown assignments.
Alonzo Gee played one of his best offenseive games of the season, shooting 8-15 on non threes (0-2 on those). He converted a lot of tough drives, finished well in transition, grabbed offensive rebounds, and converted some critical buckets to keep the pressure on the Celtics. He finished with16 points and 7 offensive boards and a game high +13. But on defense, he gave up 23 points and 4 dimes to Jeff Green on 8-13 shooting. He had more than a couple poor closeouts and gave up layups and dunks that he really shouldn’t have. The only thing that stopped Green tonight was his teammates’ turnovers and his own foul trouble.Kevin Jones got Mo Speights’ and Luke Walton’s minutes tonight on his way to 1-6 shooting and 8 boards in 22 minutes, but +10 for the game. I didn’t notice him much. The other guy getting Speights’ minutes: Tristan “Canadian Dynamite” Thompson. In his best game of his career, Tristan showed how good he can be. Finishing with 29 points and 17 rebounds, TT scored every way post player should score: post-ups, roll finishes, put backs, and plays in transition. His push shot was pure, and his footwork was the best I’ve seen all season: he used his strength to clear space, his quickness and footwork to claim that space, and his athleticism to finish. He was also a rebounding demon: going after every ball when he was on the floor. He should have had more plays run for him with as well as he was playing. He could have easily finished with 35. It was a glimpse of his potential when he plays with focus and will. He won this one for his coach: telling the press earlier Friday that the speculation on Scott was “bogus.” TT backed that speech up with his play.
This game was a Rorschach test for Cavs fans. Fans who think the Cleveland has been mostly tanking during this 10 game streak can say, “yep, when they needed to win to quell fan unrest, and they did.” Fans who think that Byron Scott is a bad coach and that this Cavs team isn’t very good can look at this game and say, “Woo hoo. The Cavs beat a team that is firmly implanted in the 7th seed in the East, and is sitting their two best players.” They have a point. The Celtics shot awfully. Some of that was by design, as the Cavs packed it in the paint and dared the Celtics to beat them from outside. The Celtics didn’t do it, but the Cavs gave up a lot of wide open corner threes, and the Celtics couldn’t convert, going 6-22 from the 3 point line. The Cavs also gave up 16 points and 7 rebounds in 13 minutes to Shavlik freaking Randolph. The Cavs interior defense mostly stunk. If the Celtics had anyone who could score in there, they probably would have won.
I don’t know what to think. For what it’s worth, Tristan Thompson won the completely unfair referendum tonight for coach Scott and the team’s future — next referendum Sunday.