Cleveland came into this game 1-10 on the road, with a game against the reigning NBA Champions looming tomorrow. This was a sandwich game that might have doomed the Cavs earlier this season. The biggest “juice” from this game was the match-up between the number one and number two NBA draft picks, Anthony Bennett and Victor Oladipo. The juice from the match-up between the 17th and 18th picks of the 2012 draft, Tyler Zeller and Andrew Nicholson, was pretty much an afterthought. How did Cleveland dig out this win? Kyrie Irving, rebounds, 10 turnovers, and 60 bench points…
1st Quarter: Cleveland jumped out to a 5-0 lead off two quick C.J. Miles jumpers (a great sign!). Then, Kyrie canned a couple quick mid-rangers (another great sign!), followed by Oladipo scoring 7 straight for the Magic (not a great sign for Chris Grant!). And then the Cavs’ offense turned into the Browns’ running game. Taking advantage of Cleveland’s poor spacing and awful ball movement, Orlando short circuited the Cavs’ offense, and destroyed Cleveland’s plans to get the ball into Andrew Bynum. Cleveland let the ball stick and resorted to contested two point pull-ups and bad passes. By 3:28, Orlando had a 14 point lead. Fortunately, Andy came in and drained a 2013 signature foul line jumper to stem the tide (he’s only shooting about 75% on these so far this year). He followed it up with a playground-esque hook shot from the hip, straight off the square. Earl Clark knocked down a wing three, and Dion gave the ball to Oladipo which resulted in a Tobias Harris layup to leave it 28-19, Magic.
2nd Quarter: Gumdrop Bear! kicked off his quarter with the best move of his pro career: a nifty little layup while standing behind the basket off a Dion dime. Unfortunately Andrew Nicholson is the one who rattled off seven straight points for Orlando this quarter, sandwiched between a Jack turnover and “Damnit, Dion!” pull-up brick. The Cavs flipped their caps, and started to rally behind… Earl Clark three pointers, a silky 19-footer from Gumdrop, and a lob finish from AB15!? OK, Kyrie Irving shooting, driving, and diming had something to do with it too.
The Cavs closed out shooters really well throughout the game. Varejao’s rejection of an Oladipo three in this stretch was a great example. After Jack tied it up at 40 with two freebies, Oladipo turned in an 18 second sequence where he stole the ball twice, fed Aaron Afflalo for an 18 footer, and got himself to the free throw line for two more. His PER for this stretch was 34,000. Fortunately, C.J. and Kyrie closed out this quarter as well as the Cavs have closed out a quarter all year, outscoring the Magic 10-4 between the two of them over the final 2:13, to cut it to 51-50, Magic.
3rd Quarter: Or, the Kyrie Irving quarter. Cleveland used Bynum as a decoy and ran pick and roll and screen action to the opposite (right) side of the court. In the funniest non-call of the game, T.T. and Irving tackled Oladipo off a trap at the top of the key, which led to a Kyrie dunk after the scrum. After that, everything was on for Uncle Drew. He ripped twine after twine, sprung by Thompson screens, ridiculous dribble moves, and a buttery pure jumper. He finished the quarter with 11 points. Oladipo gave him all he could handle on the other side of the court, with jumpers, right side drives, and a drive where the Cavs forced him left and he scored anyway. Oladipo scored 13 in the third. Cleveland and Orlando traded baskets a lot this quarter, keyed by Oladipo and Jameer Nelson’s shooting and distributing. Despite the guards’ points, Cleveland defended Orlando’s wings really well, consistently denying the ball to Orlando’s leading scorer, Aaron Afflalo, and completely stymieing Tobias Harris.
Cleveland had their troubles scoring, especially when C.J. was firing away with defenders surgically attached to him off the curl screen. The quarter got more frustrating as Dion and Kyrie took stagnant offense pull-ups. Saint Weirdo redeemed with nasty left side layup after he spun off Vucevic. A Nicholson jumper closed the quarter, 76-73, Magic.
4th Quarter: Jarrett Jack zipped the ball cross-court to a charging Waiters who stepped into a left wing three in transition. Splash. The NBA Jam announcer quoth, “He’s heating up!” A minute later, Jack fed Dion slashing from right to left, for an and-1. Channeling Marv Albert, I declared “He’s on fire!” and made flame noises as I gesticulated in my living room. So what if Tobias got it going for six points, and everyone ignored Nicholson as he grabbed an o-board, trotted to the left quarter and drained it with no one within 10 feet. Dion had wings on his feet, and was awash in the glow of flame as he scored the Cleveland’s first 14 points in the first five minutes of the fourth off a collection of drives and “no no no… yes!” pull-ups. The Cavs finally broke through to take the lead at 87-85. Then, Waiters broke his own scoring streak to skip it to Delly in the right corner for a three that skimmed the the side of the back board and ripped the twine. Magic timeout. 90-85, Cavs.
Crunch Time: Speaking of Delly, his defense was infectious: consistent ball denial — fronting Aaron Afflalo every damned time. He got under the Magic’s skin. They started to unravel after the timeout. Vucevic had the ball knocked away by Dion, Delly grabbed it, and Nikola decided a Montenegran bear hug was in order for Delly. T.T. hit a rhythm J (I know, right?). Vucevic turned it over with a moving screen. Dion bricked a 17 footer, and Matty-D ran the rebound down with pure… freaking… hustle… I swear, everyone else was moving in slow motion, and he was in real time. Then, without a conscience, he pulled up from the right wing and drained it to put Cleveland up 10.
Then, the Cavs got lost in the moment, a bit. Despite Delly drawing an offensive foul from Afflalo, the Magic ran off five straight. Brown called a T.O. Kyrie and Dion took advantage of being in the bonus, attacked, and got to the line. The Cavs closed out the perimeter and everyone (Andy) grabbed the rebounds. Six straight Cavs free throws, followed by two straight Oladipo layups off some “lets dribble for 20 seconds for no reason” and panic offense by Kyrie left the Cavs lead at five with a minute left. Dion drove, got swatted by Vucevic, and Andy iced the game with a trailing layup.
The s**t got real in the closing seconds when the Magic were pressing with 13 seconds left, trailing by 6. The Cavs beat the press. Andy stood under the basket, and layed it in. Then, Andrew Nicholson leveled him. I get that you don’t want to run it up on a team, but when they’re pressing and you beat the press, you lay it up. That’s basketball. Andy rolled on the floor for several minutes holding his left knee. (He’d already banged his right knee with Oladipo earlier in the game). Nicholson got a flagrant 2 and was ejected. Andy was available for interviews after the game, so he appears, O.K., but I’d be more than happy not to see him play tomorrow against Miami.
Takeaways: This is the best the Cavs have looked on the road all year. They shook off a night when things just weren’t clicking with Bynum, and found a way to win through protecting the ball, rebounding, and great guard play. It doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a bench that can score 60. Kyrie offensively: 31 points, 5 dimes, 2 turnovers off 59% true shooting — the sort of every day Irving brilliance that we all take for granted unless it’s not there. Kyrie’s defense wasn’t great, but it was good in spots. Delly and Waiters helped him out on that end a lot. The Vinnie Johnson comparisons will continue to grow for Neon Dion after a 16 point fourth quarter. If only he could take the two point jump shot off the dribble out of his game. He was 2-7 on that shot and 8-18 on the game. The Cavs only committed 10 turnovers. Let’s hope that keeps up.
I’ll mostly ignore the Victor/Anthony dynamic. I just wonder if Gilbert watched the game with Grant and if Dan just shot scathing looks at Chris every time Oladipo did something good (which was often). Oladipo was clearly “up” for this game: 26 points, .86 TS% with 4 assists, 4 steals, and 2 turnovers. Orlando has finally figured out that playing Oladipo at point guard off the bench is stupid. Now that he’s starting at his natural position, Victor will be two laps ahead of everyone for rookie of the year, come March. In the words of Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire.
Cleveland went 11 deep in this one, and I have to give Brown credit. Every button he pushed tonight was the right one. Cleveland’s bench wore down the Magic. They just couldn’t match the energy or depth. The extended run for Delly helped set the tone on defense and helped keep the Cavs sharp on the road. Earl Clark seems to have settled into a very nice role as a backup power forward, and he’s become deadly on the wing from three. Jack still isn’t shooting great (and he’s taking awful shots), but he’s running the offense and steadying the ship when he’s in. Even Gumdrop Bear looked a lot more like Champ Bear tonight. It’s time to name this bench. Since Cleveland’s bench is led by a curly haired Brazilian who posted 10 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks, a steal, a dime, no turnovers, and a game high +17 in 32 minutes, I’m voting for “The A.V. Club.” Hopefully. its signature member is in a suit tomorrow, taking a much deserved night off. Meanwhile, we need to give these A.V. Club guys some “nerd names.”