The Cavs stretched it to six straight wins tonight, after letting a 21 point lead dwindle to two points. Cleveland gutted out a win and overcame the absences of Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters, and an injury to C.J. Miles. The Cavaliers got some big-time play from all the starters, and just enough from the bench. This was a gut-wrenching victory.
First Quarter: Cleveland put a lid on Orlando’s basket and held them to 11 in the quarter. Tyler Zeller was especially active: challenging shots, and providing good help defense when people drove. Orlando didn’t look to take advantage of Zeller’s help by getting the ball to Vucevic who looked passive. Kyrie scored 10 of the Cavs first 12, and was teaching a master’s class in point guard play. His jumper was on, and he was consistently pushing the ball in transition. At the end of the quarter Irving hit a running Thompson on the break for a nasty throw-down, and then found Tyler Zeller for an even nastier dunk (say what you want about Zeller, but the dude can get up). Zeller’s play was fantastic on both ends of the court: he and Thompson handled the Orlando bigs well, and helped snuff out penetration. A combination of good Cavs defense and dismal Orlando shooting led to a 26-11 Cleveland lead.
Second Quarter: It’s time for another episode of the adventures of Gumdrop Bear. Bennett is starting to use his long arms and quick leaping ability to get rebounds. He started this quarter with an o-board, put-back, and the foul. Even better, he made the free-throw. Bennett bricked a three on a pick-and-pop on the next possession. Then, after a defensive rebound, AB15 got a sweet pass from Henry Sims as Bennett cut from the right elbow and got to the line again. But Bennett over-passed on the next play and turned it over instead of shooting an open eight footer. He went to the bench after that. It wasn’t a bad showing, and the Cavs needed those minutes.
Brown brought most of the starters back at 6:30 when Orlando cut the lead to twelve, but left Gee in at small forward. Zeller continued his stellar play on his re-emergence, challenging Vucevic, then splashing an 18-footer, and then getting to the line on a dunk attempt. This is the Tyler Zeller Cleveland thought they were drafting, and this game might make David Griffin think about trading Anderson Varejao. When Deng returned for the struggling Gee, Cleveland stretched the lead out to 16 as Jack drove the left baseline and hit a sweet little teardrop.
After an Orlando timeout, Cleveland stayed aggressive. TT’s activity got him to the line. Cleveland ran a side pick and roll with Zeller and scored. On defense, Zeller got a block, and then on offense, Cleveland swung the ball around the horn to find Jack in the left corner, who splashed a three. Kyrie put the exclamation point on the half by hitting a 27 pointer with 10 seconds remaining. Deng gave Afflalo no quarter on the other end, and Orlando couldn’t be bothered to call a play. Aaron launched an easily defended brick as the buzzer expired, and the Cavs took 55-36 point lead into the locker room.
Third Quarter: Taking a page from Don Cherry, it’s time for coach’s corner! This quarter started with a high pick and roll between Zeller and Jack. This developed into a left wing pick and roll after Deng caught it and went to work with Thompson as his roll man, and Kyrie in the left corner. This puts a lot of pressure on the ball side, and to complement that, Jack worked back to the right wing, caught and drove, but missed a makeable floater. Here’s the play (NBA.com is amazing). This is the kind of multiple pick-and-roll action and reversing of the ball that has helped Cleveland’s offense during this stretch. Putting a shooter like Kyrie in the corner makes for tight quarters on the strong side, but opens up the weak side for Zeller and Jack. It’s nice to see some organization and improvisation in this offense, that is now playing to the strengths of the guys on the floor.
Orlando countered by going zone on the next possession, and Irving sliced through the sea of blue and got an and1. On the other end, Orlando put Irving and Zeller in a right wing pick and roll against Nelson and Vucevic. Instead of the classic Mike Brown “hard show,” Zeller retreated, and Kyrie couldn’t get over a solid screen. This is the new defensive adjustment that the Cavs bigs are making: retreat and prevent. While this helps pack the paint and prevent penetration, it can be hard to play with a guard who shoots well off the pick and roll. Here’s video of the play I’m talking about. On cue, Jameer Nelson canned a three.
Next time down (after a nice TT pump-fake and-1 basket) the Magic ran the same play, but this time Jarrett Jack got over the screen and foiled the offense (see, here). The new pick-and-roll adjustments are going to force Kyrie and Jack to have to get over that pick. Orlando ran it (again) from the top on the next two possessions, and Jack got beat on about fifty percent of those plays in this stretch. Then, Orlando went back to the pick-and-roll mine with O’Quinn and Nelson. TT showed hard, Nelson split, and set up Tobias Harris for an easy three (video, here). Mike Brown called an immediate time out despite a 15 point lead. Something tells me Tristan wasn’t supposed to show there.
If it seems like the game devolved into a half court battle, it did. After the time-out Orlando was content to put Jack or Irving in pick and roll on every single possession, writing the playbook for the good teams the Cavs will be playing when the schedule gets rougher. Orlando started putting the other guard in curl action against Afflalo off the ball, and he scored on Irving on two straight possessions to cut the lead to twelve. The defense was simple: when Jack or Irving got over their on or off-ball screens, the defense worked. When they didn’t, Orlando’s offense worked.
Cleveland stopped running, the ball started to stick, and the refs started swallowing their whistles. Suddenly it was an eight point lead after a couple of Tobias Harris free-throws. But Tristan Thompson! Bailed out the next possession with a confident right elbow jumper for two. You got the feeling that the Cavs were going to miss Dion’s energy (and his defense) at the end of the third/early fourth, as Orlando screened Irving to death to whittle down the lead.
Kyrie was forcing it, Bennett was bricking, and Orlando started posting up Tobias Harris on C.J. Miles — generating points from that too. Suddenly the lead was only four before C.J. hit a long two, and then Vucevic closed out the quarter with two free throws for 72-68 Cavs lead.
Fourth Quarter: Delly, Jack, Bennett, Miles, and Sims started the quarter, and Oladipo quickly abused them for two. Delly’s offense in the half court hurt Cleveland, but his hustle on defense helped Miles get a steal, and Delly trailed and got a garbage layup with his hustle. Bennett! Canned a 20-footer to stretch the lead to five. C.J. drove, got a blocking foul but collapsed after rolling his ankle badly. C.J. gutted out two free-throws to stretch the lead to seven. Cleveland took a foul to get him out of the game. Ugh. The injury train continues.
This was Anthony Bennett’s best game as a Cav. A big Bennett offensive rebound led to a Kyrie floater and the foul. After a Kyrie turnover, Bennett raced down Tobias Harris to foul him instead of letting Harris have an easy two. Over the next couple gritty minutes, Orlando grinded out a baskets inside against the Bennett/Thompson big-man duo, and Mike Brown called a timeout after the lead shrunk to four. Bennet’s defense was decent, his rebounding was very good, and he was making more good plays than bad in moments that mattered. He wasn’t tall enough to deal with Orlando’s front court, but he bought Tyler Zeller some minutes.
Crunch Time: Zeller came in for Bennett, and immediately splashed a right elbow jumper. Zeller got to the line off a sweet Jack lob pass on the top pick and roll and drained both freebies. Kyrie got over the pick, and Nelson missed. Tristan bobbled and traveled. Kyrie got caught on a pick, and Vucevic scored on the roll. Deng! Buried a left baseline J off a perfect delivery from Jack after Luol ran the baseline. Cavs got a five on three break after some good defense, and then Zeller UGH! Caught the ball with his heal on the baseline, for his only bonehead play of the game. An 89-82 Cleveland lead did not seem safe.
Out of the timeout, Jameer Nelson beat Kyrie and fed Vucevic for an elbow jumper after Zeller was forced to collapse. Kyrie settled for a three-brick after a scrum forced him to call a time-out. Ugh. Afflalo off the curl, hooked Jack, and got the hoop and the harm. Two point lead and no love from the refs… But Zeller delivered! With a tough rebound and a power-through put-back. Tyler flashed his equivalent of a KG scream face as he went to the line to extend the lead to five. A Tobias Harris free-throw line jumper dropped the lead to three with 90 seconds left….
Cleveland, finally got reach-in foul call, and Kyrie drained two. Jack with a steal, off a wild Nelson pass… Deng: a mismatch on Nelson, posted up, swung to Jack off the double. Jack to Irving, Irving drove, Deng faded to the corner, Kyrie fed him… Deng, for three!!! 97-89 Cleveland! The rest of the game was a free-throw contest with Jarret Jack hitting some clutch freebies. Cavs Win! Whew.
Conclusions: It’s easy to say that Cleveland came out flat in the second, but I give Jacque Vaughn a lot of credit. Orlando played very hard and very smart in the half, despite trailing by 19 to start the third. They had a ridiculously low six turnovers for the game and that was a lot of the reason that Cleveland wasn’t able to run as much in the second half. The Magic isolated the weakest parts of Cleveland’s defense (Irving and Jack), and exploited them in the half court as much as possible. But Cleveland gritted out a win, and some of the younger Clevelanders had their best games in Cavs uniforms (Jack and Bennett).
Kyrie Irving: 22, seven, and seven, with only two turnovers. The ball stuck a bit in the third, but Irving was trying to make up for the absences of Dion. He played like a leader and warrior-poet and hit clutch baskets throughout the game.
Tyler Zeller: Vucevic finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, but Zeller really played him to a standstill. Nikola really didn’t get rolling till the third, and a lot of that was when Tyler was on the Bench. Zeller had some enormous baskets, especially his put-back in crunch time. He was 4-5 from the field, and 8-9 from the line with six boards and three blocks, and finished with a team high +15. Vucevic was +1. Tyler was a factor.
Tristan Thompson: Posted a solid game with 16 points and 14 boards. He’s getting his buckets in transition, on rebounds, on pick-and-rolls, and on the very occasional post-up. One thing he’s stopped doing so much is getting his shot blocked when he’s in too deep. Let’s hope he keeps it up.
Luol Deng: An also solid 17 points. I hope he plays for the Cavs for the next four years. He’s such a sneaky good player with a penchant for clutch buckets. He’s had some enormous threes from the corner in this win streak, and he’s such a multipurpose tool on offense and defense.
Jarret Jack: 10 points, six boards, six dimes, two blocks, two steals. Jack had some good plays on defense, especially in transition, and competed tonight. With all the trade rumors, he’s just starting to find a positive role with the team. I’d almost hate to see him go now.