Recap: Cleveland 93, Toronto 99 (or how does Amir Johnson’s bum conform to the “rule of verticality”?)

February 26th, 2014 by Nate Smith

Before we start, let me just take my objective blogger hat off for a minute, to say: this was the worst officiated game I’ve watched all year. I spend most of the season giving officials the benefit of the doubt: that they do not play favorites and that they do their best to call things both ways. Then I watch a game like this and it makes me question those notions. It seemed as if, all night, the Raptors were allowed to be physical, body up players, flop, and run through Cavalier players to get loose balls and play defense, while Cavs’ players were consistently being called for touch fouls when the Floptors fell over from stiff breezes. It very much reminded me of the despicable Jazz teams from the Sloan era, or the flopping antics of a young Manu Ginobili. And let’s not even talk of my least favorite NBA officiating blunder: the pump fake where the defender jumps, yet comes down in front of the offensive player, and then offensive player throws his shoulder into the defender while he attempts a flailing jump-shot and then gets a whistle (yes, I’m talking about you, Kyle Lowry).

To compound that, Cavaliers like Anthony Bennett were being nitpicked for travel calls, while Terrence Ross and DeMarr DeRozen were getting away with equal or worse violations. (At one point in the fourth, I’m quite sure DeRozan did not have a pivot foot, but had a pivot shoe — as long as one part of the pivot shoe touched the ground, it was not a travel). The fun culminated in the last minute (click the links for video), when the Cavs were down three, and Kyle Lowry drew a charge from Kyrie Irving. Lowry started inside the charge circle when contact started (1:01), and the officials even reviewed the play, yet ruled for Lowry. Thirty seconds later, DeMar DeRozan ran through Tyler Zeller, hip checked Tyler, and got a steal while Zeller crashed to the floor as the whistle remained silent (0:31).  10 seconds later, with the Cavs down five, Kyrie Irving drove for a layup, got thudded by Amir Johnson’s backside knocking him out of the air during a layup (0:21). That last interpretation of the “rule of verticality” would have made Keith Ballard proud. But putting my blogger hat back on, I’m quite sure that my objectivity as a fan clouds my judgment of the pitched battle between the Raptors and the Cavaliers. The fouls were even, both teams shot 24 free-throws, and the turnovers were close. If I was a more objective watcher, I’m sure I’d have seen that the calls all evened out in the end.

All that being said, the Raptors are a good team, and even if the Cavs had gotten the majority of those calls in the last minute, there’s no guarantee that the outcome would have been any different than it was.  The Cavs lost this game because they couldn’t conjure enough offense, and had few answers for the skills and athleticism of Toronto swingmen, Terrence Ross, and DeMarr DeRozan — especially missing Andy, C.J., and Dion, yet again.

Ross had 19 points on 7-11 shooting, including 5-8 from three.  By next season, Ross will be in the discussion for the second best player from the 2012 NBA draft.  DeRozan had a monster game. No one on the Cavs could guard him as he finished with 33 points, six assists, and four rebounds in 40 minutes. Most of DeMarr’s points came on forays to the basket, mid-range jumpers, and savvy set-ups from Kyle Lowry.

The First Half : Spencer Hawes started this game at center, and provided a spark for the Cavs, offensively, scoring ten points in the half, including 2-3 shooting from behind the arc. The Cavs ran an interesting offense to start the game, with Jack in the corner, Irving and Deng as the primary ball-handlers, and Hawes on the wing.  This left Thompson one-on-one inside, and he struggled in the first half, and really lacked aggression, especially on the boards. But the offense did have much better spacing. The problem came when Cleveland went to the bench and could not score and could not stop anyone. Cleveland set themselves up for a loss, when they had to dig themselves a big hole. Toronto went on a 15-0 run to take a 14 point lead, on a seemingly never-ending series of offensive rebounds, and two minute long possessions. The highlight of this run was a rare five point possession where Grievous Vasquez hit a three, Tyler Hansbrough flopped to the ground for the “and1″, and Spencer Hawes got called for a tech.

Fortunately, that tech woke the Cavs up, and they started coming back (the starters coming back in helped, too). Kyrie Irving got only four minutes rest in the first, and was crucial Cavs offensive continuity.  The Cavs starters grinded , and got Cleveland back in it, when a 6-0 run keyed by two Jack jumpers closed the the half with Cleveland down only 41-47.

The Second Half was a battle as tight as Cleveland has had all year. To their credit, the Cavs never gave up, and played hard throughout. Tristan Thompson picked up his play, and scored eight in the third, off of some nice set-ups by Luol Deng.  Thompson picked up his work on the boards and finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds, but he was conspicuously absent down the stretch.  Deng continued to struggle with his shot and moving to his right. He played 40 minutes, finishing with eight points, nine rebounds, and five assists. His true shooting percentage was 25 (yuck), including 0-5 from three.  But let’s face it, Mike Brown’s other options at small forward were even less palatable: Alonzo Gee, and Jarrett Jack.  So Deng played — a lot. He did have a couple great steals by jumping passing lanes, but he had trouble doing anything with the ball in transition, and at one point layed the ball in after a steal, capping the slowest one-man fast break in NBA history.

After Cleveland jumped ahead, 56-57, halfway through the third, the lead ping-ponged back and forth for the rest of a very tense game.  Dellavedova played a lot more than Jack in the second, mainly due to his defense on Kyle Lowry. Delly routinely checked Lowry in the back-court, and chased him all the way up the court. Lowry finished 3-15, including 0-9 from three, so good job, Delly, et al. Delly mostly abandoned his jumper this game, but finished 4-6 from the field with 10 points. I’m pretty sure that all his field goals coming on knuckle-ball floaters that shocked his defenders.

Jack had a similarly effective game, and on paper it looked pretty darn good.  He played a good bit in the third, including an extended lineup of Delly/Irving/Jack. Jarrett finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and two assists on 5-10 shooting, and +9 for the game. But he didn’t play in crunch time at all. The Cavs could have used his offense, especially with Deng struggling.

Cleveland’s crunch time lineup was heretofore unseen: Irving, Delly, Deng, Zeller, and Hawes. The twin towers looked good, and did a nice job of checking Amir Johnson and Valanciunas, but were not able to provide much help defense when DeRozan went to the hole. The biggest problem was that the only really good three point shooter was Irving, which allowed the defense to key on him.

The game wound down to three minutes left, when Tyler Zeller hit two free throws to put the Cavs up 92-90 before Terrence Ross drained a three when Irving was late chasing him off a screen. Then, DeRozan beat Deng and Hawes for a reverse layup to put Toronto up three.  After another pair of clutch Zeller free throws, DeRozan got to the line, and the antics described in second paragraph happend. After free throws, the frustrating contest ended.

Kyrie Irving was simply excellent throughout the game. I can forgive him the defensive lapse on Ross because he played 44 minutes, and almost all of it was positive. Cleveland desperately needed Irving’s 25 points and nine assists, and Irving took almost no plays off on offense or defense. Despite getting beat, he did compete and helped break up several plays on defense. If not for Irving, Cleveland would have lost this one by 30. He was an all-star: running the offense, setting up teammates, and scoring when the Cavs needed it. Irving got his points in the post against Lowry, off mid-range jumpers, and at the basket in transition, finishing at his usual ridiculous angles.  Despite handling the ball almost the whole game, he finished with only two turnovers. Oh, and he put on this display of dribbling and finishing artistry.

In the end, this was the type of game we all wished for in the few seasons prior to this: an entertaining loss. Mike Brown made curious decisions at the game’s end, including not playing Thompson or Jack, but it’s hard to fault Brown when Zeller’s 4-4 from the line late were a big part of keeping Cleveland in it. Tristan’s first half disappearing act was matched by Spencer Hawe’s crunch time disappointing act, especially when it comes to protecting the rim. But the real problem was something Tom Pestak’s been talking about all year: Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of athletic players, and has a problem defending those kinds of players. On a related note, Gumdrop Bear filed a two pointer tonight on 0-5 from the field, while Vic Oladipo dropped 26 and five dimes. I know. There’s no one I annoy more with these comparisons than myself.

I’ll be interested to see Cleveland does with Kevin Durant. I’m sure the refs will make up for some of this game’s lost calls when Cleveland travels to Oklahoma City, Wednesday, so they’ve got that going for them.  Which is nice.