Everyone saw it coming. The players and coaches of the Cleveland Cavaliers congregated at halftime of Monday night’s contest against the New York Knicks, having amassed a 22-point lead only to let it slowly slip away before the mid-way buzzer provided some relief. Having watched plenty of tape and read all of the glowing features with their opponent as the subject, everyoone knew what was in store for the remaining 24 minutes: a team forged with veterans, without their star small forward, was going to continue launching three-pointers.
Carmelo Anthony had collapsed like a pile of bricks at center court and would not return despite his team being down by a large margin. The ball, in turn, would be put in the hands of players like JR Smith and Steve Novak. As low-percentage as three-pointers may be, a quick three conversions and a 10-point lead dissipates. The only unknown was if this Cleveland team could stick to their game plan and come out with a victory.
The answer was a definitive no.
CJ Miles, who drained a three-pointer in the second quarter to give the Cavaliers a 52-30 lead sat in front of his locker post game, having just swallowed a bitter pill of a significant lead lost. Simple math dictated that if the Knicks, a team which shoots 29 three-point field goals per night, had only attempted 14 at the half, there were going to be roughly 15 more on the way. The Knicks responded with 16 threes, to be exact — 11 of which were in the fourth quarter alone where they converted on seven thanks to the sharp-shooting, spot-up work of forward Steve Novak.
“When you’re facing a team like that who shoot 30 threes in a game, no lead is big,” said Miles of the 22-point spread he provided his team early on. “You can always come back when you shoot 30 threes a game. You have guys out there that were just making plays for them. They made some threes in the second half; we didn’t get as many stops and we missed shots.”
Miles said the team relaxed despite Byron Scott’s mid-way warning. The Cavaliers became somewhat complacent with their lead and then, when it started to slip through their hands as momentum shifted, they tried to go blow-for-blow with veteran unit — “You start to throw hay-makers at one another,” he said. But Miles also painted a picture of disappointment when he stated that while this Wine and Gold unit has talent, the years and experience still aren’t there; the killer instinct mindset is still in the production phase.
While the age angle is well documented, this was a night where two rookies — shooting guard Dion Waiters and center Tyler Zeller1 — were home with an illness. In their starting positions were two veterans in Wayne Ellington and Marrese Speights. Coming off of the bench were veterans in Shaun Livingston, Luke Walton and Daniel Gibson. The man pacing the sidelines is a veteran in his own right, winning championships as a player and being the runner-up with two different teams as a coach. The Cavaliers had 20 assists at halftime; they finished with 25. Following the game, Luke Walton — who finished with a career-high 12 assists — said that as long as his teammates are cutting hard, he would find them. The players, instead, turned stagnant. The ball stopped moving, the shot-selection was desperate. Excuses were rendered invalid.
Following the game, Ellington stated that his approach as a starter was no different than when he is expected to provide instant energy off of the bench. The variable, howver, is the different style of play that exists between the two units. Under Kyrie Irving, the ball is dominated by the point guard, the tempo is high. The reserves had largely played a more meticulous game, resembling a triangle offense married with Byron Scott’s Princeton-based system. Taking key players out of one unit and putting them in another, subsequently forcing players into alternative roles, and the axis tilts. Certainly, it is up to the players as professionals to make the requisite changes. This night, however, provided very little.
“They’re going to spread you out, and if they’re making them, they’re a tough team to beat,” said Scott. “We had about four or five breakdowns defensively. We talked about switching one through four. One guy doesn’t switch and (Steve) Novak hits a three. He hit two when we didn’t switch and that lack of focus hurts you.”
The Cavaliers came out swinging — Speights hit his first 10 shots for 21 first-half points. Energy was high, replicating that of The Diff. Following the injury to Carmelo Anthony, one of the game’s best scorers, the Knicks went on to outscore the Cavaliers 72-45. The Cavs stopped converting on offense and found themselves running in circles on defense. They had several shots to win the game, but were out-played and out-coached by their opponents. Like Miles said, when a team shoots that many three-pointers, they’re never out of the game — no lead is safe. Everyone saw it coming. On a night where it was Kyrie Irving being celebrated with a bobblehead, it was 19,000 Cavalier fans who left with their own heads shaking.
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY
- The two were in fact hospitalized on Saturday with nary a word from the team. Friends, wives and trainer Max Benton were also affected. Craziness in Independence. [↩]