Milwaukee Bucks (30-42) 104
Cleveland Cavaliers (51-20) 113
On the day that Malik Taylor, a/k/a Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, passed away at age 45, the Cavs beat the Milwaukee Bucks with a combination of style, rhythm, and chemistry worthy of Tribe itself. LeBron James was a 6-8 assassin with the roughneck business, throwing down a dizzying array of dunks and putting in a masterful all-around performance. Kyrie Irving ran mad game as if his name was Scott Skiles, dishing out eight assists. Kevin Love was on point (all the time, Tip), playing perhaps his best game in a month.
The Cavs had ample reason to celebrate even before the game between Kyrie Irving’s 24th birthday and J.R. Smith’s bobblehead day. A strong win against a game Bucks squad was icing on the cake.
Can they kick it? Yes, they can. I mean, look at this.
There was a lot of fun stuff going on. Given some recent lackluster performances and the usual array of off-court weirdness, things felt a little tense in ol’ Cavsville. If only for one night, the Cavs gave everyone to relax themselves and please set-tle down.
It was not, it should be said, the Cavs’ finest defensive performance. Milwaukee poured in points aplenty, matching the wine and gold for much of the game and even taking a brief lead in the second half. For the most part, however, the Cavs’ energy level was not to blame. They had some lapses, but mostly the Bucks just did a good job of putting the ball in the hoop. They hit six of their first eight three-balls in the first half before attacking the rim more in the second. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force all night, John Henson provided a lift off the bench, and Jarryd Bayless had his jumper working.
The Cavs didn’t have a great shooting night, but they played wonderful offense most of the way. They attacked with purpose, moving the ball side to side and in and out, with Cavaliers consistently cutting into open space. They only scored 13 fast break points, but they pushed in transition and had the visitors on their heels often. There were precious few stagnant stretches. Between the constant movement and the highlights, the crowd scarcely had an excuse to get nervous. All those in attendance could do was clap their hands.
A brief summary of the highlights: Kevin Love had a strong putback and-one; Timofey Mozgov slammed it home off of a gorgeous touch pass from LeBron; Love scooped an underhand pass that led to a thunderous LeBron dunk in transition; Kyrie hit a four-point play; LeBron dunked all over Giannis on the break; J.R. hit LeBron for that absurd reverse slam; Tristan had a couple huge putbacks down the stretch; J.R. punctuated it all with a triple in the closing seconds; and LeBron further punctuated it with a block shortly thereafter. Even one of the misses — an attempted dunk that would have ended the Plumlee family bloodline — was impressive.
It was just a fun, fun basketball game. The Cavs are the most fun when they’re a little bit out of control — more J.R. than Delly, if you will — and Wednesday’s game was an excellent example thereof. Let us explore the numbers.
5 — LeBron James threw down five dunks on the evening, each more spectacular than the last. He played as though he, not Kyrie, were the one turning 24. He attacked the rim early and often, scoring seven of his eight buckets in the paint (the other was a three from the right wing). He did some of his best work cutting off the ball, and that’s when the Cavs can be really dangerous. He worked well as the screener in the pick-and-roll game and just had his Spidey sense working. If there was space to be exploited, he did so. He finished with 26 points, 6 rebounds (5 offensive!), 8 assists, and 2 steals in an oh-my-god level game.
4×4 — On the subject of assists: The Cavs had 29 total, and four starters — LeBron, Love, Kyrie, and J.R. — had at least four apiece. It was the team’s 10th game with at least that many helpers and the second in as many nights. (They had a season-high 38 in Monday’s win over Denver.) It was the most beautiful thing this side of Bonita Applebum.
24 — The now-24-year-old Kyrie Irving had a relatively tame outing by his standards, but it was one of his more well-rounded efforts of the season: 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on 5-of-10 shooting. He picked a couple spots to commandeer the offense, but for the most part he was just keeping it moving against Milwaukee. Happy birthday, Uncle Drew.
17 — The Cavs scored 35 points in the first quarter, their 17th time putting up at least 30 in the opening period and their fourth such game in March. They scored 20 of those first-quarter points in the paint, ten times as many as the Bucks. That number balanced out as the game went on — Cleveland finished with 52 points in the paint; Milwaukee had 46 — but it was heartening to see the Cavs making so many excursions into the lane.
9 — Ah, but that pesky second quarter. The Bucks weathered the storm and came back with a vengeance, scoring 36 points in the second period. It was the ninth time the Cavs have allowed 30-plus in the quarter No. 2 and the third this month. Big man John Henson scored all 12 of his points in the second, leading the Bucks in rediscovering what the rim looks like. Milwaukee scored 18 points in the paint and presumably left some footprints in the wine-colored area.
45 — A too-short 45 years lived for one of the more unique voices in hip-hop history. RIP, Phife.