CLEVELAND: The tallest player in the New York Knicks’ starting lineup on Friday was 6-foot-8, giving Cavs center Tyler Zeller a good four inches on anyone the Knicks could throw at him.
Yet Zeller took only three shots all night, and the first two were from just inside the 3-point line in the Cavs’ 101-91 loss to the Knicks.
To be clear, the Cavs didn’t lose to the Knicks because Zeller and Mo Speights went scoreless on a combined 0 of 6 shooting. The Cavs lost because Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith each scored 31 points and toyed with Cavs defenders while the Knicks built a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter and shot 51 percent for the game.
But Zeller’s ineffectiveness and general disappearing act illustrates the Cavs’ ongoing inability to take advantage of matchups in their favor.
The idea entering Friday’s game was for Zeller to attack anytime the Knicks switched defensively on the Cavs’ pick-and-roll. Instead, he kept bouncing outside for a pick-and-pop. He played 21 minutes and managed three shots.
“My mindset has to change and I didn’t really figure it out until the end,” Zeller said. “Normally when I’m playing, you have bigs who are down the floor and it’s a lot easier to pop in that situation and I should’ve rolled.”
Zeller was pulled from games in the fourth quarter recently when opponents went to smaller lineups and Zeller’s presence would seem to give the Cavs a decided advantage in the post. Coach Byron Scott defended his decision to bench Zeller against smaller lineups from the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics because he said Zeller wasn’t yet a strong scorer in the post.
Friday was proof of what he meant.
“This is one of those things we talked about for next year,” Scott said. “I pretty much told him every time we set a pick-and-roll, if they switch, we want to get you on the box. He would get on the box and then come right back out. I think biggest thing is he’s not comfortable down there yet and that’s something we’ve got to work on.”
The Knicks reminded the Cavs on Friday of just how much they have left to work on.
Anthony’s streak of scoring at least 35 points in six consecutive games ended only because he didn’t play in the fourth quarter. The Cavs tried using Alonzo Gee on Anthony, their best perimeter defender, and when that didn’t work they tried the length of Tristan Thompson. That didn’t really slow him, either.
Anthony scored 12 consecutive points for the Knicks during the third quarter to take full control of a game in which the Knicks were never really threatened. When he sat to start the fourth, Smith took over and tortured a variety of Cavs defenders that included Shaun Livingston and Omri Casspi.
Smith scored half of the Knicks’ 26 points in the fourth quarter, and by the time Iman Shumpert made a pair of free throws with 3:27 left, the Knicks’ lead swelled to 101-80.
“One of the toughest teams in the league,” Kyrie Irving said. “We’re contesting shots and they’re still making them. When they go to five guards, it messes up a lot of our rotations. We were contesting most of their shots, but they made some tough ones.”
The Knicks are the fourth team in the last eight games to shoot better than 50 percent against the Cavs, but Scott credited the Knicks’ hot shooters rather than criticize his defense.
“I thought we got more open shots than they did. You’ve just got two guys who are very special,” Scott said. “That’s what that team does. They make open shots and they make them in bunches.”
Irving had 31 points, six assists and five rebounds for his 13th game this season with at least 30 points. But he shot just 11 of 27 and made 3 of 10 3-pointers. His 27 attempts are a career high.
Thompson had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Wayne Ellington had 13 points, but shot 1 of 5 on 3-pointers. The Cavs shot 27 percent (6 of 22) on 3s.
The Knicks were playing without Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire and Marcus Camby. They waived Kurt Thomas Friday afternoon to clear a roster spot for Solomon Jones, whom they signed hours before tip-off. But none of the personnel losses mattered because the Cavs couldn’t defend Anthony and Smith, giving the Knicks their 14th victory in their last 15 games.