CLEVELAND: Twenty-two thoughts tonight on Dion Waiters’ 22nd birthday following the Cavs’ 109-94 victory against the dreary Knicks…
1. For all that has gone wrong this season for the Cavs – and there has been plenty – they exit this victory one game behind the sinking Chicago Bulls for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
2. Even more remarkable, their two-game winning streak qualifies them among the “hottest” teams in the East. The Bobcats and Nets have also won two straight. That’s it.
3. This is the point I was making during the first couple of weeks when all hope looked lost. In the East this season, you’re never really out of it unless you’re trying to be out of it. And even those teams can’t get out of it (yet).
4. What I took away from this game, even more than Kyrie Irving finally breaking out of a season-long shooting slump, was the resiliency shown on the floor. That’s what people in this organization have been waiting to see.
5. This is the type of game the Cavs would’ve lost last year. They build a huge 18-point lead in the first half, then give it all back before halftime. Last season the Knicks would’ve led by 10 at the end of the third quarter and cruised to a win. But the starters dug in and built another 16-point lead after the bench threw the first one away – literally.
6. Dion Waiters threw a pass into at least the third row, one of his four turnovers. He had twice as many turnovers as baskets on his 22nd birthday. Jarrett Jack had a couple of bad turnovers in the second quarter as well, but otherwise played well off the bench.
7. The Cavs had turnovers on four consecutive possessions in the second quarter and five of six overall. It allowed the Knicks to score 11 consecutive points and tie the game at 40, but the Cavs never buckled. Mike Brown stuck with his starters for the entire third quarter and they build the lead right back up. “The longer I kept them out there, the bigger the lead got and the more confident they got,” Brown said. “I thought the starters did a nice job taking care of the ball in the third quarter.”
8. Andrew Bynum had an off shooting night, his first in a few games, and Tristan Thompson battled foul trouble in the first half. But the Cavs finally got some offense from their shooting guard and small forward positions, something that hasn’t really been happening lately.
9. C.J. Miles had 10 points and Alonzo Gee had eight. It might not sound like much, but those two have combined for 15 points over their last three games. Gee was scoreless in each of his last two, missing all six of his shots.
10. Miles has reinvented himself as a defender this season. He knows even if his shot isn’t falling, he’ll still play as long as he defends. He got away from that the last two seasons, his last year in Utah and last season in Cleveland. Defense wasn’t the focus it was under Jerry Sloan and is now. There was some chaos and confusion in both places, so he reverted into a gunner. Now he’s back to defending.
11. Back in the day, Miles said Sloan would use him to defend some of the top scorers in the league. When Carmelo Anthony was with the Denver Nuggets, Miles guarded him. When the Jazz played the Lakers, Miles drew Kobe. He defended all of the league’s top shooting guards and small forwards.
12. Brown was excited to see Miles’ commitment to defense in training camp. He threatened not only C.J., but all the players. If they didn’t defend, they won’t play. So even when Miles was struggling with his timing and new role as a starter coming off the calf injury, he knew he had to keep defending. He never let his offensive struggles carry over to defense.
13. As for Gee, he told me before the game tonight Anthony is probably his toughest cover in the league. That surprised me a little. But in terms of simply man-to-man, one-on-one defense, Gee said Anthony is the toughest because he can do it all. He can shoot the 3, he can post up and he’s one of the few guys who doesn’t use a pick-and-roll to get open. Anthony had 29 points and eight rebounds tonight. He entered averaging 25.2 points, third in the league behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
14. Now on to Irving. When Andrew Bynum was scuffling, shooting 37 percent and doubting whether or not he could pull off this comeback, he said one of the things that helped pull him out was just seeing the ball go through the basket a few times. So I asked Irving if he needed a night like that, but he brushed it off. “Just another game,” he said. I have a hard time believing that. His shooting percentage had sunk to .394, fourth-lowest on the team. Only Sergey Karasev, Carrick Felix and Anthony Bennett are worse – and Karasev and Felix have barely played.
15. Whether or not he admits it, I think Irving needed a game like this. He needed to see the ball go in the rim again and he did it from all angles Tuesday. He made 4 of 7 3-pointers, he made shots at the rim, he made shots in traffic when he was fouled and didn’t get the call. All of those shots that were clanking off the rim or spinning out were spinning in.
16. Irving has now scored 181 points in his career against the Knicks, good for a 25.8 scoring average. The only team he has scored on more is the Milwaukee Bucks (189 points). He’s averaging 26 points against the Portland Trail Blazers, but that’s in two games. He has faced the Knicks and Bucks now seven times each.
17. The Cavs’ offense is improving. They’ve still had some ugly nights, but they shot 57 percent Tuesday. Brown talked tonight about trying to get more out of the early offense, before defenses have a time to set up. Miles was talking about the same thing. “We still don’t know how to flow into it all the time,” Brown said. “We’ll get glimpses of it like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s so pretty!’ We don’t have to make a call down the floor and it’s based on reads and spacing and ball movement. But there’s still a learning curve. We did stuff at shootaround today that was very simple and they still struggled. Are we better offensively today than we were three weeks ago? Yes sir, we’re a lot better. But there are times throughout the course of the game that it goes out the window and we got stagnant.”
18. Of course, part of the reason for the Cavs’ success tonight has to be attributed to the mess that is the Knicks. They don’t defend, they don’t box out (hence monster putback dunks by Tristan Thompson and Gee) and much of their offense is predicted on swinging around the perimeter until someone hoists a 3. This team is a mess. Just getting back Tyson Chandler isn’t going to solve all their problems. The feeling around the team is Mike Woodson will be fired any day now. It’s too bad. I like Woodson. I think he’s a pretty good coach. This isn’t his fault.
19. The Cavs are now 7-3 at home. I repeat, the Cavs are now 7-3 at home. The only teams in the East with more home wins are the Pacers and the Heat. You know, the two best teams in the conference. Obviously the Cavs aren’t anywhere near that level, but they’re showing resiliency. They’re starting to figure some things out. They’re defending. Most importantly, they’re starting to win.
20. Now they have a Florida road trip this weekend to Orlando and Miami on a back-to-back. Even though they haven’t beaten them on the road, the Cavs have actually competed well against the Heat in Miami the past couple years. But I’m not holding out much hope. Friday’s game at Orlando, however, is very winnable. In fact, for the Cavs to start believing they can play like this on the road, it’s precisely the type of game they need to win. The Magic are 5-5 at home and 1-10 on the road – same as the Cavs’ road record. I’m certainly not going to call Friday night a must win, but carrying over this level of play to the road would be big for their confidence.
21. That’s why I thought it was important the starters played so well in the first and third quarters tonight. A lot of the Cavs’ problems this season have been because the starters weren’t ready to play and they fell in an early hole, Brown would clear the floor and bring in Matthew Dellavedova.
22. Delly is becoming The Wolf from Pulp Fiction. He’s the cleaner. Whenever there is a problem, when Brown doesn’t like what he sees from either a starter or reserve, he sends in Delly, the undrafted rookie, to get everyone’s attention and clean up the issue. Chew on that. I’ll see you Friday.