ORLANDO, FLA.: Thirty-one thoughts tonight, one for every point Kyrie Irving scored as he continued to rediscover his shooting stroke in Friday’s wild 109-100 victory over the Magic…
1. It’s only December and there are still 60 games to go, but given the Cavs’ terrible start to the season, it’s noteworthy: The Cavs are a half-game behind the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference. Even more surprising, they’re within one game of the fourth seed. The fourth seed! This is a team that was 4-12 not long ago.
2. As one person in the locker room said tonight, the key this year in the East is finishing in the top six. That will all but assure missing the Pacers and Heat in the first round of the playoffs. A first round playoff series would seem to be wide open for any of the bottom six teams.
3. The Cavs have won three straight and five of six. It matches their longest winning streak over the last three years. They didn’t beat a great team tonight, but you have to start somewhere when you’re 1-10 on the road. This was as good a place as any.
4. Credit Dion Waiters for sticking up for his teammate and getting in the face of Andrew Nicholson after Nicholson shoved Anderson Varejao to the ground late in the game.
5. Magic coach Jacque Vaughn inferred it was an unnecessary basket and Varejao could’ve just dribbled out the final 10 seconds, and while that’s true, it was only a 6-point (two possession) game. Stranger things have happened in the NBA.
6. “I didn’t mean to hurt him, I didn’t try to hurt him,” Nicholson said. “I didn’t think I pushed him that hard. But it’s part of the game.”
7. Waiters called it a “cheap shot” even though he didn’t actually see it. Neither did Mike Brown. Waiters had his back turned and heard Varejao hollering on the ground in pain. Waiters thought he heard Nicholson say something like, “You don’t do that,” referring to the unnecessary basket, but he wasn’t sure.
8. “That’s Andy, man. That’s my big brother, you know?” Waiters said. “A person like that, you’ve got to have his back no matter what. That’s everybody on the team. If anybody else was in that situation, I’d have done the same thing.”
9. Waiters has an edge to him. He plays with an edge, he brings an edge to this team. That’s a good thing. Charles Barkley jokes that every good team needs a crazy guy. I don’t think Waiters is crazy, but he’s tough.
10. “It’s not about being the toughest guy on the team, it’s about having your teammates’ back and sticking up for one another,” Waiters said, “We say, ‘1-2-3 family,’ so at the end of the day, we’re all we got. I think it was a cheap shot. I really didn’t see it, but he could’ve hurt himself worse than what he did. You just don’t do that.”
11. As for Varejao’s point of view of the whole thing, he didn’t see it either. He simply laid the ball in and was shoved. Live it didn’t look malicious, but on the replay it was clear Nicholson extended both arms in shoving Varejao. “I was surprised,” Varejao said. “The game was over and there was no reason for that.”
12. When Varejao banged knees with Magic rookie Victor Oladipo late in the second quarter, it was eerily reminiscent to last season when he banged knees with a Toronto player nearly one year ago to the day. Varejao was injured last season on Dec. 18 and didn’t play again. He suffered a split quadriceps muscle that required surgery, then developed a blood clot in his lung post surgery and was shut down for the remainder of the season.
13. Even as he lay crumpled on the floor of Amway Center on Friday, though, Varejao wasn’t having flashbacks to last season because the pain this time was different. “This one was just painful and I knew it wasn’t something else. It was just the hit,” he said. “Last year it felt a lot different. It wasn’t just knee-to-knee. I’m glad it’s nothing.” With a little ice and rest, Varejao said he’d be fine for Saturday’s game at the Heat.
14. Varejao’s name surfaced this week in trade rumors involving the Houston Rockets’ Omer Asik, but a league source told me Friday the Cavs are not interested in acquiring Asik. With Andrew Bynum beginning to flourish, Asik and his $14.9 million salary for next season are not a fit on this team. Varejao’s ability to play both power forward and center makes him a far better fit.
15. Asik will be moved next week and if the Rockets need a third team to get involved, the Cavs would listen. But Asik won’t be coming to Cleveland.
16. Varejao called Matthew Dellavedova the team’s “pitbull.” Delly is quickly earning respect within the Cavs’ locker room and teams around the league are beginning to take notice. More on Delly coming Sunday.
17. Waiters was sensational in the fourth quarter Friday and a big reason the Cavs won. He scored the Cavs’ first 14 points on the quarter, all within the first 5 ½ minutes, and 20 of his 21 points came in the second half. Now he needs to work on some consistency.
18. Waiters was terrific offensively and scored 30 points in the Cavs’ at Atlanta, but the Cavs were blown out. He totaled 9 points and shot 3-for-16 in the two most recent wins over the Clippers and Knicks, then erupted again tonight. It’s hard to know on a given night what he’ll give you, which is part of the problem with him. But when he gets hot, as he did in the second half Friday, he’s nearly unstoppable.
19. No one likes talking much about Waiters’ bench role. Brown doesn’t offer long explanations publicly for the change and Waiters grumbled again on Friday, “It is what it is. I’ve got to do whatever for my team. I don’t know. It’s all right.”
20. I won’t say Waiters’ move to the bench is permanent, but it’s clear Brown views this as a long, long-term move. It’s why he started Matthew Dellavedova and then Sergey Karasev at shooting guard when C.J. Miles was injured. He was making it clear to Waiters his role was off the bench, period. For as much as Irving needs the ball in his hands and trying to get Bynum ample touches, there weren’t enough balls to go around with Waiters starting.
21. I’ve said for weeks I’m not sure Waiters and Irving can coexist on the same team. Even Friday, when Waiters heated up in the fourth quarter, he did it while Irving was on the bench. It just seems difficult for both of them to play well when they’re on the floor together. That’s why I expect Waiters to be moved prior to February’s trade deadline.
22. Victor Oladipo was terrific Friday, making it even more important the Cavs won the game and did it behind Waiters’ strong fourth quarter. Oladipo had 26 points, five rebounds, four assists, four steals, three blocks and only two turnovers in 37 minutes. He shot 9-for-13, including 3-for-4 on 3-pointers.
23. He had a triple-double earlier this month in an overtime win at Philadelphia and is slowly adjusting to the point guard role the Magic want from him. But watching him lead the Magic to a victory over the Cavs while Anthony Bennett is still floundering would have been difficult for fans to endure.
24. Bennett played 8 ½ minutes Friday. He went 3-for-5 shooting, including a nice dunk off a lob from Jarrett Jack, but he still has yet to score in double figures in a game this year.
25. Oladipo drew the ire of Cavs fans prior to the season when the Magic’s official Twitter account tweeted quote from him at an event saying he didn’t want to play for Cleveland. “They just took it the wrong way,” Oladipo said before the game. “I didn’t say I didn’t want to go to Clevland, I was saying Orlando was a great pick for me and I was happy where I was at. If I ended up in Cleveland, I would’ve been happy there, too. It’s a great organization and they have great people there, too. On my visit there and before the draft it was cool to be there and they have great guys there, too.
26. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it’s easy for fans to dream of Oladipo starting next to Irving in the backcourt with Waiters coming off the bench, but the reality is that was never going to happen. Whether they were right or not, the Cavs’ front office was never really high on Oladipo. They took a much harder, longer look at Ben McLemore. Oladipo was never coming to Cleveland, even if the Cavs passed on Bennett.
27. Brown was visibly irritated with the Cavs’ start Friday, particularly when they fell behind 26-12. The Cavs had silly turnovers, the floor balance on offense seemed lopsided at times and Brown was hollering for Irving to get back on defense at one point because Irving was at the far end arguing with an official over a non-foul call while the Magic were off and running in transition. All of that was cleaned up in the second half, however. The Cavs did not turn the ball over in the third quarter and had just two in the fourth.
28. Speaking of Irving, I’m not ready to declare he has discovered his lost shot after two games, but he was 12-for-24 Friday and is now shooting 55 percent in his last two games (26-for-47).
29. Irving has now scored 30 or more points 18 times in his career and the Cavs are 12-6 when it happens. Prior to tonight, Waiters averaged 10.9 points and shot 35 percent on nights Irving scored more than 30. I found this part interesting, however: On nights Waiters didn’t play and Irving scored at least 30, the Cavs are 1-4. On nights Irving scores 30 and Waiters plays, the Cavs are 11-2. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe not. Fascinating nonetheless.
30. Irving can be well on his way to earning an additional $15 million or so in his next contract, but he has to be voted to the All-Star team first. All the details are here.
31. The task gets much, much more difficult Saturday in Miami. Talk to you then. I’ll send pictures from South Beach.