CLEVELAND: The savvy veteran was controlling the game’s final seconds even before the Cavs inbounded the basketball. Tyson Chandler had already made one critical play by tipping a rebound out to the top of the key on the Knicks’ previous possession, which led to a free throw and a three-point Knicks lead.
Now it was his job to protect it.
The Knicks were without their best player, the Cavs without two starters. But the Cavs had blown a 22-point lead, were staggered by a barrage of seven 3-pointers from the Knicks in the fourth quarter and now were just holding on, just trying to find a way to coax one more 3-pointer out of their star.
Irving scored 22 points in his return from a knee injury, but he couldn’t get his final shot past the outstretched arm of the 7-foot-1 Chandler. The Cavs lost to the Knicks 102-97 Monday in a game they never should’ve lost – then again, it was a game in which they had no business building such a lofty lead.
“We relaxed,” coach Byron Scott said. “That’s the first thing I told them at halftime: ‘You can’t relax.’”
C.J. Miles’ 3-pointer extended the lead to 52-30. The Cavs were shooting better than 80 percent, they were moving the ball and attacking the rim. They were defending.
It was so bad, Carmelo Anthony tripped over his own feet at half court and fell over. When he got up, he walked almost immediately to the locker room and didn’t return.
“I was about ready to leave the arena,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “We couldn’t get any stops. It was awful.”
But the Cavs stopped playing. Stopped looking for the open man, stopped defending the rim. Jump shots were launched from various spots on the floor, early in possessions, and the lead was gone almost as quick as it was created.
Dion Waiters could’ve helped, but he was home sick with the flu. So was Tyler Zeller, leaving the Cavs without two starters on a night they at least got back Irving. But Irving didn’t help the ball movement in the third quarter, when the Knicks tore into the lead by scoring the first 10 points of the third quarter.
The Cavs missed their first nine shots – eight jumpers – of the second half. They didn’t get their first basket until Luke Walton subbed in and fired a pass to Alonzo Gee inside for a dunk. By then it was a one-point game, the lead was gone and the youthful Cavs were little match for a veteran Knicks team that was just warming up.
“You’ve got to come out there and be ready to put your foot on their throat,” Miles said. “We’ve talked about us doing that for a long time. We’ve had games where we’ve done it. We’ve had more games where we haven’t done it. A team gets confidence, they get rolling and it’s hard to turn that switch on. We’re not that good yet to be able to turn that switch on and off. We’ve got to play that way all the time. We’ve got to play hard all the time. There’s talent on the team, but there’s not enough years to go with the talent.”
Chandler has the years and the talent. After his big tip on the Knicks’ previous possession allowed them to push the lead to 100-97, Chandler stood above the free-throw line and gestured toward Raymond Felton. He wanted Felton to bring Irving right at him.
Irving was standing under the basket with six seconds left in what has become the patented go-to play when the Cavs need a bucket in the final seconds. Start Irving under the rim, run him toward center court where he can catch an inbounds pass and hopefully make magic happen.
The Cavs knew it, the Knicks knew it and Chandler especially knew it. He grabbed Tristan Thompson in a bear hug and held him even before the ball was inbounded. Thompson was trapped, powerless to escape the hold while Chandler killed time and waited for Irving to get to him.
When he finally arrived, Chandler flung Thompson out of the way and picked up Irving for the final possession. Irving got the corner, but Chandler had the reach.
He got enough of Irving’s shot to ensure it had no chance of going through the hoop, no chance of overtime. Irving looked around for a foul, but it was a clean block – and even if it wasn’t, the officials weren’t going to call a foul there after they let Chandler double arm bar Thompson only moments before.
“Tyson supposedly got a fair block on it,” Irving said. Asked if he was fouled, Irving responded, “It doesn’t matter now.”
What does matter is that the Cavs have now squandered leads of 26 and 22 points this season and lost them both. They held a 26-point lead at Phoenix early in the season and lost the game, and now this. The Knicks made seven 3-pointers and shot 50 percent in the fourth quarter.
The veteran team never panicked, even when they trailed by 22. But the youthful team crumbled as the lead vanished.
“Being without Tyler and Dion, I thought the effort was great,” Scott said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t do some of the things that we should have done in the second half to get the victory.”