LOS ANGELES: If this works, if this slow and steady plan to build through the draft actually works and the Cavaliers eventually become an Eastern Conference power again, this will be remembered as the night it all started to fall into place.
Dion Waiters making seven 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 28 points, Kyrie Irving sticking the dagger 3-pointer in the final minute and strutting toward the Cavs’ bench with his arms outstretched. As the stunned Clippers staggered to their bench following a timeout, the two young Cavs’ stars met at halfcourt and celebrated with a leaping chest bump.
Irving and Waiters, two young stars with a combined age of 40, teamed up to score 52 points in the Cavs’ 108-101 victory over the Clippers on Monday. There were times Waiters ran the offense and times he deferred to Irving.
Waiters stuck 3-pointers to squelch Clippers rallies throughout the second half, then Irving stuck the big 3-pointer at the end of the game to clinch the victory. Together they combined for 11 3-pointers and, if only for one night, presented the vision the Cavaliers’ front office was dreaming about when they selected Waiters fourth overall in June.
“This is what we were thinking, that we had another guy who could make plays and could score and also find other guys, beat people off the dribble, create for himself, create for teammates,” Scott said. “It’s exactly what we were thinking about.”
As the Clippers were fighting their way back early in the third quarter, doing their best to erase a 13-point deficit, Waiters wouldn’t let them. He made three 3-pointers in less than three minutes, then with the game tied at 94 and less than five minutes to play, he made two more on consecutive Cavs possessions. They led the rest of the way.
Waiters shot just 36 percent on 3-pointers last season at Syracuse, but he has started his NBA career making 55 percent (11 of 20).
“I was feeling good,” Waiters said. “They kept giving me the ball and I was able to knock down shots.”
Waiters got hot right about the time Irving cooled off. Clearly motivated for his first meeting against Clippers star Chris Paul, the player to whom he is most often compared, Irving fired away with 16 of the Cavs’ 31 points in the first quarter. But he soon went ice cold, missing 12 of his next 14 shots while Waiters carried the offense.
At one point in the fourth quarter, however, Waiters got a little carried away. He brought the ball up the floor, then never bothered to run a play. He stood at the top of the 3-point line dribbling and eventually fired an off-balance 3-pointer that missed everything. Irving immediately walked over to explain to him not to do that again.
There were other times when Irving thought Waiters rushed plays in an effort to get to the basket and told him that, too.
“He just has to understand when you come down, you have to get everybody set before you make a move,” Irving said. “Everybody (on defense) is going up to the ball, especially when they know you have the ability to get to the rim. He just has to learn to get his teammates calmed down first, then run the offense.”
Anderson Varejao had 15 points and 15 rebounds and Tyler Zeller, the other Cavs’ rookie, had 15 points and seven rebounds before leaving the game in the fourth quarter when DeAndre Jordan smashed the left side of his face with an elbow.
Zeller crumpled to the floor for a few minutes, but eventually walked off. X-rays taken immediately after the game were negative, but Zeller will be re-examined on Tuesday in San Francisco after some of the swelling subsides.
Paul had 17 points, nine assists and five rebounds and was defended for large chunks of the night by Alonzo Gee, whom Scott earlier in the day called one of the league's best defenders. Scott isn't afraid to use Gee to defend any position from point guard to power forward. Blake Griffin had 20 points, six rebounds and five assists.
This night, however, was about Waiters’ explosion and his growing comfort level playing alongside Irving. More growing pains will surely come, but for one night, the two guards played as if they’ve been teammates for years.
“I thought they came of age the last game (at Milwaukee) and they’re just getting better,” Scott said. “They’re still getting used to each other. They still haven’t played together that much, but it’s starting to come along a lot better than I thought.”