CLEVELAND: After the second of C.J. Miles’ two jumpers early in the fourth quarter Wednesday, Jazz guard Alec Burks turned and looked at his old teammate.
“I see what you’re doing,” Burks said.
“Stick around,” Miles told him. “Don’t leave me.”
In a season full of giveaways and lousy losses, the Cavs finally stole a game on a night they were lethargic, sloppy on offense and completely out of the game with three minutes to play.
Miles’ hot hand in the fourth quarter had a lot to do with it. So did Kyrie Irving, who scored eight points and came up with a huge steal in the game’s final 2:35. When Mo Williams missed two huge shots in the final five seconds – no punchline needed – the Cavs danced off the court with a 104-101 victory that could have far-reaching ramifications.
The Jazz are a mess, losers of five of their last six. Their freefall has plunged them from the sixth seed in the West to eighth, just 1 ½ games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers following the Lakers’ stunning comeback from 17 points down with nine minutes to go Wednesday against the New Orleans Hornets.
The Cavs, of course, need the Lakers to make the playoffs in order to swap the Miami Heat’s first-round pick, which the Cavs own, with the Lakers’ selection. If the Lakers ultimately pass the Jazz and make the postseason, this night that included two enormous swings for both teams could be the tipping point.
The Cavs trailed by nine with 3:27 left in the third quarter when coach Byron Scott huddled the players together during a timeout and warned that it might already be too late, but if they had any chance at winning, they needed to start playing harder immediately. Scott thought the players finally started exerting more effort at that point, but the results weren’t evident until the game’s final eight minutes.
They still trailed 88-76 with 7:26 left when Miles started heating up. He scored 12 points in the fourth, including 3-pointers on consecutive possessions that pulled the Cavs within 88-84 with 5:29 left.
On the second 3-pointer, Irving directed Miles to the right wing. Typically Miles just spaces himself accordingly based on ball movement, but Irving specifically wanted Miles on his right side and hanging around the 3-point line.
When the ball swung to Irving at the top of the arc, he floated one more pass to Miles, who thought for a moment Irving was going to shoot it himself. Instead Miles made the shot, the Cavs were within 4 and a comeback seemed possible.
“The basketball gods looked out for us tonight,” Miles said. “We’ve definitely had some bad breaks, but tonight we got one.”
Irving was sensational over the final 2:35, leading fast breaks and playing chest-to-chest defense. Irving scored eight points in the final 2:35, picked up a huge steal and made all the big plays the Cavs needed to steal a win.
“Shots started to fall,” Irving said. “I shot like crap, but my teammates held it down on the offensive end and I was just trying to stay locked in defensively, stay on my man and get the stops we needed and put pressure on the ball.”
There is still concern, though. Irving conceded his bruised right knee is still bothering him and will likely hinder him for the season’s final six weeks.
“It is what it is,” Irving said. “The only way I would get better is if I sit out for the rest of the season and I’m not doing that.”
Irving said he can’t hurt it any worse unless someone hits him on the knee.
“And I pray to God that doesn’t happen,” he said.
The Cavs were due for a win like this after giving away so many games throughout the season, including 48 hours earlier when they gave away a 22-point lead in a loss to the New York Knicks.
For all the talk of this team playing hard for 48 minutes and not taking plays off, it is still happening. They just happened to be facing an opponent that clearly has confidence issues of their own.
The Jazz shuffled their starting lineup and welcomed back Williams after he missed 32 games following thumb surgery. But Williams failed to hit the big shot that could’ve given the Jazz the victory.
With the Cavs ahead 102-101, Williams split the defense and lofted a layup with about three seconds left. The ball bounced on the iron, rattled around the rim and spun out. Williams, admittedly dumbfounded, looked around the court rather than chase the rebound.
The Cavs corralled the rebound, and ultimately, the victory.
“I’ve never seen a layup come out like that,” Williams said. “That was amazing. I’ve never, ever seen anything like that. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a layup, even in practice. I’ve shot a trillion layups in my life. I’ve never missed one like that.”
Scott called this win a gift, a Christmas present either two months late or 10 months early. The victory gave the Cavs 21 wins, equaling their total from last season in five fewer games.
Scott isn’t surprised. He expected progress this season and he’s obviously seeing it. The next step, the real step, will come when this team learns to play hard for 48 minutes.