CLEVELAND: He was happy, but hardly jubilant. For the first time since Byron Scott came to Cleveland, the Cavaliers are 7-3 over a 10-game stretch.
The coach is pleased the Cavs are riding a three-game winning streak again and are 9-9 in the new year, but there was plenty to correct from Friday’s 119-108 victory over the Orlando Magic.
The Magic shot 52 percent, their bigs destroyed the Cavs inside most of the night and for the fifth time in seven games, an opponent scored more than 100 points. That meant Scott’s postgame praise was a bit reserved — even though the Cavs are a .500 team over their last 22 games.
“My expectations of us as a team are a little higher than 11-11,” Scott said. “We’re definitely making steps in the right direction, don’t get me wrong. My expectations is to be even better. This is good, we’re playing good basketball right now, but we can play better.”
The stumbling Magic have shuffled injured players in and out of the lineup for the last few weeks, a big reason for their 12-game losing streak. But Nikola Vucevic set a career high with 25 points and Andrew Nicholson’s 21 points fell one shy of his career high. Sharpshooter J.J. Redick missed the game with a bad shoulder, Cavs killer Hedo Turkoglu was out because he’s ill and leading scorer Arron Afflalo was playing his first game since missing six with a strained calf.
Yet the Magic held an 80-77 lead late in the third quarter because the Cavs still haven’t figured out how to rotate defensively and guard anyone. When the Magic self-destructed a bit late in the third quarter, the Cavs scored 13 consecutive points over the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth to take control of the game.
“Our guys are just starting to trust each other,” Scott said. “I feel they’ve bought into what we’ve been trying to do from Day One. But buying in and trusting each other is a whole different story. Right now they’re trusting each other. It’s all about trying to get a victory instead of all about my stats. Guys are playing team basketball.”
Kyrie Irving had 24 points and eight assists and Dion Waiters had 15 points. Mo Speights had 18 points off the bench (12 at the free-throw line) and Tristan Thompson had 16 points.
But Thompson and Tyler Zeller struggled against Nicholson and Vucevic most of the night, which is why Scott pointedly told them at halftime things must improve.
Vucevic had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, but was limited to 10 points and three rebounds in the second half.
The Cavs extended the lead to 90-80 early in the fourth quarter with the bench on the floor, but the Magic cut it to 111-104 in the final minutes. Wayne Ellington made a 3-pointer, then following a Magic turnover, Ellington followed with a dunk on the next possession to extend the lead to 12 and clinch the game.
Ellington and Speights combined for 32 of the 51 points off the bench. Throw in the defensive length and athleticism of Shaun Livingston and the Cavs have completely rebuilt their second unit in the past six weeks. It’s no coincidence that’s also when the record began to turn.
“Just having guys that know the game,” Irving said. “Having years of experience coming to our team, that’s what we were lacking. … Our second unit probably outweighs our starters in experience by a lot. It’s a testament to them and how well they’re playing.”
The Cavs get another huge test tonight when the Denver Nuggets come to town. The Nuggets have won eight in a row, they’ve moved into the fourth seed in the West and are playing as well as any team in the league.
Yet the Cavs should enter legitimately believing they can play with any team in the league. Irving conceded the confidence level on this team is higher than it has been all season and probably higher than it has been since his arrival.
When asked if this was the first time Irving has had fun with the Cavs, given all the dark days, Irving dismissed the hard times this franchise has endured the last few years.
“I don’t really think about those dark days,” he said. “I don’t remember them.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.