CLEVELAND: Dion Waiters has been in this position before. Not necessarily the guy taking the game-winning shots at the end of Cavaliers games, but the guy who was instructed not to leave the shooters open in the corner.
It happened in Miami, when he left Ray Allen to help on defense, only to watch helplessly when the ball swung to a wide-open Allen. He nailed the game-winner from the corner to beat the Cavs.
It happened again on Wednesday in a stinging 96-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Only seconds earlier, Waiters made the clutch jumper to give the Cavs the lead. Coming out of their timeout, one of the last things coach Byron Scott told his players was overtime is fine, just don’t give up a 3-pointer.
That’s exactly what Waiters did. He left Leonard to help on Tony Parker, who was slicing through the lane. When Waiters collapsed, Parker fired to a wide-open Leonard in the corner for the game-winning 3-pointer.
“I blame myself for that,” Waiters said. “I tried to help. I helped too far. I left him open.
“I’ve got to do a better job just staying home. We’ve got to shrink the floor, that’s what I tried to do, but I got over late and he hit the shot.”
It was a crushing way for the Cavs, and particularly Waiters, to head into the All-Star break. On one of Kyrie Irving’s worst nights as a pro, Waiters made what appeared to be the biggest clutch shot of his young career. Then 5.6 seconds later, he was scrambling helplessly to the corner.
“It’s terrible, terrible feeling, man, just terrible man,” Waiters said. “I can’t even explain it. Nasty taste in my mouth.”
Waiters had 20 points, six rebounds and four assists to carry the burden on a night Irving struggled miserably. He did produce seven assists, but Irving had a season-low six points on just 2-of-15 shooting.
Irving missed all 10 of his shots in the second half. His last basket came with 4:34 left in the first quarter. On the long jumper Waiters made to give the Cavs a brief 95-93 lead, Waiters said Irving told him to just keep the ball and take the shot. Irving stood as a bystander in the corner while Waiters took the shot.
“This was probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played,” Irving said. “Physically I was trying to get myself going and I just couldn’t. But that’s no excuse. I was trying to get everybody else involved, trying to push the pace. I just didn’t have anything.”
Despite his miserable night and Waiters’ clutch shot only seconds earlier, Scott never hesitated in drawing up the final shot for Irving. There was no alternate route or secondary plan. Alonzo Gee was the trigger on the game’s final play and he had a simple instruction — get the ball to Irving, period.
“It was just, ‘Get the ball to Kyrie,’ ” Scott said. “See if he can make a play.”
The Spurs defended the inbound pass well. Gee’s only option was to throw the ball away from the Cavs’ basket and let Irving go get it. He slipped when he caught it, regained his footing, then fell again when he tried to shoot. He beat the buzzer, but was falling to the ground and did well just to get the ball off the backboard as time expired.
He looked up at the officials looking for a foul, but the Spurs’ Parker appeared to just play excellent defense against him.
The loss was yet another illustration in the Cavs’ inconsistent season. They continue to struggle against the league’s weaker teams, while playing better against the elite. Although they didn’t win, they certainly closed the gap over last season. They lost both games to the Spurs by an average of 25.5 points last season, including a 35-point loss at home.
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.