ATLANTA: In the 73rd game, with time running out on the season and pressure mounting on coach Byron Scott’s future, the Cavs began to fight.
Tristan Thompson played the second half with three stitches above his left eye and Daniel Gibson was given two technicals and ejected for jawing with an old nemesis. Luke Walton was hit in the face and responded by delivering a two-handed shove to a man who outweighs him by 20 pounds. And in the biggest change of all, Scott walked into the coach’s locker room following Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Hornets and revamped the team’s defense on the fly.
The result didn’t change – a 102-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs’ ninth consecutive defeat – but the path to get there looked vastly different.
“That fire, that get hit, hit back? I’ve been waiting for that all season long. It was good to see,” Scott said. “It took a lot longer than I wanted, but I think that also can put to rest the questions of, ‘Have these guys given up or quit?’ I think they played as hard as they can play tonight. They played with that fire and they were physical. If we fight like that every night, we’ll be OK.”
The Cavs’ pick-and-roll defense has been awful most of the season, and perhaps at its worst in Sunday’s loss to the Hornets. With the defeats quickly piling up, no tangible improvement seen on the defense and recent questions about Scott’s job security rising, Scott changed everything and went to a zone despite not practicing it much this season.
There were a few basic principles – Tyler Zeller was to stay with any bigs who appeared in the paint – but the Cavs spent much of the night switching from zone to man with relative success.
“I just said, ‘I’m going to change it up,’” Scott said. “I didn’t want to because I think Jamahl (Mosley) has done a heck of a job putting our guys in position and letting them know everything that is going on, but I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to change this up a little bit more.’”
It doesn’t sound as if it’s going away. NBA teams rarely play zone anymore, but Scott said the team will continue to work on their zone – which they call Spider – with what little time they have left. Unfortunately, there aren’t many practice days left.
The team will take today off following the back-to-back, host the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday and then practice on Thursday before playing at the Boston Celtics on Friday.
“In the time that we have we’ll work on it a little bit more,” Scott said. “I thought our guys did a good job of being focused and being able to go Spider and then right back to man.”
The Cavs began the night short-handed because Kyrie Irving sat out, as expected, and C.J. Miles was a late scratch with a tender ankle he injured in Sunday’s loss. Those problems were compounded when Gibson was ejected.
He wanted a foul called after he fell to the ground on a 3-point attempt with 7:07 left in the half. He got up, yelled and angrily pointed at referee John Goble, who quickly gave him the first technical. Then Gibson started jawing with DeShawn Stevenson during the stoppage in play and he was quickly given a second technical and ejected. It was the second time in his career he has been ejected from a game.
Stevenson has feuded with the Cavs since those memorable playoff series when he was a member of the Washington Wizards, but Gibson said he didn’t have a previous gripe with him.
“Maybe that frustration came out of us,” Gibson said. “Things weren’t going our way, it got physical and we didn’t back down. That’s what Coach wants us to be like, the team he wants us to be.”
Walton followed in the fourth quarter when Ivan Johnson hit him twice in the face while going up for a rebound, shifting Walton’s protective mask up to his forehead. He responded by shoving Johnson to the ground and hollering at him. He was initially assessed a flagrant foul, but had it rescinded after the officials reviewed the tape.
“I got frustrated. I don’t think I shoved him as hard as he made it seem, but he got the foul called,” Walton said. “As men and basketball players and competitors, we’re sick of losing. We’re still working hard. Even though we’re not in the playoffs, we want to win ball games. Losing is frustrating. We’re definitely not going to quit. We don’t have the coaching staff that’s going to let us quit. As players, we’ve got to stay on top of each other and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Mo Speights came off the bench to tie his career high with 23 points and Omri Casspi had nine points, four rebounds and four assists in 17 minutes, his most extensive playing time since a Dec. 5 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Thompson, meanwhile, was hit above his eye with an errant elbow while chasing a rebound. He was stitched up at halftime and played the second half with a bandage covering the wound.
With only nine games left before the plug is finally pulled on another dreary season, the Cavs finally showed they aren’t dead yet. Everyone has something left to fight for, including Scott. Time on this season, however, is running out.