CLEVELAND: Early this season, Kyrie Irving’s absence made victory a questionable proposition for the Cavs.
While Irving and rookie guard Dion Waiters were having their issues learning to play together, Waiters wasn’t ready to lead the Cavs on his own.
That is no longer the case.
Waiters pitched in a team-high 23 points and dished out six assists as the Cavs held off the Toronto Raptors 103-92 Wednesday night in the first of a five-game homestand at Quicken Loans Arena.
Now 4-1 since the All-Star break, the Cavs improved to 4-9 without Irving this season. Irving sat out his second consecutive game with a hyperextended right knee suffered in practice Friday, and the Cavs still went 2-0.
Cavs coach Byron Scott even used Waiters as the closer as he does with Irving, sending Waiters into the game with five minutes remaining.
“I live for that. That’s what I like,” Waiters said. “As a kid you see a lot of guys like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, who live for those moments. You tell yourself you’re going to be in that position one day. I’m just blessed to be in that position.”
The only blemish on Waiters’ night came in the waning seconds of the third quarter, when he missed the first of two free throws to end the Cavs’ string of a perfect 20.
The Cavs finished 30-of-32 from the line.
Coming in, Waiters had scored 25 or more points in two consecutive games, the only NBA rookie to achieve that feat this season. In his past six games, Waiters is averaging 20.3 points and shooting 52.2 percent from the field, the latter skewed by a 7-for-16 performance against the Raptors.
Scott isn’t sure if Waiters is now more capable of being the Cavs’ go-to guy without Irving.
“I don’t know about the leadership role, but he definitely has gotten more comfortable,” Scott said. “He understands what he has to do when Kyrie’s not there because we ask him to do a little bit more. The last few games he’s done a good job.
“He knows he’s the one guy we know can beat people off the dribble, can get to the basket and make plays for himself and his teammates. Towards the end of the games we want the ball in his hands, especially when Kyrie’s not there.”
Asked if Waiters is living up to expectations of being the fourth overall pick, Scott said: “He’s getting close to what we expect. He’s not exceeding ’em; he’s not below either.”
With the Cavs leading 93-90 with 1:55 remaining, Waiters hit a 16-footer for some breathing room. After the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan dribbled the ball out of bounds, Alonzo Gee followed with a spectacular slam off a stunning pass by Shaun Livingston to put the Cavs up 97-90.
The Cavs also survived what seemed to be a crucial fourth foul on Livingston, who started for Irving at point guard, with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter. Livingston finished the game.
The Cavs improved to 4-14 on the second night of a back-to-back. But Scott believed they were starting to show major improvements in February, which they finished 7-5. That’s a far cry from 3-12 in November and 3-13 in December. Coming in, they were averaging 106.7 points per game in February, second-highest in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the NBA.
“Our fourth game in five nights, to start the way we started and ended up winning, that shows we’re continuing to take steps in the right direction,” Scott said. “We kind of had a lull there, but we were able to close it out.”
The Cavs thought they had put the game away with a 13-0 run over the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth to take an 86-71 lead. The Raptors went scoreless from 3:44 in the third quarter until 8:41 in the fourth. But Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry awakened the Raptors, who closed to 86-80 with 7:13 remaining.
The Cavs began the game sluggishly, hitting one of their first 15 field-goal attempts to fall behind 11-5.
“It was tough,” Waiters said of the bad start. “I said, ‘We’ve got to pick it up. We’ve got to do something. We can’t play great against the Bulls and come back and do this.’ ”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.