AUBURN HILLS, MICH.: The ball was always going to Dion Waiters, but the two-step, shimmy shake, fallaway, contested jumper from 19 feet at the buzzer wasn’t what the head coach intended.
Yet when he released it, Mike Brown knew it was going in.
Waiters’ clutch jumper at the buzzer Wednesday capped a stunning 97-96 win against the Detroit Pistons and ignited an eruption from a Cavaliers team that began the fourth quarter trailing by 16 points.
Down 96-95 with 3.2 seconds left, Luol Deng inbounded the ball to Waiters. Since the Cavs were in the bonus, Brown wanted Waiters to drive past Rodney Stuckey and to try to draw a foul.
Instead, Waiters caught the pass and barely moved.
“That’s how much he listens to me,” Brown joked. “Heck of a game by Dion. He wanted the ball and he showed why he has a chance to be great.”
Waiters was struggling through a tough shooting night. He missed all six of his 3-pointers and was just 7-for-19 before launching the game-winner. But with Kyrie Irving out of the lineup, Brown never hesitated putting the ball in Waiters’ hands.
“I don’t know if it can make his confidence go any higher because it’s already pretty high,” Brown said. “But it does add to it I guess in some way, shape or form.”
It was the Cavs’ second huge rally against the Pistons at the Palace this season. In their only other game here, they Cavs trailed by 10 with 6:20 left before rallying to win.
This time they trailed by 16 at the start of the fourth quarter and they were still down 12 with 6:35 to go. This marked their second-biggest comeback of the season, topped only by their rally to beat the Golden State Warriors after trailing by 18.
This one didn’t come easy and wasn’t without hard choices. The Pistons had possession with the one-point lead and 27 seconds left, forcing the Cavs to choose between fouling or playing defense.
Brown elected to defend and Brandon Jennings missed a short jumper in the lane. Luol Deng grabbed the rebound and the Cavs had 3.2 seconds left to win it. They tried once to get the ball inbounded — a bad inbounds play nearly cost them a victory Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors — but Deng used the team’s final timeout when he couldn’t get the ball inbounded and Brown slightly altered the play call to free Waiters in the corner.
Waiters, however, remembers the conversation with his coach differently.
“He didn’t tell me to drive,” Waiters said. “He said if I got a shot, shoot it. He didn’t tell me to drive.”
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Brown was so ecstatic after Waiters made the shot, he ran to the scorer’s table and began giving high-fives to the Cavs television broadcast team. Teammates mobbed Waiters and the players sprinted off the floor while officials reviewed the play to ensure he got the shot off on time. It wasn’t really close.
“I don’t say this much. When he caught it and didn’t drive it and did the little (shimmy) that he does and he shot a fadeaway 19-foot shot, for some reason I was like, ‘It’s going to go in,’ ” Brown said. “I just felt it was going to go in because that’s who he is. That’s what he does. It was great to see him make that shot.”
Waiters scored 18 points, but the game-winner was his only basket of the fourth quarter. Jarrett Jack scored 17 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, and Matthew Dellavedova had a career-high 21 points. Dellavedova and Anderson Varejao, with his 12 points and 16 rebounds, kept the Cavs in the game while the starters struggled.
The Pistons outscored the Cavs 17-1 over a three-minute stretch in the first quarter to take a commanding 21-7 lead early. Just as they’ve done throughout the last couple of weeks, the Cavs fought back to take a brief lead late in the second quarter, but they couldn’t sustain it.
The Cavs went more than six minutes without a basket in the third quarter and the Pistons carried an 82-66 lead into the fourth. But the Pistons have squandered big leads all season and did it again Wednesday.
Left for dead only a few days ago, the Cavs are somehow still alive — barely — in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They are 3½ games out of the final playoff spot with nine games to play.
“I don’t give up looking at (the standings), I just don’t focus on them as much,” Jack said. “Let’s just play and let the chips fall where they may and see what happens.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at https://ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.