With Tyler Zeller and Dion Waiters out for Monday night’s game against the New York Knicks (36-21), Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington were set to make their first starts as members of the Cleveland Cavaliers (20-40).
For Speights, it couldn’t have gotten much better, as the former Memphis Grizzlies power forward got off to a perfect start in pacing the Cavaliers by scoring the team’s first points from a Kyrie Irving assist. He went on to shoot a perfect 10-of-10 from the field in the first half, tallying 21 points and five rebounds. His aggressive play down low and ability to shoot mid- to long-range jumpers was a perplexing matchup for Tyson Chandler.
Speights was shut down in the second half, however, and was held to only four shot attempts, two points and three rebounds. As Speights went, the team went.
Unfortunately the Cavs couldn’t capitalize on Carmelo Anthony’s second-half absence, as the last four minutes of the first half allowed the Knicks to build up enough momentum to overcome a double-digit Cleveland lead in the ensuing two quarters. The momentum, coupled with razor-sharp shooting from beyond the arc, ultimately led to a 102-97 defeat, snapping a 10-game losing streak in Cleveland.
Irving finished with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds. Kyrie, on his bobble head night, only tallied one assist after dishing out five dimes in the first quarter alone. Walton finished with 12 assists and may have looked the best he has his whole career in regards to moving the ball around.
While Speights was playing out of his mind to start the game, Ellington got off to a shaky start on the defensive end of things. Iman Shumpert of the Knicks led New York in scoring early on with eight points, and the former North Carolina product couldn’t keep up with Shumpert when both teams were in the process of getting settled.
Kyrie Irving and Luke Walton were a big part of Speights’ success in the first quarter, as they combined to assist on six of his first seven makes. Even though they weren’t credited, Walton and Irving were both heavily involved in moving and touching the ball on close to every scoring possession.
Their ability to move the ball around with ease and a blazing shooting performance to start the game peaked when the Cavaliers reached 80 percent from the field. However, they cooled down to a cool 50.7 percent by the game’s end due to the Knicks’ ball movement in the second act.
C.J. Miles was able to make up for Ellington’s lackluster performance early on, as he hit two threes off the bench in the second quarter. His second make of the second quarter put his team up by 22 points, which was Cleveland’s largest lead of the game and resulted in a New York time out.
It was also Alonzo Gee’s defense that helped Cleveland jump out to a double-digit lead by keeping New York’s most potent scorer in check. Carmelo Anthony didn’t make his first field goal attempt until the 8:02 mark in the first half. Shortly after that he was tripped up by the floor off of an inbounds’ pass and headed to the locker room with a right knee injury. He would not return for the rest of the game.
The magic soon wore off, however, and the Cavaliers couldn’t get their shots to fall from three-point range. They ended the game shooting 6-of-20 from beyond the arc, while the Knicks hit seven of their 11 three-point attempts in the fourth quarter. New York missed all of their attempts from three in the third quarter.
Cleveland had a 61-49 lead going into the final 24 minutes of play, but New York had outscored Cleveland 19-9 in the final six minutes of the first half to spark a comeback.
To open up the third quarter, the Cavaliers didn’t hit their first shot until almost seven minutes had passed. By that time the Knicks had cut the lead to three points and the game became competitive for the Cavs once again. The red-hot Speights only put up four attempts in the second half, as the New York bigs closed on him and Cleveland instead tried to attack from beyond the arc.
As soon as that happened, the team knew that they were doomed. The Knicks have multiple weapons in their arsenal, and the combination of the long-range attack from Steve Novak and Jason Kidd, the toughness of J.R. Smith and the physicality of Amar’e Stoudemire were too much off the bench for Cleveland. Without Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, the Cavaliers were limited in what weapons they had at their disposal.
Stoudemire finished with 22 points and six rebounds, while Smith added 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. To make it even worse for the depleted Cavaliers, Kidd and Novak combined for 7-of-12 from beyond the arc to combined for 27 points.
The game reached a back-and-forth point by the time the fourth quarter had rolled along, but the drop off from 67 percent shooting in the first half to 22 percent shooting in the third quarter made too much of a difference. With 1:36 left in the game, Kidd hit a three to put his team up by six points.
Many thought that this shot was a dagger, but Cleveland did find a way to play actual defense in the second half down the stretch. Tristan Thompson threw down after receiving a pass from Kyrie, sparking a four-point swing. After a missed Kidd free throw, Cleveland had one last chance with six ticks on the clock. Mr. Fourth Quarter ended up forcing an awkward three-point shot that was blocked by Tyson Chandler, thus ending the game.
The loss stings, but being without their two rookie studs and getting within one shot of sending the game into overtime can’t be overlooked. Losses such as these have not fazed the Cavaliers in the long term, and I expect they will get right back to work against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.