Closing out games against top opponents is something that the Cleveland Cavaliers (28-44, 16-20 home) will have to do for the rest of the season if they want to steal the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race away from the likes of the Atlanta Hawks or the Charlotte Bobcats. On Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena against the Toronto Raptors (39-31, 18-17 away) the Cavs were able to do just that. After almost crumbling down to the ground in the third quarter, the Wine & Gold toughened up over the final five minutes of the game and were able to come away with a 102-100 victory.
Even though the Raptors were briefly able to penetrate the Cleveland defense down low after the tip, the Cavaliers’ staunch defensive efforts shut Toronto down on multiple trips down the court in the first quarter. This resulted in an effective Cleveland offense that was making its way up and down the court with ease, leaving the Raptors frontcourt vulnerable in the paint.
The starting backcourt tandem of Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters was the catalyst for the all-contributing starting lineup that the Wine & Gold began the contest with. Crafty cutting in the lane by Jack and Waiters opened up opportunities near the rim for Tristan Thompson and Spencer Hawes, which resulted in a 20-9 start to the game and a timeout taken by the Raptors. The hustle and attention then became noticeable on defense following the first quarter, as Toronto was held to below 30 percent shooting from the field over the first 12 minutes.
The balanced play of the Cleveland starters allowed the Wine & Gold to open up a 26-17 lead at the end of the first frame. The 20-8 rebounding advantage on the boards and 16 points in the paint highlighted a very productive start for the Cavs against the third-seeded Raptors.
The balance of the starters continued to stay consistent heading into halftime. Cleveland was able to go back up double digits against the Raptors in the second quarter, continuing to push the pace and pound the paint with a mix of Thompson, Hawes, Anderson Varejao and Tyler Zeller. Because of this dominance, the Cavaliers controlled almost every facet of the game. Sans the improving three-point attack of the Raptors, Cleveland played one of its most efficient halves against a top-tier team. Carrying a 59-45 lead into the final 24 minutes, the Cavs had one last thing to check off of their list: finish.
However, the Cavaliers had a problem with holding back the effective long-range attack by Toronto. With less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter following a Cleveland timeout, the Cavaliers saw their 14-point lead cut in half. Behind a burst of energy from Greivis Vasquez, Toronto was able to cut Cleveland’s lead down to seven points.
After putting up 38 points in the paint in the first half, Cleveland only mustered two points down low in the third frame. Not being able to make good on what fueled them in the first half, the Wine & Gold looked like they were about to limp to the finish.
At the 6:30 mark the Raptors were able to jump ahead of the Cavaliers for the first time since the score was 5-4 with nine minutes to go in the first quarter. A Vasquez three-pointer put Toronto up 95-94, but Jack came right back with an 18-footer that put Cleveland back up by one point.
With just under two minutes to go following a blocking foul on Varejao with Cleveland now up four points, the Cavs tightened up their defense and prevented a DeMar DeRozan floater from making the contest a one-score game. However, the game wasn’t over yet. With 12 seconds left in the contest the hot-handed Raptors passed up on a three-point opportunity to tie the game at 102, and instead they opted for a quick two-pointer. To the Raptors’ demise, DeRozan missed the front end of his two free throws after being fouled by Alonzo Gee heading to the rim.
Things weren’t wrapped up, though. Despite an apparent hold on Luol Deng, a bad inbounds pass from Varejao resulted in one last chance for the Raptors. However, this last chance ended in the same light for Toronto, as Deng was able to steal the inbounds pass on the next possession from Vasquez and seal the 102-100 victory for Cleveland.
Cleveland will head to the road following this game for a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday matchup with the Detroit Pistons (26-44, 15-21 home) at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Positioned behind the Cavs in the Eastern Conference sits the Pistons, so this game will prove to be extremely important in figuring out if this team has one last run in them to get into the postseason.
PG Jarrett Jack – 13 points, five assists, five rebounds, two steals and one block, while shooting 6 of 9 from the field
Jack has played the most effective ball of his Cavaliers career while manning the point guard position with Kyrie Irving still out. He was able to facilitate the game, work well with Dion and hit jumpers whenever his number was called. Jack’s most important shot came following Cleveland being down to the Raptors in the fourth quarter after dominating Toronto through and through for the first 40-plus minutes. If Jack continues to play with the same discipline that he has played with as of late, the bench will be in excellent shape once Kyrie comes back.
SG Dion Waiters – 24 points, seven assists, two blocks and one steal, while shooting 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) from the field
Dion has been playing like a team leader with Kyrie out of the starting lineup. By notching his fourth-straight 20-plus-point performance, Dion was able to hold the weight of the Cavaliers by contributing to multiple facets of the game; something we’re not used to seeing from the one-dimensional Waiters. We’ve been waiting for this Dion to arrive for some time, and it looks like we’re seeing what damage he can cause when thrown into the starting lineup.
SF Luol Deng – 19 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block, while shooting 7 of 13 (53.8 percent) from the field and 2 of 4 from three
After being held on Cleveland’s final inbounds play of the game, Deng was out for revenge. Although his stat line was pretty packed tonight, the one steal definitely stands out above the rest. We’ve seen Cleveland throw away games too many times over the past few seasons, and following the mishap by Andy, Deng needed to set things right. By intercepting Vasquez’s pass, Deng helped the Cavs finish closing out the third-ranked team in the East.
PF Tristan Thompson – 15 points and 13 rebounds, while shooting 3 of 4 from the field and 9 of 10 from the free throw line
Tristan has been a ball of energy ever since Kyrie went down with an injury, helping to bring a flare early on for the Cleveland starters. His double-double tendencies have wavered lately, but his ability to body up and help out his teammates in the paint has paid dividends for the frontcourt. It definitely did tonight.
C Spencer Hawes – 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, while shooting 4 of 10 from the field and 1 of 3 from beyond the arc
One of the players that Thompson paired real well with Tuesday night was Hawes. Early on the frontcourt duo was able to dictate the pace of the contest with a down-low physical game and an up-tempo fast break offense. Hawes has completely changed the pace of this team, and it showed against the Raptors.
C Anderson Varejao – 11 points and eight rebounds, while shooting 4 of 8 from the field
Although Andy’s “blunder” almost cost the Cavs, Wild Thing was still very consistent. The starters picked up most of the work, but having another frontcourt member dominating the boards (Cleveland outrebounded Toronto 49-38) really gave Cleveland the extra push that they needed off of the bench.
Coach Brown looked like he had the team’s full attention on the bench tonight, and the team chemistry seemed at its best through the first half of the game. However, half-time defensive adjustments were made by the Raptors, and behind a three-point barrage that kept Toronto somewhat involved offensively over the first 24 minutes, the Raptors were able to cut the double-digit lead down. This is still a tough area for Brown, and until he can successfully make half-time adjustments, this team will continue to squander away leads late in games.