The Cavaliers produced one of their best wins of the season last night in beating the Toronto Raptors 105-91 in a closer game than the score indicates. LeBron & Co. were playing their second road game in two nights against a team that had the prior night off and which has the best record in the Eastern Conference, avenging a 110-93 loss in Cleveland two weeks ago.
It wasn’t impressive like some of their blowouts which have featured a quarter or so of otherworldly basketball on which they could coast. Instead, they led nearly the whole way, withstanding run after run, showing the grit and consistency they’ll need to advance in the playoffs one night after an uninspiring victory over the Knicks in New York. The win extends the Cavs win streak to six games.
The Cavs did briefly relinquish the lead when the Raptors opened the second half with a 14-6 run, but the Cavs came right back with a 19-4 run over the next six minutes to push the lead up to 14. The Raptors never got closer than six the rest of the way. That run was kicked off by two pretty drives from Kyrie Irving, who had a relatively quiet night (15 pts, 13 in 2nd half, 6 assists).
Not enough can be said for Tristan Thompson who battled like a bull under the boards all night long, grabbing 14 rebounds including 9 offensive boards, and scoring a season-high 21 points of his own. He came in about midway through the 3rd so well he didn’t leave the floor the rest of the way. Varejao only wound up playing 17 minutes, earning a nice rest while Thompson logged 33 minutes.
Those extra shots were important because the Raptor were pounding the boards with extra chance opportunities. This was an issue for the Cavs because they continue to have trouble keeping ball handlers in front of them. When the big in the paint steps up to challenge the ballhandler his man hits the offensive boards unchallenged, in this case because LeBron fails to box out.
Johnson was a thorn in the Cavs side all game long, putting in 27 points on just 15 shots, grabbing 7 boards and contributing 4 assists. He and Lowry (22 pts., 9 assists) were the Raptors only offensive threats during the game, as the Cavs blanketed Lou Williams whenever he had the ball, giving him no airspace. (Williams scored a career-high 35 on the Cavs in their last meeting.)
The overall defensive intensity was good and consistent all game long, and the rotations were decent, though Lowry still caused plenty of trouble. But the Cavs showed much more active hands on defense, making 7 steals, including these two nice plays by Waiters and Irving in the second quarter, and beautiful Irving steal in the third where he went to the floor to save the ball, knocking to LeBron who passed to Thompson for a dunk.
The Cavs bench got a nice burst from small forward James Jones in the second quarter, as the long-time James crone demonstrated his 2011 3pt Shooting Champion stroke. Jones drained consecutive 3s from different sides of the court in scoring 8 straight points, helping sustain the team early in the second while LeBron and Kevin Love typically rest.
Jones saw 15 minutes – as much as he’s seen all season combined – last night picking up the slack for Mike Miller who left the Knicks game with a concussion, and now has to pass league protocols before being reinstated. Meanwhile SG Joe Harris only briefly got into the game – the first time he’s not logged more than a minute since the first week of the season.
It’s good that Blatt is giving some new guys some burn, but it’s hard not to wonder if he isn’t running his starters awfully hard – particularly on the second night of road back-to-backs. Lebron (42), Love (40) and Irving (38) played substantial minutes, and if Blatt doesn’t start finding some guys on the bench to spell them, there may be a reckoning at the season’s end as the playoffs start in the form of worn-down starters.
That said, it’s hard to find a bad spin on this fine victory. To see the Cavs play hard all game long and keep a team as good as the Raptors at arm’s length all game is very encouraging. (It’s important to note that the Raptors lost their second leading scorer (19.4 ppg) DeMar DeRozan to a groin injury a week ago.)
The Cavs held them to 41% shooting, got back in transition (allowing only 9 fastbreak points), limited their turnovers to 13, and ultimately outrebounded the Raptors 48-40. They had 28 assists on 41 buckets – a good percentage, and shot more FTs than the Raptors, who have the best FT differential in the league.
Plenty of reason for optimism, though next week will prove a challenge for the Cavs. They play four games in five days next week including a rematch with the Raptors on Tuesday, and consecutive road games against the Oklahoma City Thunder – who have Durant and Westbrook back now – and the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans boast the NBA’s next superstar, Anthony Davis, who’s averaging 25 pts., 11.5 boards, 3 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists a game. Wish Kevin Love luck, he’s gonna need it.