CLEVELAND (AP) — An expected matchup between two of the NBA’s best young point guards never happened.
Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving will meet another time.
This night belonged to Ramon Sessions.
Sessions had a season-high 24 points with 13 assists as a last-minute replacement for Irving, Cleveland’s talented rookie who has a concussion, and Antawn Jamison scored 27 to lead the Cavaliers to a 99-92 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
Sessions, whose name has popped up in trade rumors, didn’t find out he was making his first start this season until shortly before tip-off when the Cavs diagnosed Irving with a concussion.
“It’s not my first rodeo,” Sessions said. “I was ready to go when they called my name.”
Daniel Gibson scored 17 and made a big 3-pointer down the stretch in his return for Cleveland after missing five games with a neck infection. Anderson Varejao added 15 rebounds, survived two nasty spills and spent the night trading elbows underneath with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Cavs may not be one of the NBA’s best teams, but there’s no denying their toughness.
“We’re a resilient bunch, man,” Gibson said. “Coach Scott has instilled that in us. We have a lot of guys in a lot of different roles, so any time a guy is down the next guy has to step up. We’ve done that all season and we’ll continue to do that.”
Irving was ruled out just before the game when team doctors diagnosed him with a concussion. The Cavs said he was kneed in the head Tuesday at Miami.
“He went out and warmed up and said it felt like his head was on fire,” Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said. “He says he’s doing fine.”
Griffin scored 25 before fouling out with 6.6 seconds left for the Clippers, who tied it at 87 with 2:10 left after trailing by 15 in the third quarter. But Gibson nailed his 3-pointer and Varejao dropped a key jumper with 29 seconds left — and 1 on the 24-second shot clock — as Cleveland held off Los Angeles, which was trying to win its fifth straight road game.
Paul had 16 points and 12 assists for the Clippers, who played their first game without injured guard Chauncey Billups. He’s out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon and flew back to L.A. before the game. Billups will visit a specialist on Thursday and is expected to undergo surgery in the next few days.
“We came out with a lack of energy,” Griffin said. “That’s on us. We had no urgency. We didn’t play like we should. We gave the game away.”
Griffin added 15 rebounds and Randy Foye, starting for Billups, scored 15. Kenyon Martin made his debut for Los Angeles and scored six in 21 rugged minutes.
The game was extremely physical, with players on both teams getting knocked to the floor. Shoves were exchanged along with a few choice words. Gibson felt the Cavs were able to get under the skin of a few Clippers players.
“They seemed like they were chirping at the refs a lot,” he said. “Obviously, that showed the physicality might have been getting to them.”
Down by 15 midway through the third, the Clippers closed the period with a 12-3 run, capped when Griffin, usually on the receiving end of alley-oop passes, fed Martin for a two-handed stuff to bring Los Angeles within 70-64. Griffin finally thrilled Cleveland’s crowd with his own dunk off a lob during a 6-0 run as the Clippers caught the Cavs at 87-all.
But Gibson hit his 3-pointer from the corner, and after former Cavs guard Mo Williams blew an easy layup underneath, Sessions made two free throws to give Cleveland a 92-87 lead.
The Clippers were still within 95-92 when Caron Butler forced and missed a 3-pointer with 9.8 seconds left. Alonzo Gee made two free throws for Cleveland and Griffin was whistled for his sixth personal when he bumped Varejao from behind as they ran up the floor. The two traded elbows and hip checks all night.
“We came out flat. That starts with me. I couldn’t make a shot,” said Paul, who went 5 of 16 from the floor. “We didn’t defend well. This is definitely one of our worst showings.”
Gibson’s two free throws sealed it for the Cavs, who opened a nine-game homestand with an unexpected win.
The night started on a sour note.
Irving, who has lived up to expectations as the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, was kept out with a concussion sustained Tuesday night in Miami. He complained of a headache following a walkthrough and while shooting around before the game, when he was given the NBA’s new concussion evaluation tool.
“Our policy is to never put a player at risk or put him out there when anything is going on with him,” Scott said.
There is no timetable for the 19-year-old’s return. Irving, who is averaging 18 points and 5.1 assists per game, was not interviewed after the game and left the arena with teammate Luke Harangody.
Later, after his alma mater Duke beat rival North Carolina on a buzzer-beating shot, Irving tweeted: “Yessir Duke win!!!!!”
The Cavaliers got another scare in the third quarter, when Varejao took a nasty fall while crashing the boards for an offensive rebound. He walked gingerly as he was escorted to the locker room but returned to the bench with a large wrap on his lower back. A few minutes later he was back on the floor and immediately grabbed a rebound.
Martin signed with the Clippers last week after playing part of the season in China. Known for his toughness and temper, the 11-year veteran drew a technical foul in the third quarter when he shoved Samardo Samuels, who had knocked Griffin down with a hard foul under the rim.
“First game back and I get $1,000 (fine),” Martin said with a laugh. “That’s who I am. I can’t turn it off.”
NOTES: Griffin, the NBA’s reigning dunk champ, said he’s undecided about whether to participate in this year’s event in Orlando. Griffin said the league hasn’t contacted him yet, making it sound as if he’s waiting for an invitation. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. … Cavs rookie F Tristan Thompson (ankle) and G Anthony Parker remained sidelined. … The Cavs have won 10 straight at home over the Clippers.