Cavs cling when they should’ve cruised, but progress made

Luol Deng finished with 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds in just his second game back from an ankle injury.

Tony Dejak/AP

CLEVELAND — When you build a 21-point lead, the game probably shouldn’t come down to a botched inbounds pass, but it did, and the Cavaliers won anyway.

Really, that is all that matters these days. No one ever thought the Cavs would be beautiful.

But the bottom line is they have won 12 of 23 since David Griffin was named acting general manager in early February. That included Tuesday’s 102-100 nail-biter of a victory over the visiting Toronto Raptors.

Obviously, Griffin doesn’t really have a role in what takes place during those 48 minutes on the floor. His hiring is mostly just a point of reference. The lesson being, while it doesn’t always feel like it, the Cavs have been better.

They’ve played the last five games minus star guard Kyrie Irving, out with a biceps injury. (Quick side note: Irving shot around at shootaround before the game.) They’ve won two straight, and while their playoff hopes are extremely dim, they are at least forming habits for next season.

Experts never predicted the Cavs to win 60 games. Finishing about even seemed more realistic. Since Feb. 7, they’ve exceeded that (12-11).

"Since the middle of January, we’ve been playing pretty good basketball," Cavs coach Mike Brown said, forming his own reference point.

Again, it’s far from picturesque, but no Brown-coached team ever is. He’ll be the first to tell you that he prefers a grind-it-out, unsightly night. That’s not how it always goes for the Cavs (28-44), but good things can happen when it does.

Bad things can, too.

The Cavs led 74-53 in the third quarter. They trailed by a point about 12 minutes later.

Without a doubt, this offense can come to a screeching halt. It can prove costly at times, and it sure did on this night. That is something that needs repaired, and you can forget about it happening in the final 10 games. A consistent means of scoring should be priority No. 1 this summer.

Talkin' Cavs' front-office situation (Audio)

Priority No. 1-A should be learning how to throw the ball into play. It really is among the most basic parts of basketball. Half the time, teams don’t even defend it. They wait until you inbound it, then get aggressive. The Cavs’ continuous struggles in that area are mystifying, and frankly, unacceptable.

The play in question came with 7.8 seconds to go and the Cavs leading by two. Anderson Varejao attempted to throw it to Luol Deng. The ball wound up in the hands of the Raptors. You can make all the excuses you want, but that should never happen. Certainly not this late in the season.

But hey, the Cavs made a defensive stand after that, and hey, they did enough throughout the rest of the game to seal it.

"I think our mindset has to be that we got the win," Deng said. "It’s over with. I’m not really worried about the negative part."

On that note, Deng did indeed have himself a night. He finished with 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds in just his second game back (yes, both victories) from an ankle injury.

Most notably, of course, was the play of Dion Waiters. He’s moved into the starting lineup since Irving went down, and Tuesday, Waiters tallied a game-high 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting. Like Deng, Waiters passed for seven assists.

Basically, the kid is becoming a star, and that type of passing is important — because when you’re struggling to score, seeking out a better shot is always the best option. And Waiters said the Cavs are "just finding the open guy, sharing the ball and making the easy play" lately, he said.

That may not always be true, as evidenced by the Cavs blowing another big lead. But it is true enough.

So here they are, 4 ½ games out of the final playoff spot with just more than two weeks to go. They’ve been better recently, with Griffin in the front office and Brown on the sidelines. All they can do now is try to keep it going.