Kyrie’s 55 the story, but Cavs picking up steam as team
CLEVELAND — Random dribbles following the Cavaliers’ forever-memorable 99-94 victory over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday:
1. Plenty of people have already written and said plenty about Kyrie Irving and his 55-point evening. And Irving is worth every positive word. It was indeed magical. But the way Cavs are playing now has to make them proud of how they are getting it done as a team.
2. LeBron James was a late scratch with a sprained wrist. The Cavs were coming off a grueling win the night before at Detroit. The Blazers were well-rested after not playing a game since Saturday. In fact, while the Cavs were mixing it up with the Pistons on Tuesday, the Blazers were using Cleveland Clinic Courts to practice. Everything was set up for the Cavs to fail. Instead, they won their eighth straight.
3. Read: This is a team that’s coming together. A team that is really believing in itself. A team that has won eight of nine and team that is suddenly determined to defend. Kyrie’s 55 were special. They basically won the game. But it’s the team that is earning some real respect — from fans and from opponents.
4. OK, a quick look that the numbers: Irving’s 55 points were a season-high in the NBA this year. It topped Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mo Williams. Each scored 52 in a game. (As an aside, I’m not sure the journeyman Williams has scored 52 the rest of the season combined.) Kyrie’s performance was one shy of the franchise record for points in a game — held by none other than James.
5. Irving went 17-of-36 shooting, including 11-of-19 on 3-pointers. The 11 made threes are a franchise record.
6. As for the Cavs (27-20), they have won eight straight. They improved to 2-8 without LeBron. But throw that record out the window, because almost all those game came before the trades for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. It cannot be understated what those three bring to this new brand of Cavs.
7. Interestingly, Irving missed his first seven shots. He looked tired and a little out of sorts after scoring 38 on Tuesday vs. the Pistons. I half-expected him to have one of those 14- or 15-point nights and the Cavs to lose by 12. And I half-expected it because that’s happened a lot during Irving’s four years in the NBA, even with LeBron. But these Cavs aren’t those Cavs, and this Kyrie isn’t that one.
8. Instead, Irving and his teammates dug in defensively, keeping themselves alive with grit and hustle — and clearly, the belief that they can win every game. As LeBron said Tuesday, it’s pretty evident the Cavs are beginning to understand what it means to be professionals. It’s more than just collecting a paycheck to play basketball on TV. It’s how you conduct yourself, how hard you play, how badly you want to win.
9. The Blazers (32-14) are an outstanding team all the way around. LaMarcus Aldridge is right up there with New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis as the league’s best power forward. Aldridge was unstoppable, scoring 38 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. He can burn you from anywhere, and all this despite an injured thumb that requires surgery. But surgery would keep Aldridge out for several months. He doesn’t want that. So he put a splint on the thumb. Surgery is for the summer. The man deserves applause.
10. That said, the Cavs held the Blazers to 40 percent shooting. Yes, 40 percent. That included a 4-of-19 night for talented point guard Damian Lillard. He’s won some battles vs. Irving in the past. But Lillard lost badly on this night.
11. Lillard on Irving: "You’ve got to give him credit. He made tough shots. They were out there without LeBron, and (Irving) carried them. … He’s really crafty. But usually it’s mid-range pullups and nice layups. It’s not 11 threes. I think he’s just in a good rhythm."
12. It just dawned on me that Irving scored 38 points Tuesday, then 55 on Wednesday. I mean, it didn’t dawn on me. I write about it for a living. But if you just stop and think about it … wow.
13. After the game, Irving sort of skipped his way into the locker room. He high-fived team personnel and security guards. And he repeated one phrase over and over: "Yessir!"
14. Mozgov was pretty big in this one too. Actually, at 7-foot-1, he’s big in EVERY one. But he made some winning plays vs. the Blazers. The biggest came when he got fouled going for an offensive rebound off a Kyrie missed three. The score was tied at 92-all with 36.9 second left. Mozgov nailed both free throws. The Cavs never trailed again. Mozgov finished with 12 points and 10 boards.
15. Of course, the Blazers tied on the next possession after Aldridge hit two free throws of his own. That set up Irving’s gutsy three to put the Cavs up 97-94 with 6.4 seconds left. Ball game.
16. Irving also grabbed the game’s biggest rebound, right after Lillard missed a three to tie it. Kyrie then marched down to the other end of the floor to seal it with a pair of foul shots. "I’m just happy we got the win," Irving said. "That’s the only thing that really matters and we continue our streak."
17. J.R. Smith added 11 points, and Kevin Love scored 10 and grabbed 12 rebounds. Something doesn’t seem right with Love, who struggled to a 3-of-15 shooting night. He’s doing some little things, important things, like moving the ball and setting screens — but he’s just not as explosive as usual. Then again, make three more shots and no one’s wondering what might be wrong. Bottom line on Love: There’s still plenty of time to be the All-Star the Cavs believe he is.
18. For the record, James is listed as doubtful for Friday’s game vs. the Kings. I’ll have updates later Thursday.