Not all lost after Cavs' rookie mistake
CLEVELAND — For a rookie, the best of times can turn into the worst of times, and man, it usually doesn’t take but a second or two.
Dion Waiters is learning that the hard way, as NBA rookies often do — the latest example coming in the Cavaliers’ 96-95 loss to visiting San Antonio on Wednesday.
Now, there’s no real shame in falling to a veteran team like the Spurs. They have many of the same stars — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili — who led them to multiple titles and own the league’s best record (42-12).
A lot of folks figured their run ended three years ago. Yeah, well, good luck with that.
Anyway, this was Waiters’ night. Cavs resident star Kyrie Irving had a miserable go of it, looking like someone who could use a hot shower, a bowl of soup, and about 16 consecutive hours stretched out in bed.
Irving is usually the Cavs’ Mr. Everything in these situations, or at least Mr. Fourth Quarter. But here’s some breaking news: Irving is a real live human being. Just like the rest of us, he's gonna have an off day or two once in a while.
That left most of the meaningful playmaking to Waiters, and as far as that goes, he came through. Waiters finished with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting. He also grabbed six rebounds, dished off four assists and buried a step-back 20-footer that gave the Cavs a one-point lead with 9.5 seconds left.
Seven ticks later, Waiters was the guy who stayed close to Parker near the basket. Parker flung the ball to wide-open teammate Kawhi Leonard on the baseline. Leonard, who was Waiters’ man, buried a three-pointer.
At least, it was after Irving lost his balance and missed a falling-down heave at the final buzzer.
“I blame myself,” Waiters said. “I helped too hard (on Parker).”
Waiters spoke slowly, wearing the long face of someone with a genuine sense of disappointment.
Now, it’s a basketball player’s natural instinct to stay close to the lane when the ball is near the basket and the game is in the balance. But as Waiters is learning, giving up a two-pointer is the better of the two worst-case scenarios.
Surrendering a three, as Cavs coach Byron Scott indicated, was the one thing you didn't want to do.
“I hate to lose that way,” Waiters said, shaking his head.
The learning curve
That play was hardly the game. Irving went 2 for 15 for six points. Duncan returned from a four-game absence to block a whopping five shots. Little-known Spurs guard Gary Neal buried three threess and finished with 15 points.
Lots of things happened here, both good and bad, for everyone.
For the Cavs, the good was Waiters and fellow rookie Tyler Zeller — who burst out of his recent funk by hitting 7 of 10 shots for 16 points. Zeller also snared nine rebounds. Overall, he was considerably more aggressive.
Tristan Thompson contributed an underrated 10 points, as did C.J. Miles off the bench.
But these are the Spurs, and winning this way isn’t anything out of the ordinary for them. They take advantage of mistakes, large and small. Always have, and it doesn’t really look like they plan on stopping anytime soon.
“It was just a mental breakdown, but that’s the game of basketball,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to take it and learn from it.”
That’s been the rally cry for the Cavs (16-37) all season, and things will be no different when they return from the All-Star break after the weekend.
If there’s a positive, and there really are some, it’s that they seem to be grasping this part of the learning process. Someday, they won’t make these critical mistakes. Or sometimes, they will and the other team will just miss the shot.
As Thompson said, that's the game of basketball.
But the Cavs aren't there today. It’s much too soon for that. Now is a time for growing pains, and on the final defensive possession, Waiters received plenty of both. He got both the pain and the growth that results.
He doesn’t need to feel bad about that. He just needs to accept the fact he’s a rookie, that these things happen to rookies, and to get it right next time.
“We only learn from it at the end of the day,” he said.
And the Cavs and their fans can take pride in the fact that he's maturing enough to realize it.