It's nothing new. We've seen the Cavaliers play far less than 48 solid minutes per game. Most of the time, a good chunk of it is in the third quarter. Tonight, it came instead just before the half, and the combination of the Cavaliers' frigid offense and Hornets' scorching scoring left the Cavs with their heads spinning, down 19 heading into the break after trailing by just three with 5:18 before the half. Coach Byron Scott failed to come away with a victory against his previous team despite the inspired late run the wine and gold put on deploying Scott's "never say die" attitude.
Mo Williams returned to action tonight as the Cavaliers had a rare treat, their full and healthy squad at Coach Scott's disposal. Things looked pretty positive in the early going with Mo Gotti pushing the tempo and the Cavaliers for the most part hitting their open shots after offensive movement. The Cavs took a two-point lead into the second quarter despite the 12 point quarter that Hornets forward David West piled on the Cavs. West, who I can still recall drilling that painful game-winner in the Q two season ago, made J.J. Hickson look like a soft, timid, outclassed rookie for most of the contest. Hickson, who will continue to be under Coach Scott's constant watch, took a step back tonight. In essence, on offense, J.J. couldn't get out of his own way and on defense, he simply couldn't muscle up to the seasoned pro in West. The thing we have to remember with Hickson is that it's a process, the should-be college senior is still clearly trying to make adjustments in being "the man" or at least one of "the men" on this team. Hey Brendan, at least he had eight rebounds!
Part of me is stunned that New Orleans is now 10-1. This supporting cast is not much (if any?) better than the one that a certain 23 had here for several years. But, that's why Chris Paul is my and nearly everyone's front runner for MVP at this point. Paul was 4-of-8 from the field tonight for 15 points, but his 10 assists and 6 steals showed how he still managed to control the game on both ends while West and Belinelli did the heavy lifting in the scoring column. CP3 was my chief concern coming into this one, especially with Mo on the mend, but Paul took the back seat because of the glaring mismatch that West had in the post, one that I thought coming in our team was more than capable of containing. The most important stretch of points Paul scored all night, however, was when he put up a quick five to stop a 8-0 Cavalier run to start the second half, showing that he still knows when he has to take charge.
As I mentioned before, this game was truly decided in about a six minute stretch to end the first half. In that time, the Hornets stung the Cavaliers with the tune of a 20-5 run to close the second. It was a gut-wrenching spell that was fueled by too much dribbling and quick Cavalier misses, New Orleans transition, and Marco Belinelli posting 12 points in lightning quick fashion with the long ball. It reminded me eerily of the game that Marcus Thornton dropped on the Cavaliers last season in the same uniform. Marco rounded out his evening with 20 points and 5 assists, but his strike was quick and deadly when the Hornets pushed the pedal to the floor and ran over the wine and gold.
36 points. That's how many the Cavalier starting five managed to come up with this evening. Mo, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, J.J., and Anderson Varejao simply did not provide enough scoring to keep the Cavaliers in this one. In the fourth quarter, where the Cavaliers closed a 17-point gap to just three with 20 seconds to play, the starting unit was responsible for only FIVE of the thirty Cleveland points in the quarter. The run was primarily fueled by Ramon Sessions and Antawn Jamison, who have both shown themselves to be consistent double-digit scorers off the bench. Give Scott credit for sticking with this group as he nearly rode them to an upset victory. But, the real problem that Scott has in front of him now is how to balance having one of the worst starting fives in the league with one of the more energetic, higher-scoring benches. The quick thought is to put Gibson or Sessions and Jamison in for Parker and Moon, but the only thing that does is weaken the bench and allow opposing second units to make their runs more effectively. There's no easy answer to this one, so my advice for Parker and Moon is to hit your open shots and defend your tails off.
Did I expect the Cavs to win this game tonight? No. Did I think they were absolutely dead with no chance of coming back after halftime? You betcha. Was I wrong? Yes, and that's my fault for forgetting who is the coach of this team. Byron Scott won't let his team roll over and die as Mike Brown's teams did when the going got tough at various points throughout the regular and post seasons. These individuals have too much pride to let what happen at the end of the second continue.
Take for instance Joey Graham and Ryan Hollins's flagrant fouls. Graham was ejected for a flagrant two, and Hollins was assessed a flagrant one. Both were on top scorer on the night David West (34 points). I like that the team was not content with West having a career night and continuing to attack the basket with a big lead. I felt Graham's foul was flagrant, but not a two, because he was honestly going for the ball and didn't want to give up the easy bucket. The call against Hollins was even more shady, because you see that play almost once a game around the league, and it is rarely called a flagrant. These extra points ended hurting the Cavaliers as they captured the momentum, yet simply ran out of time. Not helping their cause was the (by my count) three questionable no calls on the New Orleans offensive end in the second half of the fourth that could have been offensive fouls. None bigger than the no-call on West's bucket over top of Varejao with less than a minute to go.
Making the effort to come back and fall just short may very well have lowered our chances of victory tonight in San Antonio against the 10-1 Spurs. But, in the long run, it's important that the Cavaliers don't back down against superior teams when those teams put a gigantic run on them. This isn't the last time the Cavs are going to be on the wrong end of a nasty run like that, but the hope is that they learn from it and try not to make the same mistakes when it comes to a lack of effort and focus.
I leave you with this thought. What this team is trying to do with the deck stacked against them, on this roadtrip, during this season, may not amount to a hill of beans. But, this is OUR hill. And, these are OUR beans. (Sorry, I watched Naked Gun today..) Let's hope the Cavaliers can ride that wave of momentum into San Antonio tonight against the always formidable Spurs.
All for one. One for all.