Well that was not too much fun to watch. Coming into the contest, hopes were high as the Cavs looked to gain a game on the major four powers in the NBA. Earlier in the day filled with great basketball action, the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Spurs all lost their games, giving Cleveland a late-night opportunity to gain some ground on all of these elite teams. Instead however, the Cavs laid a goose egg of a performance at the Pepsi Center in Colorado, collapsing late while playing sloppy offense throughout.
For the second time in as many Western Conference road trips, the Cleveland Basketball Cavaliers began by playing one of the top-tier teams in the other conference that was missing a star player. Dirk Nowitzki was not on the court when Tim Thomas and the resilient Mavs took down Cleveland in Dallas and this time, the Nuggets were without both Carmelo Anthony and rookie sensation Ty Lawson. That would not matter again tonight, as LeBron James had one of the worst performances of the year (despite finishing with 35 points, six rebounds and seven assists) and the Cavaliers blew a three-point lead with less than two minutes to go.
Starting from the top, the Cavs looked tired, uninspired and confused defensively against Kenyon Martin and Denver during the first quarter. Chauncey Billups returned from an injury to ignite the offense as Mo Williams could not keep up with him on the defensive side of the court. That was a mismatch the team used all evening as Denver raced to a 30-24 first quarter advantage. For some background, the Cavs had been winning first quarters by an average margin of 28.0-25.0 coming into the game and are now just 4-4 on the road when trailing after the first period.
Surprisingly, the Cavaliers were then able to cut at the Denver lead in the second without the help of the overachieving LeBron James. A pair of layups by Jawad Williams, some Z jumpers as well as some impressive defense by Delonte West were the catalysts as the Cavs regained the lead in taking a 49-48 lead at the break. Denver’s offense was never really able to get into a groove in that quarter unlike the first, often going long stretches of possessions without any points at all.
As a close game on the road however, the one-point half time advantage for the visitors hardly meant anything. The contest would come down to the wire yet again. Despite this fact that everyone in the building and everyone back at home knew it would come down to the closing minutes, it still was fun to watch the Cavs build up their biggest lead of the game late in the third quarter. Trailing 67-61 and with Shaquille O’Neal out of the game with five fouls, the Cavs went on a shocking three-and-a-half minute 11-0 run to take a five-point lead that later became four heading into the fourth. It was the first instance all game that the Cavaliers had actually taken complete control of the game but it would also be the last time as well.
Now here is where the LeBron James stats come into play. Overall for the game, he took 28 field goal attempts, had eight turnovers and in the second half, shot the ball 18 against only one assist for himself. I don’t care how many points he puts up or how well his defense/rebounding is doing, but that is not the recipe for a Cleveland victory on the road. In fact, it was the sixth time in his career including playoffs that he ended up with the magic combination of 28 FGA’s and 8 TO’s, and the Cavs are now 1-5 in those games. Poor performance by LBJ in this one, especially considering his only two three’s were in the closing seconds.
Piecing apart the ending of this game, the Cavs had a three-point lead following a clutch driving layup by LeBron with 1:51 left in the game. Things were looking great for the road team at that point, maintaining a narrow advantage for the last several minutes thanks to some clutch shot-making despite no offensive flow. Things turned upside down after that as UCLA product Arron Aflalo nailed a three from the corner to tie the game as Mo Williams fell to the floor on a hard screen right in front of the play. The very next trip down, an Andy Varejao offensive foul led to a Kenyon Martin field goal and 36 seconds later, J.R. Smith hit the dagger with a bomb from Mile High Stadium to complete the eight-point turnaround.
A costly turnover, a poor shot by LeBron, two three pointers allowed and Martin’s first points of the second half turned a 91-88 Cavs lead into a 96-91 Nuggets advantage. LeBron then stepped out of bounds for the third time in the contest on the next possession, gift wrapping this one of the banged up and bruised Denver squad. It was a depressing end to the game and a rare sight for one of the best fourth quarter teams in the NBA led by the best fourth quarter player in the league, but an occurrence that happens to all teams throughout the long season. The big question for the Cavs will be how they respond on Sunday as they continue their road trip against the opportunistic and pesky Portland Trailblazers.
(The picture above is via AP Photo/David Zalubowski. It is of LeBron James complaining to referee Bennie Adams, a common occurrence during last night’s fourth quarter debacle.)
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.