A rule is a rule is a rule. At least until it’s not. Or until Byron Scott chooses to ignore it, casting it aside in favor of “the hard way”, or at least the path intended by the space-time continuum.
With 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Cleveland Cavaliers called a timeout to draw up what would presumably be the final play of the game, Scott’s team down one point to the host Denver Nuggets. Rather than moving the ball 47 feet — without repercussion — to half court, as afforded by the irrational NBA rulebook that says teams can inbound the ball from a point that they had not yet reached merely due to saving one of their time-stopping elements for the end of a game, Scott chose to inbound the ball from underneath his own basket.
The rule certainly adds suspense and excitement while helping increase the volume of chants and well-wishes from the home crowd. It’s a rule that provides hope to a team that has little-to-no chance of executing a play in little-to-no time. If not for this rule, Michael Jordan never makes “Craig Ehlo” an answer on the last line of a Trivial Pursuit card.
Fifteen seconds may as well be 24 when it comes to the final play of an NBA contest; an inbound pass finds the man tasked with making the final decision, he dribbles the clock down to a desired time of execution. Occasionally, teams will run a flurry of screens to free up a would-be shooter at his spot of preference — Boston, with Ray Allen, run these plays as if fluid poetry; Oklahoma City is slowly catching up with Kevin Durant.
On Wednesday night in Denver, however, Byron Scott deferred. He bucked the trend, instead opting to utilize the entire pitch to his advantage. The decision alone was nothing if not ballsy. When the Nuggets opting to place Aaron Afflalo — an excellent but somewhat slower defender, especially compared to Ty Lawson — on point guard Kyrie Irving, it made the tactical move much more advantageous.
With the Nuggets pressuring Irving, it was clear they were well-aware of Scott’s end-of-game intentions. What they did not anticipate, however, was the inbound pass going from Alonzo Gee to a cutting Anthony Parker. Sure, Parker has taken two game-winning shots in the last two weeks, but the team needed three points in these specific instances. Needing two, the floor belonged to the rookie. Parker surveyed and found a cutting Irving who was quickly pressed by Afflalo. Afflalo, clearly underestimated Irving’s speed, hesitated for a fraction of a second after a cross-over dribble and it would be all the kid would need.
Denver’s Nene attempted a last-ditch effort at impeding the rookie point guard’s roll to the rim, but being armed with ninja quickness and a lethal left hand, Irving merely sidestepped the Nuggets’ center prior to delivering a kiss off of the glass and two points for the Wine and Gold.
“Obviously with 15 seconds left we knew we had a lot of time,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said of his late-game decision. “We really wanted to take it full court and just let Kyrie go. We just wanted to spread the floor for him and he did a great job getting to the basket again and finishing.”
Irving would go on to say that he took relative offense to the Nuggets pressing him at the baseline, taking it “as a test” of his offensive prowess. The world, especially the sliver located in Cleveland, Ohio, was already well aware of the first-overall selection’s confidence and swagger — the Celtics and Mavericks had front-row seats to the rookie’s fourth quarter theatrical presentations. Adding another characteristic to his ever-growing reputational resume, Irving used Wednesday night to show that he will fight fire with fire, that he will not only welcome ninth-inning curve balls, but he’ll keep his hands back and smack the living hell out of them. Walk-off style.
Despite having five fouls for the entire final two minutes, Irving didn’t let off of the accelerator. He’ll brush his shot aside as merely taking what the Denver defense gave him, but the truth of the matter is that Irving’s speed is even more enamoring when you consider that he’s sprinting 94 feet while toting balls of steel.
“He’s always under control,” said teammate and 14-year veteran Antawn Jamison. “He does a great job of setting opponents up and he finishes around the rim better than anyone I’ve played with or against. Down the stretch, he single-handedly won the game for us and we’re not surprised by it.”
Scott’s decision to utilize the entire floor, to get Irving going, full-steam ahead, not only shows that he has confidence in his 19-year-old floor general, but that he understands exactly how to put his team in the best position to win basketball games. By no means is this Cavaliers team the most talented in the league; this, making full-game effort that much more imperative. But armed with players who can keep the games close (Antawn Jamison had 26 points in the first half) while the rest of the rotation fills in their respective roles, Scott has a rookie who continues to play well beyond his age, on the biggest of stages, under the brightest of lights, all while being provided the least amount of time.
It is understood that games are not won nor lost in the final possession; they’re a series of events and opportunities that are either capitalized upon or squandered. But a singular play, one that is not only perfectly executed by an exciting player on a team in need of such, predicated by a high-level, executive decision like this one makes it that much more meaninful. A head coach turned game manager.
Following the game, Afflalo seemed a bit surprised at Scott’s decision, saying tht he wasn’t quite sure what the Cavaliers’ strategy was. Without getting too detailed, it’s safe to say that Scott, much like a top-tiered chess player, was a step ahead of Denver, saw the pieces aligned and, with the help of a budding superstar, forced the home team to drop their king in front of a packed house. All in 94 feet and 15 seconds.
(Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE Getty Images)