When taking into account the playing field that is the National Basketball Association, it is relatively easy to see how the Cleveland Cavaliers can blow a large lead to the New York Knicks. Even clearer, the way that an injury-ridden version of the same team could cough up a historical lead to the defending champion Miami Heat. But when the Boston Celtics come to town without All-Stars Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett and find themselves down double-digits late — the Cavaliers with a boat load of timeouts and a rabid base of 20,000 fans willing them to the final buzzer — it is difficult to envision just how the Wine and Gold found themselves losers once again.
Certainly, the players who were tasked with winning said game played a factor; even when you strip away the injured stars for both franchises, the Celtics have a deeper roster. Yes, the lack of Garnett allowed Boston head coach Doc Rivers to deploy a smaller lineup, (allegedly) forcing Cleveland’s Byron Scott to play Luke Walton in points of the game where he would otherwise be a casual observer. And yes, the final 2.1 seconds were a complete farce — the Celtics, out of timeouts, were allowed to reconvene for a final play while officials reviewed Alonzo Gee deflecting a ball out of bounds after some incredibly stout defense on Boston’s Paul Pierce. But in the end, it is the Cavaliers who were on the wrong side of the ledger as the clock struck zeros.
They had led by 14 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.
This recap by Nate Smith over at Cavs: The Blog is tough to ignore. Not only is it masterfully done, it’s a topic that has reached taboo with some and applauded by others. Smith calls Byron Scott the “Tanking Grandmaster” for benching Tyler Zeller despite starting the game with seven points and six boards in the first quarter against a depleted Boston frontcourt; for having Luke Walton on the floor (a -14 +/-) during crunch time when the wheels were obviously becoming unhinged; for preferring to hold on to timeouts and trade them in for 1-up mushrooms post-game. It’s all tough to ignore. For all of the games that this team should have won this season — it was not long ago when the team was supporting themselves by saying they had led the league in games lost by six or fewer points; now that number has just grown to absurd proportions — it is tough to ignore that there has to be more behind these contests than just a slower, older and less cohesive unit falling victim to a better opponent. What looked like several black swans may in fact be a gaggle of white ones that had merely been doused by a vat of opaque paint.
“I feel like at this point, we have to hold ourselves accountable,” Wayne Ellington said post game. “We’re all professionals here and should all be communicating with each other and helping each other on the defensive end of the floor. I think that’s something we have to take on ourselves and we have to get better at it.”
Scott would say that his team stopped being aggressive; many fans may counter that it was Scott who stopped being aggressive by merely reacting to what Doc Rivers was doing with his lineups instead of forcing him to go big by creating mismatches with Zeller. Scott says that he did not call a timeout because the Celtics were going to switch on every screen regardless of play; fans would counter with the fact that there are no “1-up mushrooms” to be had and that a Shaun Livingston fade-away may not have been the ideal play as the clock ticked down. Scott made it a point to disclaim his disdain for the final review — the one where Gee clearly stripped the ball from Pierce, sending it to the Cavaliers’ bench; fans will say that the team should have never allowed themselves to have just a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds remaining given the lead eight minutes earlier.
In the end, as Jacob laid out so eloquently earlier this week, that third spot in the NBA Lottery seems pretty important given the logjam of equally bad teams. This loss undoubtedly helps the Cavaliers in this regard. It’s a shame, however, the Lottery does not allow for style points as the Cavaliers — given how they have lost games this season — would be the clear-cut favorites to land whomever they desire.
With just 11 games remaining, the only question will be if they can find a new way to make the morning after that much more baffling.