There are moments where seasons turn for better or worse. Sometimes it’s difficult to spot them in the moment and sometimes it isn’t. There are times where a team comes through and wins a game and you just get that sense where that specific victory means way more than one single game in an entire season.
For the 2013 Cleveland Indians that game was September 24th against the White Sox. Chris Perez blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth by giving up two home runs to put the Tribe down by one going into the bottom of the inning. Late in the season with the club embroiled in a fierce fight for the Wild Card this just felt like a defeating blow. Every game was crucial at this point.
Then, with two out in the bottom of the ninth and Michael Brantley on second representing the tying run, old man Jason Giambi turned on a 1-1 pitch from Addison Reed and sent the game-winning and season-saving homer into the night.
Now maybe that one game didn’t “turn” the season for the Tribe necessarily. It was late in the year and they’d already had a slew of dramatic walk-off wins throughout the season. But given the stakes and what they were up against, that single win is without a doubt the most memorable game of the season for any Tribe fan. It saved a chance at the playoffs and ultimately powered the club through the rest of their ten-game win streak to end the season and got them to the post season.
Wednesday night’s win in Oklahoma City for the Cavaliers is one of those games that really just felt like it meant more than just one game in 82. Ultimately we might look back on the season and see the firing of general manager Chris Grant as the turning point. After all the Cavs went on a six-game winning streak following the instillation of David Griffin.
But after three straight losses against Eastern Conference playoff teams it seemed like what slim chance the Cavs had of sneaking into the playoffs was slipping away. The team was getting almost no production from the bench with the injuries to Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, and CJ Miles. They were working hard and battling every minute in those games (unlike the first half of the season) but it just didn’t seem like they had enough.
After losing Tuesday night in frustrating fashion because of some really crappy questionable officiating the team plane arrived in Oklahoma City at 2:00 AM Wednesday morning to play the best team in the Western Conference later that evening. Now mind you, entering the game the Cavs had only won eight road games on the season. The Thunder, on the other hand, had only lost eight games at home this season. This was not a game that anyone expected the Cavs to win.
Except that the Cavaliers DID win.
In a hard fought game that saw Cleveland go down by 12 early in the third quarter before battling back to bring it close, the Cavs played phenomenal basketball in the fourth quarter to the tune of 42 points to win the game 114-104. Maybe it didn’t have a dramatic finish like the Giambi game for the Tribe. But it was a game where the season appeared to slipping away for good and there wasn’t much chance to right the ship again only for it to turn right again.
It’s worth noting that this was the third straight home loss for the Thunder, their first three-game home losing streak in five years…since back when they were bad, basically. However, it’s not like those previous two losses where against fluff competition: Heat and Clippers. So OKC isn’t really in the midst of a tailspin per se and they had been off since Sunday while the Cavs had played the previous night. So again, there was no reason why the Cavs should have won that game.
But they DID win. And they did so by not giving up when they got down early in the second half…like they’ve done so many times in the past. They won by playing team basketball, moving and passing to get the best shot. They won because everyone contributed—including the bench. And maybe most importantly they won because Kyrie Irving played like he was the best player on the court…which is saying something considering Kevin Durant was playing for the other side.
And maybe more than anything else they won because they knew that they needed to win that game. With their backs against the wall they pushed back and refused to just roll over and be defeated.
With all that said, this wasn’t just some gritty or plucky win. They played really good basketball and BEAT the Thunder. They actually have been playing much better recently, in spite of the three-game slide they just snapped. Even with the injuries to what is probably three of their six or seven best players they are playing much better post-Grant firing. The addition of Spencer Hawes has a lot to do with that.
He’s been a really nice complement with both Kyrie and Tristan Thompson (like I wrote about here and we talked about on our podcast here). It’s a very small sample-size of only four games obviously but Hawes is having an undeniably positive effect on both ends of the court. Let me hit you with a couple stat facts…
- The duo of Hawes and Thompson has the highest +/- of any two Cavs players for the whole season at +4.0.
- Hawes is a member of four of the top five duos of Cavs teammates (Jack, +3.0; Deng, +2.5; Irving, +2.3).
- The current starting lineup of Irving, Jack, Deng, Thompson, and Hawes is +4.5—far and away the best five-man unit that’s played more than ten minutes together.
If/when Varejao comes back I actually hope that Mike Brown keeps Hawes in the starting lineup because that unit is working so well together. And it’s worth noting how well the Cavs have been with Hawes on the court considering they’ve lost three of the four games since he joined the team.
Also, Varejao statistically works really well with the bench guys like Waiters, Miles, and Dellavedova. In fact, the Cavs top three-man unit is Delly/Waiters/Miles at +6.5 and the second is Delly/Waiters/Varejao at +4.8. And while we’re on the topic of three-man units, Hawes is present in each of Nos. 4-8 on that list. Third best, though with not a lot of floor time together, is Miles/Varejao/Zeller, which only furthers the notion that Vareajo belongs with the bench crew—and Zeller should probably nudge Anthony Bennett out for the fourth big man in the rotation.
The rest of the Cavaliers schedule this season is still really tough. They have one of the hardest remaining schedules in the East. They won’t be able to keep up their current level of play if Varejao, Waiters, and Miles don’t come back soon. The starters have played really heavy minutes the past two games and it won’t be long before they break down unless they start getting some help from the bench.
And even if those three guys come back it’s still a long shot for the Cavs to make the playoffs. But they are trending in the right direction. They’ve won 7 of 10—the only non-playoff team in the East with a winning record in the past ten games—and the current 8th seeded Hawks are in a tailspin having lost 10 of 11. The Cavs sit four games back of the Hawks and five back in the loss column with the Pistons in between a half game better. Cleveland only has 23 games left to play so it’s still not very likely that they get there. According to Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds on ESPN.com the Cavs only have a 7.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. According to Sports Club Stats they need to finish out the season 14-9 to have a greater than 50% chance of making the playoffs (62.2%).
If the Cavs do pull off the improbable and edge into that final playoff spot, I guarantee we’ll all look back on Wednesday night, February 26th as being the game that changed the season. Because beating the Thunder wasn’t just one win in an 82-game season. It was a win that wasn’t supposed to happen because this team wasn’t good enough. But on that night the Cavaliers showed their true potential.
I look forward to seeing if they carry it through the rest of the way.
GO CAVS!!!Follow @ClevelandFlack