Cavaliers sluggish 3rd quarter leads to 121-118 loss to Hawks
BY STONE LEXINGTON
CAVALIERS BEAT WRITER
(CLEVELAND, OH) - The Cleveland Cavaliers have experienced some unfortunate circumstances lately, but they’re doing what they can to make sure their promising start to the season doesn’t slide the other way.
After losing one of their best young scorers, Collin Sexton, for the season due to a torn meniscus in early November, the Cavs weathered the storm and battled their way to become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Losing one of your best young talents is never easy, but the Cavs have been one of the NBA’s bright spots this season nonetheless. However, matters got even worse for the Cavs on Tuesday when they lost another key piece of their rotation.
During Tuesday night’s game in New Orleans against the Pelicans, Cavs backup point guard Ricky Rubio suffered a torn ACL and will subsequently miss the remainder of the season. Rubio’s loss is a devastating blow to the team, as the young Cavaliers will miss his leadership, locker room presence and play on the court. Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff expounded on the departure of such a key role player.
“The most important thing is, you don’t replace what Ricky was doing for our team,” Bickerstaff said. “As a spirit, as a leader, as a mentor, you don’t replace that, and that’s not our aim by any means. He meant the world to this group. The way that we played, that passion, that spirit, a lot of that was the Ricky Rubio effect. You don’t replace that.
“What we have to do as a group is figure out how we move forward, and the only way that we can move forward is by doing it together. We’ve got to encompass that spirit as a group. We know what it feels like, so we have to continue and everybody has to be a part of that to make sure we keep playing that way and keep playing with that spirit and that selflessness that he brought to the game.”
It won’t be easy replacing a floor general in Rubio that was averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists for the Cavs this season, and the team is still without starting point guard Darius Garland, who is in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. The Cavs have struggled without Garland, losing their last three games, the latest loss coming to the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve 121-118 in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
The Cavs (20-16) were on fire from the field against Atlanta (16-19) in the first half, shooting 70 percent from the field and leading 66-51 at halftime. In the first half, Kevin Love scored 16 points in a little more than 11 minutes, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Cleveland led by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, as Atlanta superstar Trae Young didn’t score his first points until he sank a three-pointer with 5:57 remaining until the break. Young and the Hawks, however, clawed their way back early in the second half.
The Hawks opened the second half with a 17-6 run, capped by a Wes Iwundu floater that brought Atlanta within a 72-68 deficit. When Young drained his third three-pointer of the game with 2:42 to play in the third quarter, the Hawks took an 85-84 lead, their first lead since holding a 15-12 advantage midway through the first quarter. Atlanta never trailed again.
The Cavs were within striking distance throughout the fourth quarter, but Young drained several big buckets down the stretch to keep Cleveland at bay. The All-Star point guard finished with 35 points and 11 assists. Cavs power forward Kevin Love did all he could to keep Cleveland close throughout the evening, but his effort wasn’t enough to snap the Cavs’ two-game losing skid.
Love matched Young with 35 points and added nine rebounds. In his last eight games, Love is averaging better than 20 points and eight rebounds, becoming the only player in NBA history in the modern shot clock era (since 1954) to average 20-plus points and eight-plus rebounds per game in under 24 minutes per game over an eight-game span.
Cavs center Jarrett Allen returned from a four-game absence after being placed in the league’s health and safety protocols. He finished with 21 points and eight rebounds, continuing his All-Star level play from before leaving the lineup. Cavs rookie forward Evan Mobley, who received the Rookie of the Month award for games played in October and November prior to the contest against Atlanta, totaled 16 points and eight rebounds.
“You miss Jarrett when he’s not on the floor, obviously,” Bickerstaff said. “But his ability to protect the rim, his ability to protect other people, and then him and Evan’s ability to work together. When one of them is going to challenge a shot, there’s another guy there to protect him. And they make Lauri (Markkanen) a better defensive player as well, because now he can get up and pressure people and put seven feet on the perimeter and drive them to two other seven-footers. Those guys, to be honest with you, are the heart of our defense, and the more they’re on the floor together, the better we are defensively.”
The Cavs usually stout defense struggled against Atlanta, allowing the Hawks to connect on 16-of-38 three-pointers. Atlanta also made 97 field goals, as opposed to Cleveland’s 84.
Rookie point guard Kevin Pangos (8 points, 4 assists), who missed a game-tying three-point attempt at the final buzzer, has stepped into a starting role since Rubio went down, and recent signee Brandon Goodwin (13 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds), who appeared in seven games in the G-League this season, played significant minutes for the Cavs against Atlanta.
“Our guys have a clear picture of who we want to be and how we play,” Bickerstaff said. “We have certain guys that we lean on to do certain things and when they’re missing, obviously it’s impacted. When all of our rim-protecting bigs went down, our defense looked a little different because we’re built on those guys protecting the rim a certain way. So, we had to manufacture and do things a little differently. But from an understanding of who we are as a team, all of our guys have a clear picture of that.”
While the Cavs were without Garland and Cedi Osman, the Hawks were also without several players that have been placed in the league’s health and safety protocols, including Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Gorgui Dieng, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, amongst others. De’Andre Hunter and Solomon Hill also missed the game for Atlanta due to injury.
Atlanta center Clint Cappella finished with 18 points and 23 rebounds, while Skylar Mays added 19 points.
The Cavs have had just about all of their key rotation players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols at some point this season, and Bickerstaff discussed the challenges of deciding when players should return.
“There’s so many different things for each individual that there is no one plan, so you have to take it on a case-by-case basis,” Bickerstaff said. “Obviously, we err on the side of being cautious and making sure that our guys are going to be okay, not only from a physical standpoint but a performance standpoint and then the mental piece of it too. If you bring guys back too soon and they go out there and they’re not ready to play, now their game struggles, now their confidence waivers. There’s so many things that we have to take in mind as we’re making these decisions that we would rather err on making sure that our guys are fully prepared both physically and mentally.”
This season is shaping up to be one of the toughest for any team to navigate, as teams have no control of when a player will exit the lineup due to health and safety protocols. No matter who steps in for the Cavs, Bickerstaff still wants his team to play to its standards.
“We’re always aware of our circumstances, but there’s always standards that we have to play to,” Bickerstaff said. “You’re introducing new guys to those standards. With guys being out, there’s guys taking on bigger roles that have to do more for longer periods of time, so you have to be aware of that as a coach as well. You get frustrated, but you have to understand the circumstances that you’re in and how that impacts a guy. When you ask a guy to do more for longer periods of time, guys have their roles for a reason, and our group has been successful and stars in their role.”
The Cavs will host the Indiana Pacers on Sunday in their second contest of a three-game homestead.
POSTED 12/31/2021 22:20