PF Kevin Love was effervescent on the sidelines leaping in the air with childlike glee, both of his hands on the shoulders of SG Darius Garland who was equally enjoying the spectacle. It was PG Collin Sexton, who effortlessly floated a three over Kyrie Irving with 1.5 seconds remaining to send the game into double overtime, who had whipped up the Cavaliers bench into a state of hysteria. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Sexton was about to put them into a frenzy-induced coma with what he conjured up over the five minutes.
The one they call “Young Bull” sank four treys and accounted for 15 of the Cavs 20 points in the second period of overtime. As Cedi Osman put it: “he played out of his mind”. It was his first game back after missing the last five games with a troublesome ankle injury. There were no signs of rust, as Sexton needed just 38 minutes to ball out and rack up 42 points on 16-29 shooting (5-11 from three) to go with five dimes, five boards, two steals and a sensational block of SF Kevin Durant who though he was sailing for an easy one-handed jam. If you weren’t already bought into the Collin Sexton hype train, chances are you’re a pious believer, now.
Wednesday’s game was the first for Brooklyn with Harden, KD and Irving all starting after Kyrie had missed the previous seven games. The Cavs, while still missing two of their starters, consigned the NBA’s newest ‘Big 3’ to an 0-1 record.
It became rapidly clear that the Nets, after hitting all 10 of their first shots, were taking Cleveland lightly with their half-hearted effort on the defensive end to start the game. But even when Brooklyn realized they were in for a stiff contest and that this Cavs squad was not going to let up, Cleveland continued to run through the Nets D like a buzz saw. Aside from Sexton’s heroic performance, Cedi Osman had a hot hand going off for 25 points, including four triples, to go with seven boards and seven assists.
The other story of the game was the discrepancy between the two teams’ benches. Brooklyn’s lack of depth was severely exposed as their reserves scored just 10 points, despite, collectively, playing 72 minutes. The Cavs, on the other hand, scored 44, all while still missing key bench players. Former Nets, C Jarrett Allen and PF Taurean Prince made their Cleveland debuts off the bench and combined to go 11-19 from the field – Prince nailing three of five three-point attempts – while hauling in 18 rebounds to go with five blocks. SG Damyean Dotson, the only other player to get minutes off the Cavs bench and is becoming a quick fan favorite, hit a trio of triples to finish with 15 points.
It was a complete team performance from the Cavaliers, who are still without all-star forward, Kevin Love, and their starting point guard, Darius Garland. As a team, the Cavs shot 51% from the floor and 50% from three. Even without their point guard, the ball movement was scintillating at times, a feature that fans are becoming accustomed to when watching the Cavs and the team tallied up 29 total assists. J.B Bickerstaff’s imprint on the team, defensively, also continued to bear fruit as the Cavs were able to make it difficult for the Nets to move the ball around effectively and get uncontested shots. The Nets, who lead the league in field goal percentage as a team, were held to just 45% shooting from the field and just 36% from three. Shooting marks that are well below their season averages as a team, 49% and 40%, respectively. The Cavs also managed to win the twin important battles in the paint and on the glass.
But the headline of the game and rightfully so was the triumphant return of Sexton to the lineup who lit it up against and defeated, the new favorites to come out as champions of the East. You couldn’t help but notice the similarities in style between Sexton and the player guarding him – Kyrie Irving. Both are tremendous at driving to the hoop. And Sexton’s shooting prowess has taken a huge leap as he is averaging 53% from the field and a stratospheric 50% from three. Sexton is finally experiencing his breakout year and must be a strong contender to make his first All-Star Game, this season.
This Cavs team is special.
Even with all the injury woes, they have managed to be competitive and win games while playing the entire season shorthanded, so far. They are now 7-7, good enough for the sixth seed in the conference (way early to be looking at that, I know) and look every bit like a playoff team. Once they get healthy – Darius Garland could make a return on Friday night, or against the Celtics on Sunday – there is no limit to what they can achieve. The Cavs are fluid and dynamic on offense. They have players with diverse skillsets: some are great shooters, others are fierce in the paint, or possess a unique ability to attack the hoop with finesse, while many are huge assets on the defensive end.
All this makes Cleveland very difficult to defend and just as difficult to score on. The Cavs are currently second in the league in defensive efficiency and scoring defense. They have the league leader in steals (Nance Jr.) and rebounds (Drummond). You couldn’t help but think last night’s contest could be a preview of a postseason series matchup. Whether the Cavs meet the Nets in the playoffs, or not, it is becomingly startling evident that Cleveland is a playoff contender again.
This is the most excited many fans have been for a LeBron-less Cavaliers team. But this squad is built entirely differently from the King James era teams. Although Sexton is clearly the face of the franchise, right now, this is undoubtedly a complete basketball team that possesses a variety of strengths, but very few weaknesses. This is the beginning of something special and it’s time for the NBA – especially Paul Pierce, to take notice and show some respect.