After Glen Davis watched the second of two free throws he'd earned with an aggressive post-up of Tristan Thompson splash through the basket, the Orlando Magic led the Cleveland Cavaliers 78-68 with 1:34 remaining in the fourth quarter on Thursday night. At that point, according to InPredictable's handy win probability graph, the Cavs' chances of winning stood at less than one-tenth of one percent. Six and a half minutes of game time later, Mike Brown's team had just put the finishing touches on a remarkable 87-81 overtime victory without star point guard Kyrie Irving, who missed Thursday's game with the bruised left knee that he suffered on New Year's Eve and is listed as day-to-day. (It's worth noting that the Magic were missing starting center and leading rebounder Nikola Vucevic due a sprained left ankle, too.)
So, um, what the hell happened?
"I still don't know how we won this game," Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao said to Jodie Valade of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "But I'll take it."
I'm sure you will, Mr. Varejao, especially after turning in a team-high 18 points and a career-high 25 rebounds to help make up for Kyrie's absence (and make Cavs fans forget about that mean ol' other Andy) in your 32nd game of the season — the most you've played since the 2009-10 campaign, thanks to multiple frightening injuries. The question still remains, though: How did a 10-point lead with 94 seconds remaining turn into a six-point loss 6 1/2 minutes later?
"We blew it, bottom line," Magic forward Tobias Harris told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.
Well, that sounds about right. Let's take a closer look at how things unraveled for Jacque Vaughn's team and how Cleveland snatched an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat.
1:34 remaining, fourth quarter: "Big Baby" hits two free throws to give Orlando a 78-68 lead. Cleveland win probability: Less than 0.1 percent.
1:20 left: Thompson draws a reach-in foul on Jameer Nelson after taking the Magic point guard to the post following a switch borne of a high pick-and-roll with Jarrett Jack (starting in place of the injured Irving). Thompson, a 66.2 percent free-throw shooter, misses both freebies, but Varejao fights his way through Orlando shooting guard Arron Afflalo and big man Jason Maxiell (starting in place of the injured Vucevic) to the front of the rim for the tip-in:
It's Varejao's 21st rebound of the night, his eighth on the offensive glass, and it cuts the Orlando lead to eight.
"He was a problem for us all night," Vaughn said after the game, according to The Associated Press. ''He's relentless. Give him credit for going hard the whole game."
Cleveland win probability: 0.2 percent.
1:04: Davis gets back to the foul line after diving to the rim off a right-side pick-and-roll with Afflalo. He hits the first, but misses the second, which Varejao rebounds to give the Cavs the ball down nine. Cleveland win probability: 0.0 percent.
At this point, the math said the game was for all intents and purposes over:
Win Prob Graph from Magic-Cavs game: http://t.co/z7R9XJZ9Z2 The Cavs literally flatlined with 1:03 to go and down by 9.
— Mike Beuoy (@inpredict) January 3, 2014
50.6 seconds: After working his way around a pair of high screens from Thompson and Varejao, Cleveland guard Dion Waiters finds himself defended by Davis on a switch. He isolates, hesitates a bit, crosses from left to right and drives, drawing a foul on "Big Baby" near the right elbow that sends him to the free-throw line. He makes both, cutting Orlando's lead to seven at 79-72. Cleveland win probability: 0.0 percent.
30.9: After Nelson runs some clock, he initiates a high screen-and-roll with Davis at the top of the key and heads left off the dribble. Jack and Thompson try to trap the ball-handler, but the veteran Nelson pulls back and looks to his right, where he's got Afflalo curling from the weak-side corner to the right wing, and delivers the ball. Waiters, who had slid into the paint to check Davis on his roll, hustles to recover and contest, but this is still a fairly clean look for a potential All-Star shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range (albeit just 32.1 percent from the right wing) this season:
But the shot went long, catching the heel of the rim to continue a cold shooting night (he'd finish 5 for 15 from the floor) and bounce off to Varejao (rebound No. 22) to give the Cavs the ball down down seven with 27 seconds remaining. Cleveland win probability: 0.0 percent.
13.9: After a Waiters drive sent the ball out of bounds beneath the Cleveland basket, the refs determined that the Cavs should retain possession, leading to an inbounds pass by rookie Matthew Dellavedova. He found Jack, who'd briefly shaken Nelson, in the short corner, and Nelson committed one of the NBA's cardinal sins:
Nelson caught Jack on the right hand as he left the corner 3 fly, giving the veteran guard three free throws. He made them all, cutting the Orlando lead to 79-75.
At that point, as Brown told reporters after the game, he felt his team had a fighting chance. From Valade of the Plain Dealer:
"Fourteen seconds left in the game and we're down [four], still plenty of time if you execute and do the little things as hard as you can," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "A lot of NBA games are one-, two-possession games. If you keep competing, keep showing grit and mental toughness, things can happen for you that are positive."
For the moment, Brown and InPredictable disagreed — Cleveland win probability: 0.4 percent — but what happened next would tilt the math a bit.
After Harris' critical turnover for not being able to inbound the ball within five seconds — a turnover for which coach Vaughn later took the blame for failing to call one of Orlando's two remaining timeouts, according to Robbins of the Sentinel — the Cavs regained possession with no time having elapsed. (Cleveland win probability: 3.2 percent.) On the ensuing Cleveland trip, Waiters blew past No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo to the rim for a layup that made it 79-77, and Dellavedova immediately fouled Magic guard E'Twaun Moore. (Cleveland win probability: 4.5 percent.)
Moore — an 82 percent career free-throw shooter who'd made 19 of 21 to that point this season — missed the first. (Cleveland win probability: 9.2 percent.) Then, needing one more to force Cleveland into a 3-pointer to tie, he missed the second. (Cleveland win probability: 13.8 percent.) Nobody secured the rebound, but the loose ball was ruled out off Orlando, giving the Cavs the ball back down two with 9.1 seconds left. (Cleveland win probability: 15.8 percent.)
9.1: This is where Cleveland would usually call Irving's number, but with the All-Star point guard sidelined, Waiters having shaken off a rough 3 for 10 start to score nine points in the frame and coming fresh off dusting Oladipo, Brown put the ball in the sophomore's hands and asked him to make a play against another stout perimeter defender in Afflalo.
Cleveland win probability: 44.5 percent.
(This is where you would've liked to have your starting center available at the rim.)
Nelson's attempt to answer with a fadeaway corner 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left went awry, and just like that, the game was back to a 50-50 proposition with five more minutes on the clock. Varejao continued to make his mark on the game in the extra frame, canning a pair of midrange jumpers to give Cleveland a two-possession lead, then sealing the deal with a pair of free throws in the final 24 seconds to wrap up an exceedingly unlikely come-from-behind win. For his part, Brown was thrilled that the circumstances allowed the often-unheralded Varejao to shine:
"It's hard to explain his importance," Brown said. "He's like a right guard on the offensive line. He just continues to do grunt work and grunt work, then the running backs go through the line and gets the touchdown and do their little dance, and Andy comes back to the sidelines, gets his rest and goes back and does it again. His importance to us is huge. I'm glad it showed with his numbers tonight."
As Harris noted, though, we probably wouldn't be talking about Varejao's game if Orlando hadn't missed two shots, missed two free throws, committed a costly turnover and had generally just taken care of their business. From the Sentinel's Robbins:
"If we got a couple of more stops out there, then it would've been a different game for us," Harris said. "But it shouldn't have gotten to overtime anyway."
And if any one of a half-dozen or more things had gone Orlando's way rather than Cleveland's, it wouldn't have. It might not have been the highest-profile or flashiest game of the night, but if you're looking for a perfect distillation of that whole "the games aren't played on paper" adage, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example than the stunner that took place in Cleveland on Thursday.
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