After a brutal loss in Orlando that added more fuel to a fire threatening to burn the organization to the ground, the Cleveland Cavaliers desperately needed a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. They had to work overtime to get it, but it came — as all things for the Cavs do — off the fingertips of LeBron James.
James hit a turnaround, buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper over the outstretched hands of Wolves All-Star Jimmy Butler with no time remaining on the clock, sending the fans at Quicken Loans Arena into hysterics and sending the Cavs to a thrilling 140-138 victory. It was a brilliant ending to a game that saw James do just about everything for Cleveland, finishing with 37 points on 16-for-22 shooting, 15 assists and 10 rebounds — his ninth triple-double of the season and the 64th of his 15-year career — in 48 minutes and 19 seconds of floor time.
James and Butler had been trading punches all night, leading their respective teams’ scintillating offenses in a wild, defense-optional shootout in which the two teams combined to make 40 3-pointers, a new NBA single-game record. Others stepped to the fore in the fourth quarter, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Crawford and Andrew Wiggins canning big shots for Minnesota, while Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and much-maligned point guard Isaiah Thomas answered the bell for Cleveland. In the closing seconds, though, it was the two All-Stars looking to decide things.
James drained a left-wing 3 over a contest by Towns to tie the score at 129 with 45 seconds left; Butler came up empty on an attempted answer, but helped influence LeBron into missing a potential game-winning stepback triple with less than a second on the clock, sending the game to overtime.
Butler opened the extra session with seven points in 121 seconds, staking the Wolves to a three-point edge. But LeBron responded, scoring five points around a Wiggins jumper — including a bulldozing drive past Wiggins — to knot the score at 138 with 24 seconds to go. From there, it was Butler’s turn … but as his former Bulls adversary took a screen from point guard Jeff Teague to trigger a switch drawing Cleveland defender Cedi Osman, LeBron saw what was coming and reacted accordingly, bringing well-timed help defense — a commodity in exceedingly short supply in this game — to swallow Butler’s shot before it could get a chance to put the Wolves back on top:
3 angles of Bron's block on Jimmy, you could see it coming pic.twitter.com/Mmd3MiVtvJ
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 8, 2018
“Jimmy is an All-Star. He was selected for a reason,” James told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth after the game. “He was doing it all night from the perimeter, from the paint. I knew he was going to go iso once we made the switch on our rookie Cedi, so I just tried to keep my weak-side awareness, and I was able to get the block and keep it inbounds, which allowed us to get that play.”
“That play” wound up being a bit more complicated than Cavs coach Tyronn Lue (back on the bench after leaving Tuesday’s game against the Magic with an illness) might have liked, thanks to Cavs guard J.R. Smith recovering the loose ball and taking a dribble before calling timeout, thus rendering Cleveland unable to advance the ball to half-court for one final possession. Instead, the Cavs had to inbound from their backcourt and find a quality look for the win with just one second remaining. So Lue spread his other targets out in the backcourt and the far corner, posted up James at the free-throw line and dialed up the Laettner play. The feed was on target, and James caught, pivoted, stepped back and launched. Ball game.
“Coach Lue called up a great play, Jeff Green gave me a heck of a pass, and I just trusted my instincts and let it go,” James told Hubbarth.
— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2018
Tom Thibodeau and company might kick themselves for missed opportunities here. For all the wonderful things Minnesota did en route to 138 points on 58.1 percent shooting, a few major issues — specific rotations missed; an overall lack of defensive effort/abdication of responsibility that allowed the struggling Cavs to shoot 59.1 percent from the field and go 21-for-41 from deep; Butler closing his dynamite game (35 points on 14-for-21 shooting, six assists and five rebounds and two steals in 46 1/2 minutes) with a regrettable tunnel-vision OT that resulted in him taking seven shots in the final five minutes; Towns (a sparkling 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting and a perfect 6-for-6 from beyond the arc, plus 12 rebounds and two blocks) going without a touch in overtime; having Towns guard the inbounder on the final play rather than roving to try to take away the touchdown pass — cost them a win.
And LeBron. Those issues, and LeBron, who scored or assisted on all 11 Cleveland points in OT, cost the Wolves the win.
James didn’t go it alone on Wednesday; this time, he had help. Smith popped for 20 points, making six of his 11 3-point tries. Tristan Thompson still looks a step slow defensively and not as fierce on the glass as you’d like, but he finished the plays he was handed, scoring 17 points on nine shots.
Veterans Korver (14 points, 4-for-6 from deep) and Green (13 points, six boards, two assists) and rookie Osman (nine points, four rebounds in 21 1/2 minutes, some strong defensive play as a late-game replacement for Thomas) chipped in off the bench. And Thomas, celebrating his 29th birthday and playing his 15th game since returning from a torn hip labrum that kept him on the shelf for seven months, scored 13 points on 50 percent shooting while dishing seven assists in 31 minutes. All of that represents progress for the Cavs, who entered Wednesday having lost 14 of their last 21 games, including eight straight national TV games.
The glass-half-empty take, of course, is that the Cavs finally got decent offensive production from the rest of the squad and still needed a world-beating LeBron performance capped by a heroic shot just to get a win. There’s no time for “glass half empty” when you’re dying of thirst, though; you just drain that glass, grateful for something to sustain you ’til tomorrow. Fans will still hope Cleveland’s front office can find an injection of new talent before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline; the Cavs need to not need all of this from LeBron to have any hopes of truly righting the ship. They needed it on Wednesday, though, and he had it to give, allowing Cleveland to get back on the right side of the ledger and everyone in Northeast Ohio — for one night, at least — to exhale.
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