Cavaliers lose close battle with Grizzlies 110-106
BY STONE LEXINGTON
CAVALIERS BEAT WRITER
(CLEVELAND, OH) - While the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA this season, they may also be one of the most unlucky teams chasing a postseason appearance.
The Cavs have been hit with players cycling in and out of health and safety protocols, struck with reconfiguring rotations and slapped with crippling injuries. The Cavs, though, have fought to overcome what seems like near-impossible odds, entering Tuesday night’s home matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies sitting at fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The injuries have been the most debilitating blows for the Cavaliers, already losing two of their top-3 scoring guards for the remainder of the season. Last season’s leading scorer for the Cavs, Collin Sexton, suffered a torn meniscus in early November, and backup point guard Ricky Rubio tore his ACL three days after Christmas. Amidst the injuries, the Cavs have tread water near the top of the East, all while starting point guard Darius Garland missed Cleveland’s last four games after being placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Making matters worse for the Cavs, second-year shooting guard Isaac Okoro sprained his left elbow during Sunday’s game against Indiana, and he’ll miss roughly 2-3 weeks. Garland, however, returned to the Cavs lineup on Tuesday from his four-game absence without a minutes restriction, but the Cavs came up on the short end, falling to the Grizzlies 110-106 in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
“Some of our shots, I thought were good shots (down the stretch) that just didn’t go,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “But give Memphis credit for getting the stops when they did and getting out and taking advantage of it in transition.”
In what was a close game throughout, the Cavs (21-17) tied the contest at 104 apiece when Garland dished a speedy pocket pass to Mobley for an easy hook shot with 36.7 second to play. That was the last time the Cavs seemed like they had an opportunity to steal a victory from the Grizzlies (25-14), as Memphis superstar point guard Ja Morant closed the Cavs out.
Morant converted a double-clutch layup off glass over Cavs guard Brandon Goodwin and an outstretched Evan Mobley with 29.9 seconds remaining that put the Grizzlies up 106-104. On the ensuing possession, Morant then stole a Goodwin pass and raced the other way for an easy layup that put Memphis up four. Morant’s two free throws with 16 seconds to play iced the game.
“I think we’re going to be in a lot of games like this, so we have to start working on end-of-game situations, everybody being locked in on the play that coach is drawing up or running for us,” Garland said.
Morant finished with a team-high 26 points to go along with five rebounds and six assists. Jaren Jackson Jr. chipped-in 22 points for Memphis.
Garland led Cleveland with a game-high 27 points and 10 assists, but his shooting seemed a bit rusty, going 9-of-26 from the field and 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. It was Garland’s first game since Dec. 26, and the Cavs were happy to have their promising young point guard back on the court.
“There’s so much more we can do with the ball in his hands,” Bickerstaff said about Garland returning to the lineup. “He’s going to work himself back into it. Obviously, he shoots it better than he did tonight, I think we know that. But it’s just a matter of catching that rhythm, catching his wind and getting his legs back under him.”
The Cavs may have gotten some backcourt help for Garland after announcing on Monday that the team had acquired veteran point guard Rajon Rondo from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade. In the deal, Cleveland sent guard Denzel Valentine to the New York Knicks, while the Knicks also received the draft rights to Wang Zhelin (57th pick in 2016 NBA Draft) and Brad Newley (54th pick in 2007 NBA Draft), along with cash considerations from Los Angeles. The Lakers received the draft rights to Louis Labeyrie (57th pick in 2014 NBA Draft) from New York.
“I think it’s the experience for one, a guy who can lead younger guys, who guys respect,” Bickerstaff said about the acquisition of Rondo. “When you talk about point guards in this league, and you talk about skill and intellect, he’s one of the guys in point guard’s minds that one, they grew up watching so they saw him at his best, but they respect him at a high level.”
Rondo, who will turn 36 years old next month and didn’t play on Tuesday night, played in 18 games with the Lakers this season, averaging 3.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 16.1 minutes per game. He had fallen in and out of the Lakers’ rotation, but significant minutes could be coming his way in Cleveland behind the 21-year-old Garland.
“One thing about our young guys is they’re willing to learn, and they’re willing to ask questions,” Bickerstaff said. “They don’t feel like they have all the answers. When you have a guy who’s come in and has that experience, who’s won championships, our guys want to get there.”
Rondo is a two-time NBA Champion and four-time All-Star, but he hasn’t played more than 20 minutes per game in any of his recent stops in the league (Atlanta, Clippers, Lakers). That could all change in Cleveland, considering the team’s lack of experienced point guard depth.
“We believe he can help us,” Bickerstaff said. “We believe that there’s a role for him here, where he’s on the floor and contributing at a high level. We feel like he complements the guys that we have, and he can make our big guys better, he can play with Darius. All around, it looks like it’s going to be a fit and win for us.”
It wouldn’t have hurt to have Rondo against a Grizzlies team that was without head coach Taylor Jenkins, who attended the memorial service for his recently passed father-in-law. Several Grizzlies players were in health and safety protocols and missed the game against Cleveland, including second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson.
There was a noticeable difference early with Garland back on the floor, as the Cavs shot 62 percent from the field in the first quarter. While Garland scored eight quick points in the opening period, Jarrett Allen was surely happy to have the point guard back in the rotation, as the Cavs center was on the receiving end of several lobs from Garland for dunks. Cleveland led 30-27 at the end of the first quarter, and the contest continued to be closer through the end of the first half.
Memphis led 57-55 at halftime with three players already reaching double figures in scoring, while the Cavs had four players reach at least 10 points by intermission.
Allen recorded his team-leading 19th double-double of the season, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes on 11-of-14 shooting from the field, improving his 2nd ranked field goal percentage in the league. Kevin Love added 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Mobley totaled 17 points and eight rebounds.
Finishing 1-2 on their recent three-game homestead, the Cavs will head west for a six-game roadtrip, where they’ll acclimate Rondo to the rotation.
“We have to find that continuity that we had before the injuries and Covid,” Bickerstaff said. “Our focus on the team and selflessness and our level of competition, that will give us an opportunity to get there. I don’t doubt that we’ll get back there, but it just takes that time of finding that rhythm with guys again, individuals finding their rhythm, finding where they fit within the team, and the changes that we’ve had to make because of injuries and Covid and those types of things.”.
POSTED 01/04/2022 22:14