How many putrid second-half performances do the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-29) have to be a part of in order to learn from their mistakes? The Denver Nuggets (22-16) are now a perfect 13-2 at the Pepsi Center thanks to a 32-point domination in the paint coupled with a 30-rebound effort in the final two quarters, which erased an 11-point Cavalier halftime lead. A total collapse, sans Kyrie Irving, from the Wine and Gold in the third and fourth periods led to a 98-91 loss to kickoff their five-game West Coast trip.
Going into the game Cleveland knew that Denver would attack them down low, as they averaged 55.8 points in the paint (first in the NBA) and 46.2 rebounds (second in the NBA) going into Friday’s matchup. They also knew that without center Anderson Varejao, it would be tough to counter the energy that Kenneth Faried brings to the table game in and game out. The robust power forward paced the Nuggets with 17 points (6-of-7 from the field) and 11 rebounds. However, it was a career night from center Kosta Koufos and a game to forget for Tyler Zeller and Alonzo Gee that defined the frustrating loss in Denver.
Zeller’s lone field goal came with 1:36 to go in the third quarter, as he finished with a repulsive two points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes of play. Gee wasn’t much better, and his disturbing performance could be shrunk into a microcosm from the 3:40 mark in the fourth quarter until just under one minute to go in the game. Two failed attempts from the free throw line and a missed rebounding assignment off of a Zeller miss (shocker) capped off a more than frustrating night. The two starters combined to shoot 2-of-13 from the field and tallied four points and 10 rebounds.
The meltdown was foreshadowed by a lack of production from the two players who are better suited for the bench in the first half, as Irving and the Dion Waiters-led bench brigade controlled the tempo of the game early on.
A Cavalier that I have been pleased with as of late is Tristan Thompson, and his motor was running at an all-time high from the get-go. On 5-of-6 shooting from the field, Thompson helped the Cavaliers capture an early lead, while accounting for 10 of the Wine and Gold’s first 15 points. Whether he’s bothering opposing defenders, adjusting when given space or following through with forceful dunks, the former Texas Longhorn has done a good job performing his duties to his best ability as of late. With Irving playing sick, someone needed to step up if the star point guard’s situation was detrimental to the team’s functioning.
Although that wasn’t the case, it was nice to have a double scoring threat from the two sophomores. Once Waiters entered the game, a third option on offense opened up. Nine Nugget turnovers in the first quarter and eight points from Dion off the bench put the Cavs up front by seven at the end of one. Cleveland has been an average first half team, and against the fourth-best second half team in terms of points, they needed an almost-flawless start. In one of Kyrie’s best overall defensive efforts of the season, he accounted for 26 points (12 points and seven assists) and logged two steals to tip things off. Waiters scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half, but needed to be more of a threat in the second act due to the disappearing act that Zeller and Gee were putting on.
Danilo Gallinari destroyed Gee in all aspects of the game, and started the comeback at the onset of the third quarter. He scored eight of Denver’s 15 points to begin the third frame, cutting Cleveland’s 11-point halftime lead to just a measly two points. With the Cavs’ bench outscoring their opponents by 20 points going into the final 12 minutes (not a typo), it was the uniform performances from Faried and Gallinari and unlikely outburst from Koufos, which poured into the fourth period, that doomed Cleveland. With the Cavaliers only up four points, you could see things slowly unwinding.
With Thompson on the bench with five fouls – added that he never got things going after an impressive first quarter – it was Koufos’ time to expose the rookie Zeller. The former Ohio State center scored nine of his 21 points in the final stretch, finishing 10-of-17 from the field. Kyrie tried to keep his team in the game by scoring the team’s only nine points from the 8:48 mark to just over two minutes left in the contest. At this point the score was tied, but after an impressive drive from Ty Lawson and a Danilo Gallinari dagger three off of a missed assignment from Gee, the game was out of reach with 34 seconds to go. A horrible night from Gee and Zeller further solidified my thoughts on them as unqualified starters. Irving finished with 28 points, seven assists, five steals and just one turnover.
Cleveland will continue on their road trip with a game against the rapidly declining Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. Let’s hope that the second half woes don’t worsen as the season goes on.