ATLANTA — That’s what they call grit and grind.
The undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers, in the midst of their most grueling road trip of the season and riding a two-game losing skid, rallied from 15 points down in the second half to stun the rising Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, 96-91.
For months, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has preached about a specific Cavaliers identity. Saturday showcased it.
“When we came into the locker room at halftime from our coaches meeting, we asked what they thought, and we got their opinion,” Bickerstaff said following the game. “They said that they had already discussed it. They knew what we needed to do. They knew we needed to move the ball. They knew we needed to play together. They knew we needed to scrap. My challenge to them was then to take words to action. Those things are easy to say but much more difficult to do. And they went and they took words to action.”
No Kevin Love. No Isaac Okoro. No Dylan Windler. No Kevin Porter Jr. No Matthew Dellavedova. Another slow start, which led to a 15-point hole on the road against a superior team that had won four of its first five games and was coming off a massive win the night before in Brooklyn. Three-point shots weren’t falling early. There were size mismatches all over the court. But none of it mattered. Bickerstaff’s message following Thursday’s loss to Indiana, the one about handling in-game adversity, clearly echoed.
The determined Cavs didn’t allow frustration to get the better of them. Instead, they kept believing, fighting and pushing. Suddenly, it was a two-possession game at the start of the fourth quarter. Then, Cleveland finally got over the hump, nudging in front at the 9:47 mark.
Even when the Hawks tied the game with a Bogdan Bogdanovic triple in the final minute, the Cavs stuck together, calmly ran their offense and flipped the ball to their most prolific scorer, Collin Sexton, who broke the tie — a cold-blooded 3 with 27.2 seconds remaining.
“He’s a walking bucket,” Bickerstaff said. “There are certain people who have a knack for putting the ball in the basket all sorts of ways. The kid is not afraid of the biggest moments. When we needed a basket, he went and manufactured a basket, and that’s a unique skill. We ought to praise that skill because it helps you on nights like this. We were struggling from the field, having a hard time scoring, guys are scrapping and fighting, but we couldn’t get it going on the offensive end so it was great to have a weapon like that that can go get a bucket on demand.”
Sexton scored a game-high 27 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, half of Cleveland’s output. He is the first player with at least 20 points in each of the Cavs’ first six games of a season since LeBron James in 2004-05. Sexton’s the fourth player to accomplish the feat in franchise history, joining James, Austin Carr and Bingo Smith.
“It’s definitely important for Collin to get going on offense the right way,” JaVale McGee said. “Making sure he’s shooting the right shots. He’s definitely getting better and better at knowing where to pick his spots to get in his bag and really get his shots off, and then when to pass it and when to take over.”
McGee provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 14 points to go with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“I thought JaVale was unbelievable defensively,” Bickerstaff said. “He came in and showed our guys what it looks like to be a winner. He made plays down the stretch, and what that did was it elevated people to want to go and compete and scrap with him. Everybody that was on that floor saw him and took the challenge of their own because they didn’t want to be the guy that wasn’t doing the job.”
Andre Drummond recorded his sixth straight double-double, with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Cedi Osman, back in his new reserve role, poured in 11 points.
With the Hawks playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Bickerstaff spoke about the importance of getting off to a quick start, hoping to take advantage of Atlanta’s tired legs. Even though that didn’t happen, the Cavs’ kept the pressure on all night — and cranked it up more over the final 24 minutes — until the league’s most prolific offense uncharacteristically relented, scoring just 35 points.
It’s the first time all season the Hawks have been held below the 100-point threshold. All-Star point guard Trae Young, the engine of the offense who entered the night ranked third in scoring, was pestered into a 16-point night on an inefficient 6-of-16 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3-point range.
“They put up 35 on us in the first quarter and then for the rest of the three quarters of the game, for 36 minutes of basketball, we held them to 53 points,” Larry Nance Jr. gloated. “That’s unheard of. That’s unheard of. Like we keep saying, that’s what we gotta hang our hats on every night. If you play defense, there’s no game you’re out of.”
Last Sunday’s win against Philadelphia punctuated a surprising opening week. But the Cavs have looked different since. In part, because they are. Even shorthanded, missing some key rotation pieces, they have the same DNA, the one Bickerstaff is trying to instill in his short-handed group: Grit and grind.
It’s how the culture starts to change.
The Cavs will head to Orlando for two straight games. The first is on Monday, with tipoff set for 7 p.m.
New Cavs face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Cavaliers-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NBA proceeds donated to charity.
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