PHOENIX — The Cleveland Cavaliers have made a habit of late when it comes to building big leads against the Phoenix Suns — 20 and 26 points respectively back in Jan. 2014 and Nov. 2013.
Wednesday night’s non-conference affair was no different inside US Airways Center, except for one small detail: the Eastern Conference bottom feeder didn’t let this one slip through their hands.
Spencer Hawes scored 17 of Cleveland’s 37 points in the opening quarter en route to an early, sizable, 15-point advantage. Guard Kyrie Irving was his usual All-Star self with a game-high 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists. And the Cavaliers, who despite seeing their double-digit lead trimmed to as little as two in the third quarter, survived for a wire-to-wire 110-101 victory — their first since the beginning of March.
“They looked like the team that was trying to get into the playoffs,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We looked like the team that just wanted to play a basketball game. We told the guys that after the game. It sounds like a broken record.
“If you let a team score 37 points in the first quarter on your court, they’re going to be hard to stop the rest of the night. If they get their confidence, they can beat you. It’s not like we crushed them in Cleveland. We got killed in the first quarter but happened to make a bunch of three-point shots to get back in the game and pull it out.”
Unlike their 99-90 comeback in Cleveland back on Jan. 26, the Suns couldn’t make up for their woeful lapses that highlighted much of Wednesday’s affair.
The Cavaliers, who came as the worst-ranked shooting team in the league, scored the nets from distance, knocking down 12-of-24 attempts – one off a season-high. Mike Brown’s squad also dominated the boards (51 to 36) and scored 27 second-chance points.
Even when the outcome still appeared to be in doubt during the Suns’ 30-point push in the third quarter, a poor close out, a botched fast break attempt or a missed box out kept the notion of a win at a distance for the home side.
Credit Cleveland for its effort, but Hornacek admitted that it was clear Phoenix was certainly lacking some of its heart and soul without starting small forward P.J. Tucker, who was suspended for the contest.
“Obviously, not having our emotional and physical leader in P.J. hurt us,” said Hornacek. “With all of the loose balls, maybe somebody gets them. It was right from the first play of the game…the ball bounces loose and we took a little stab at it, but that was about it. They got to them quicker.”
Lost in less-than-stellar defeat was the return of Eric Bledsoe, who certainly delighted at times to the tune of 15 points and nine rebounds in 33 minutes of action.
“I felt great for the most part,” Bledsoe said. “I just tried to come in and fit in with the team playing so well.”
Unfortunately for Bledsoe, his return and fit back into the lineup didn’t seem to spark his team from its recent wayward play.
But onto Jeff Sanders’ three pre-game questions:
How does Bledsoe look?
After a hiatus lasting 1,598 minutes and 21 seconds, Eric Blesdoe’s highly-anticipated return lived up to the hype. Not necessarily from a production standpoint, although he nearly finished with a double-double, but it was a welcomed sight to see the first-year Sun not limited by any sort of tangible restrictions.
The burst was there. The vision was there. The intensity at the defensive end was there. But so too was the rust.
Bledsoe played 33 total minutes, including eight straight to begin the third quarter and 10 straight to end the night. The fourth-year guard did a lot of really nice things. His first pass led to a reverse dunk by Miles Plumlee. His first points came on a beautiful drive past Hawes down the right side of the lane. His most impressive two came off a long rebound and full-court drive to the basket.
In between, he dished out nine assists, including several to set up easy looks for Channing Frye and Marcus and Markieff Morris.
“I’m going to go rest and get treatment,” said Bledsoe, who admitted his legs were pretty sore after his first live action in over two months. “Practice isn’t like the game. But it isn’t any bad soreness. Just a little bit tired.”
It showed at times.
The 24-year-old exhibited signs of rust with his shot — hit just five of 16 attempts — and missed a few makeable looks in the paint, but all in all, Jeff Hornacek and Co. have to be thrilled with what they saw out of Bledsoe.
How does the new starting lineup look?
Due to P.J. Tucker’s one-game suspension, Marcus Morris was thrust into the starting five for the first time in 2013-14 and 24th time in his career.
Morris, who entered the game with a career-high six straight performances with double-digit scoring, finished with 14 points and three rebounds, but those numbers largely came playing alongside his brother and the second unit.
Four minutes and 21 seconds into the evening, the Suns found themselves already trailing 11-5, so Hornacek pulled the third-year forward.
The first-year head coach elected instead to run Bledsoe alongside Goran Dragic and Gerald Green, but that lineup didn’t yield any better results, as the Cavaliers’ lead ballooned to nine. The Morris twins reunited to end the frame, but the bleeding didn’t exactly stop.
In the second half, Hornacek went back to the Bledsoe-Dragic-Green dynamic, but a rough opening minute-and-a-half from the latter member of the trio forced Marcus Morris back into the game.
Green finished with his first single-digit scoring performance (8 points on 2-of-7 shooting) since Feb. 4, and quite frankly it didn’t seem to matter what lineup adjustments were made. Very little worked for the Suns in the nine-point loss.
Can the Cavs defend the three?
The Cavaliers gave up 10 three-point shots in the win, though no real fault of their own. While Frye and Marcus Morris knocked down a few that went uncontested, for the most part perimeter defense wasn’t a big issue. Allowing 10 from downtown was more a product of Phoenix’s 36 attempts than it was Cleveland’s charitable defensive effort.
If there was a major defensive problem on the night, it came from the Suns. Coming in, Phoenix was ranked No. 2 in the league in three-point defense. Such noteworthy perimeter defense could not be found Wednesday, however, as Dion Waiters, Hawes, Irving and Luol Deng had no problem raining in triple after triple. While Cleveland cooled down from beyond the arc over the final 24 minutes, an 8-for-10 effort in the first half proved to be more than enough.