The Cleveland Cavaliers are league champions, so they really don’t need to care about getting revenge on a Milwaukee team that randomly beat them 118-101 in a November game just a few weeks ago. Still, there was clearly more of a fire in the Kevin Love-less Cavs tonight, and while Milwaukee fell 114-108 in overtime, the loss came with their young guns leading the late charge.
The Bucks fell behind early in the game, responding with a strong second quarter to head into halftime only down 57-53. A back-and-forth second half featuring a lengthy smallball flirtation between both squads led to an eventual Cavs seven-point lead with only two and half minutes to play. Milwaukee closed the gap late on a clutch Tony Snell three-pointer, with a Jabari Parker beatdown of Iman Shumpert on the block tying the game at 100 heading into OT. Milwaukee fought against the Cavaliers pummeling attack, and even had the lead at 108-107 with a minute to go. Then, Lebron James happened. He nailed a three-pointer, and Cleveland knocked down their free throws to close it out after Giannis fouled out with thirty seconds to go.
Jabari Parker was a heat-seeking missile all night, flying towards the hoop with no regard for human life as he finished with 30 points and nine rebounds on a very healthy 13-25 shooting. Giannis was out of sorts most of the night, shooting 5-13, but still wound up with 25 points thanks to a 13-15 night from the free throw line and two clutch threes late. He also tallied 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocks, with John Henson contributing 14 points.
Lebron paced Cleveland with 34 points, 12 assists and seven boards, while Kyrie threw in 28 points. Channing Frye also had 15 points and Tristan Thompson tossed in 10 points and 12 boards.
Cleveland, as is their MO, dominated at the three-point line, shooting 17-40 (43%) compared to the Bucks’ 7-27 (26%). Cleveland actually only shot 41% from the field compared to Milwaukee’s 46%, but simple math dictates why their shots meant a bit more. Milwaukee doubled up Cleveland’s fast break points with 20, and nearly doubled up in paint scoring with 54 compared to 28 for the Cavs, but Lebron nailed a number of clutch shots down the stretch and the young guns narrowly missed a statement win.
Cleveland opened the game as if their loss against the Bucks happened last night. Tristan Thompson was a wrecking ball on both ends, climbing the summit to block a Giannis dunk attempt and finishing an array of shots in close to make it 18-6 at the first break. Cleveland kept laying the wood to Milwaukee with three-pointers from Richard Jefferson and J.R. Smith, winding up with five makes from deep in the quarter. Milwaukee made a run near the end of the quarter after Thompson exited for Frye, and Moose, Teletovic and Parker found their way to the basket at will. Jabari wound up with ten points to lead Milwaukee and Kyrie had ten to pace Cleveland as the Cavs led 35-27 after one. Oh, also Malcolm Brogdon did this:
Cleveland’s three-point extravaganza kept spinning in the second, with an Iman Shumpert three cushioning Cleveland’s lead to 47-29. Giannis re-entered to start the period, but didn’t score his first points of the game until 6:07 of the second, when he backed down frequent agitator and sometimes tackling dummy, Mike Dunleavy, to draw an and-one and make it 49-37. Jabari Parker followed up with a spin move on an unwitting dance partner in Richard Jefferson, and proceeded to sky for a slam between three Cavaliers off a dish from Tony Snell as they cut the lead to 52-45:
Cleveland managed a few more free throws to end the half, but after Malcolm Brogdon forced a tough James Leaner to end the quarter, Milwaukee went in only down 57-53. The Bucks finished the half on a 21-8 run, with Jabari Parker’s 16-point half helping keep it close. Giannis struggled with a mousy seven points on 1-4 shooting, but John Henson chipped in 10 with some snappy tip-ins. Lebron had 13 at the half, with 10 for Kyrie and Thompson adding nine points and eight boards. Milwaukee outshot Cleveland 54%-48%, but the Cavs’ 8-2 advantage from deep kept them ahead.
A Delly three early in the third gave Milwaukee the lead 59-58, their first lead since 4-2 in the first. Cleveland responded, but Delly delivered a stealthy slip pass to Jabari who floated to the basket like Lakitu for another juicy jam:
Giannis slammed home an open court dunk after stealing a Richard Jefferson pass to make it 71-67, and then a smallball battle ensued for the final five minutes of the third. Cleveland went with Channing Frye at center, and bombed the Bucks quickly from deep with a Lebron leaner and easy Frye corner three. Malcolm Brogdon then decided to take a stand, and he gave Lebron a new poster just in time for Xmas:
Milwaukee went with several different permutations of their centerless crew, including a brief stint without Giannis on the court to finish up the third. The quarter concluded with Cleveland leading 84-78.
The smallball affair continued to start the fourth, with Giannis finally cracking into the fourth quarter score after a few scoreless minutes to make it 84-80. Cleveland answered back, and a deep Lebron three put them up 89-80 before Greg Monroe entered at the nine minute mark. Giannis, ever the optimist, took a blowtorch to his frigid shooting night by nailing back-to-back three-pointers to cut the lead to 91-89. Lebron reasserted his dominance with a stepback, top of the key three-pointer over Giannis, but Parker responded with a timely cut to the basket making it 97-93.
Irving came back with an open three after some rapid-fire passing, but Moose answered with a quick post-up bucket on Thompson. Then, Giannis grabbed a Jabari miss and poked his head out from the scrum under the basket to find an open Tony Snell from three. Book it; 100-98 with under a minute to go. John Henson blocked a Lebron James layup attempt, and Milwaukee got the ball back down two with 22 seconds left. Milwaukee immediately went to Parker on the right block against Shumpert, and he simply willed his way to the basket for the tying layup, leaving 15.5 seconds for the Cavs. Kyrie missed the ensuing three and it went to overtime.
Giannis opened up OT with two free throws, but Lebron answered with a pull-up elbow jumper of his own. Parker took old-man Jefferson to task on the other end to pull ahead 104-102, but Jefferson got the last laugh with a pump-fake that baited Giannis into a foul on his three-point attempt before sinking all three from the stripe. Giannis came back with a tip-in and short jumper over Shumpert to make it 108-107, but fouled out on the next offensive play after wrapping up Lebron follwing a Parker layup that rolled on the rim around interminably long. James promptly swished a deep, closer three to make it 110-108 with 24 seconds left. Parker got to the free throw line seconds later, but missed both attempts. Cleveland hit all their free throws after fouls to close it out, 114-108.
- Jabari is strong. Lebron is stronger. After leaping for an offensive rebound over a ground bound Parker in the first quarter, Lebron nudged Parker with his elbow and sent him stumbling away like a blow-up doll before James threw it home.
- Dellavedova was just dribbling the ball up the court casually at one point, hoping to play a little offensive basketball, but Deandre Liggins hounded him like a jackal and wound up swiping the ball from him. The whole sequence felt like an apt changing of the guard for Cleveland.
- Giannis’ early struggles were exemplified by a mid-second quarter possession. After scoring his first points of the game on a mismatch against Dunleavy in the post, he had a similar mismatch on the next possession. He demanded the ball, but after kicking the ball back out, he tried to re-assert his position and wound up just shoving Dunleavy aside and getting an offensive foul. It was emblematic of his game up to that point, and the Cavaliers were clearly disrupting his rhythm.
- I owe John Henson an apology. I said last recap that it’s never a good time for a Henson jumper. That’s probably still true, but he at least hit one tonight. Props.
- Giannis had a lot of close shots spin out tonight. (Shrug) Sometimes that just happens.
- The smallball soiree at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth was an interesting tete a tete between the coaches. Kidd even dabbled with no Giannis lineups, throwing in Mirza as the nominal center. Somehow, that lineup didn’t work quite as well.
- Giannis hit two threes tonight in the fourth quarter, both coming due to Dunleavy helping off him considerably to prevent a Parker drive to the paint and a Monroe post-up opportunity respectively. I’m sure that’s precisely the revenge Giannis envisioned for that Bulls Playoff series.
- Henson was sitting on the bench since 5:18 of the third quarter before coming in with under a minute to go for Greg Monroe with the Bucks down two. He promptly blocked a Lebron layup attempt. Talk about staying ready. What a pivotal play for someone who had been sitting for nearly 17 minutes straight of game time.
- This was one of the most physically abusive games I’ve seen Jabari play. You could see him taking advantage of mismatches constantly, eyeing people up like playthings. He was bullying folks all night long, even the stout figures of Tristan Thompson and Lebron. That kind of confidence is encouraging, and those are the kind of shots Jabari could theoretically have every night.
- Let’s end with this: Milwaukee scored 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Giannis and Jabari scored 25 of those. One of James’ greatest accomplishments in his career is a game five against the Detroit Pistons where he scored 29 of his team’s final 30 points in the final 16 minutes to clinch a win. Milwaukee didn’t emerge with a win, and a late December game is a far cry from the Eastern Conference Finals, but tonight also illustrated that they won’t have to rely on just one person carrying them to the promised land. This is a team far from its potential, but gradually its stars are starting to shine through the murky mediocrity that’s lingered in Milwaukee for over a decade. Statement wins are ideal, but settling for statement performances should be more than enough for fans at this point.