Following a three-month surge of excitement in which fans were already talking about championships, the Cleveland Cavaliers were brought back down to earth in their 2014-15 season opener on Thursday night, losing to the New York Knicks by a score of 90-95 in front of a sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena.
Playing flat for much of the final three quarters, while watching the Knicks shoot 63 percent from the field in the second and third periods served as key reasons why the Cavaliers were unable to pull out the victory.
However, the emotions surrounding the return of LeBron James clearly affected the superstar as well. James finished the night with 17 points, struggling through a brutal first half in which he made just one of nine field goals, while also ending the evening with eight turnovers.
James was asked after the game if he was comfortable on the court, given his rough first half. “I got some good looks,” said James, who did acknowledge, “Turnovers got me out of rhythm.”
Commenting on the tremendous hype leading up to this game, James said, “It was very difficult to treat the game as normal,” but noted his own personal situation when he cited the birth of his newborn daughter late last week.
Taking the court in the second half with Cleveland holding a 44-42 lead, both teams traded baskets until Carmelo Anthony connected on a three-pointer with 5:10 left in the third. Following an Anthony dunk there minutes later, the Knicks were held scoreless for the remainder of the quarter. The Cavs were able to whittle their deficit to just three, closing on a layup by Tristan Thompson with just 0.1 second left to make it 67-64.
The Cavaliers had their final lead of the game at 70-69 lead on a layup from Anderson Varejao off a feed from James with 10:08 remaining in the fourth. However, the Knicks followed with an 11-1 run over the next four minutes to hold an 80-71 advantage less than four minutes later.
After Anthony connected on two of three free throws to give New York another nine-point lead at 82-73, Kyrie Irving broke a six-minute freeze on Cleveland field goals with a basket. Irving then picked up a steal and fed to the ball to James to slice the margin to five points with 4:43 to play.
Irving’s driving layup with 1:43 to play would make it 88-85 in favor of the Knicks, but that would be as close as the Cavaliers got. The final blow came on a jumper from the left corner by Anthony over James to make it 92-87 with 25.2 seconds remaining.
After the game, Irving, who led the Cavs with 22 points, gave credit to the play of New York, and offered a reason why the team’s early 31-20 second quarter lead disappeared. “Momentum turnovers,” said Irving. “They’re probably the worst to have.”
Irving also showed no indication that the defeat would linger into tomorrow’s night trip to face the Chicago Bulls, saying, “We just have to wash this off and get ready.”
When the game began, each team had their opportunities to take control. Love hit the first basket of the game, but the Knicks then ran off six unanswered points. The Cavaliers then answered with eight straight points of their own, including threes from Love and Dion Waiters.
James’ first basket came directly off a Love outlet pass with 6:30 remaining in the first to make it 14-8, with Cleveland eventually taking a 21-12 lead for its biggest lead of the quarter. For the rest of the quarter, the Cavaliers cooled off considerably, missing six of their final seven field goal attempts in the quarter. The lone basket during that stretch came on a dunk by Love, who ended the quarter with 10 points and seven rebounds to pace the team’s offense.
Much like the opening stanza, the start of the second quarter began with surges by each team. Six of the first eight points were tallied by the Cavaliers to make it 31-20 before the Knicks put together an 18-7 run that deadlocked the game at 38 on J.R. Smith’s three-pointer with 2:47 to go before halftime.
The Knicks would take a 42-40 lead on a Amare Stoudamire jumper with under a minute remaining, but Irving’s two free throws with 31.4 seconds to go before the break tied the game back up. Irving then collected an assist with just 0.2 seconds remaining, teaming with Thompson on a layup for a two-point advantage.
Varejao commented after the game, “We know that everyone’s going to play hard against us,” but said that the loss could serve as a wake-up call. “It’s good for us that we got hit in the face. We turned the ball over way too many times,” said Varejao.
Cleveland head coach David Blatt made note of the team’s strong play early on, saying, “I thought we came out with energy, but I think we spiked at a certain point.” He explained that lack of ball movement as well as the team’s second half defense were why the team struggled. “We’re good when we move the ball,” Blatt said, then later added, “There’s no reason for us to give up 53 points in a half.”
Blatt took the blame for the lack of production from the team’s bench, saying the flow of the game was the main reason they didn’t see as much action as expected. “That’s on me,” said Blatt.
As Irving noted, the Cavaliers now travel to Chicago to face a Bulls team that will be playing in its home opener after blowing out this same Knicks team in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. ESPN will broadcast the game nationally, which is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. Eastern.