CLEVELAND — The struggling Cavaliers beat a bad and shorthanded Orlando Magic team Thursday night, but not before doing their darnedest to beat themselves.
Losers of four straight and nine of their last 12 coming in, the Cavs led by 23 points in the second quarter and by 20 at halftime, but fell behind late before pulling out an ugly 104-103 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We’re in Strugglesville,” four-time league MVP LeBron James said in a quiet locker room.
The Cavs (27-17) were either great or terrible in this one, scoring 67 points in the first half and 37 in the second. They had 19 assists over the opening two quarters and three after intermission. They made six of their first seven 3-point attempts and went 4-for-27 after that.
And they did it against a now 13-32 Orlando team that was without starting center Nikola Vucevic (fractured hand) and key reserve Arron Afflalo (suspended).
“We got stagnant on offense,” said Cleveland point guard Isaiah Thomas, who had a game-high 21 points on 6-for-15 shooting. “We didn’t move the ball side to side in the second half, for whatever reason. And then the shots we did get, some of which were good shots, we were missing.
“We’ve got to eliminate those lapses we’re having. They’re hurting us.”
James finished with 16 points for the Cavs, but went just 2-for-8 at the line. In the closing minutes, he also took a bad step-back 3-pointer that was way off the mark and committed one of his six turnovers while trying a cross-court pass out of a double team.
“We want to play better,” he said. “We know we have the ability, but right now we’re struggling.”
Kevin Love had 12 points and 11 boards for the Cavs, Dwyane Wade had 11 points off the bench and Jae Crowder and Jeff Green had 10 apiece. Derrick Rose, who was playing for the first time since Nov. 7, had nine points in 13 minutes.
But Cleveland committed 19 turnovers that cost it 27 points, resorted to playing isolation basketball late in the game and appeared totally disinterested to start the second half.
“We’re glad we won,” Green said, “but we can’t be lackadaisical.”
The Cavs, who would have been in much worse shape late in the game if Orlando’s Evan Fournier had made two wide-open 3-pointers, fell behind for the first time when Shelvin Mack hit a 13-footer to put the Magic up 103-102 with 31.5 seconds left.
Love then missed a dunk while appearing to draw heavy contact on one of the few late possessions where the Cavs actually executed a play, but the rebound bounced long and the Cavs retained possession.
Thomas then managed to draw a foul with 11.2 seconds on the clock and made both free throws to put Cleveland up 104-103.
Orlando’s Elfrid Payton missed a twisting jumper in the lane and teammate Bismack Biyombo was unable to convert a tip, with a whistle blowing with 0.2 seconds left when the ball appeared to go out of bounds.
After a lengthy review, the officials ruled Cleveland’s Thomas was not out of bounds when they thought the ball had touched him. That inadvertent whistle resulted in a jump ball at midcourt, basically ending the game and averting what would have been a terrible Cleveland loss.
“We’ve always had lapses like this,” Love said of the Cavs’ annual January swoon. “(Coach Tyronn Lue) preaches to us to keep chasing the game and good things will happen.”
The Cavs were absolutely putrid in being outscored 33-17 in the third period. At one point it was actually 33-13, as the Magic tied the game at 80 with 49.2 seconds left before Cleveland scored the final four points (and first five of the fourth to go back up nine).
The stagnant Cavs made just 6-of-20 shots in the period, while previously lifeless Orlando went 13-for-21 as boos rained down from the crowd.
Lue didn’t help matters, as he waited until the 4:05 mark of the third to make his first substitution.
“Not playing through the game for 48 minutes hurt us tonight,” Lue said in what has become a familiar refrain.
The first half was as good as the second half was bad. With 10 players making solid contributions, including the previously invisible J.R. Smith, the Cavs were up 67-47 at halftime.
The normally slow-starting Cavs stormed out of the gate, making six of their first seven 3-point attempts to take a 26-12 lead with 4:38 left in the opening period.
Smith hit a three from the right corner on Cleveland’s first possession, added another soon after and recorded the 2,000th assist of his 14-year career with a behind-the-back pass to James, then contributed nothing the rest of the night.
“The same way we got the lead in the first half, you have to do the same thing in the second half,” Lue said. “Don’t get comfortable because these teams keep playing hard. They’re young and they don’t know any better. They’re not going to give up and give in.
“Just for 48 minutes, you have to play the game the right way, continue to trust and move the ball like we did in the first half, and the game will take care of itself.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.
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