CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers haven’t been the healthier team in too many games this season, but they were Wednesday and took full advantage.
Playing a Milwaukee Bucks team that has the best record in the NBA but was without seven players, including MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, Cleveland persevered to post a 107-102 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
The victory left the teams with mirror images in the win-loss column, as the Bucks fell to 53-19 and Cleveland improved to 19-53. With 10 games to play, the Cavs also matched their 2010-11 victory total from the first time LeBron James left town.
Tristan Thompson (seven points, six rebounds in 12 minutes) was back in uniform for the Cavs after missing 26 games with a foot injury, as were Kevin Love, who sat out Monday with a sore back, and Larry Nance Jr. (seven points, seven rebounds, five assists in 23 minutes), who missed five games with a sore rib. Matthew Dellavedova (concussion) and John Henson (wrist) remained sidelined.
“It felt good having that many bodies going into this game,” said Cleveland coach Larry Drew, whose team hadn’t had Love and Thompson in action together since the fourth game of the season. “A couple days ago we had to use a coach again to make it 5-on-5 (in practice).”
The healthy front line didn’t stay intact for long, as Love bumped heads with Milwaukee point guard Eric Bledsoe with 38.3 seconds left in the second period, played briefly in the third quarter and then exited for good with six points on 1-for-10 shooting (1-for-9 3-pointers) and 10 boards in 18 minutes.
“He didn’t seem to be himself,” said Drew, who claimed he didn’t know if Love was being examined for a concussion.
The Bucks were in far worse shape, as Antetokounmpo (ankle), Malcolm Brogdon (foot), Nikola Mirotic (thumb), George Hill (groin), Sterling Brown (wrist), Donte DiVincenzo (heel) and Pau Gasol (ankle) were all out of action.
Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists, while Brogdon is at 15.6, 4.5 and 3.2 and Mirotic is at 11.6, 5.4 and 1.4 in 29 games with Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo will be back soon, while Mirotic is expected to miss two to four weeks and Brogdon is out indefinitely.
The game was tied after three quarters, but the Cavs scored the first four points of the fourth and never gave up the lead.
The biggest plays were once again made by rookie point guard Collin Sexton, who hit a 3-pointer to put Cleveland up 103-98 with 1:42 to play and scored on a left-handed drive to make it 105-100 with 42.5 ticks on the clock.
Sexton finished with 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting, marking the seventh straight game he’s scored at least 23, which broke Austin Carr’s 1972 team rookie record. The only Cleveland rookie to have more consecutive 20-point games is Ron Harper, who had 13 in a row in 1987.
The 20-year old also became the first NBA rookie to have 23 points in seven straight games since San Antonio’s Tim Duncan in 1998.
“That’s what’s up,” Sexton said with a smile when informed he had tied Duncan. “It’s cool. He’s a legend.”
Of moving past Carr, Sexton said, “It’s pretty cool. We got the win against the No. 1 team, so that’s even better.”
The Cavs also got 23 points and five boards off the bench from Jordan Clarkson, 13 points from Brandon Knight, who went over 6,000 for his career, and eight fourth-quarter points and 10 rebounds from center Ante Zizic.
Shorthanded Milwaukee got 26 points and 12 boards from small forward Khris Middleton, 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists from Bledsoe and 19 points from center Brook Lopez, but Sexton stole the show down the stretch for the second straight game.
“It just shows this kid is really starting to turn the corner,” Drew said. “He’s really putting together some good games against some really good teams.”
“He’s a warrior,” the coached added, noting Sexton is the only Cleveland player to appear in every game. “He continues to get better and better and better.”
The Cavs led by 14 early in the third period, but their offense got stationary and the Bucks went on a 20-5 run to go up 67-66 with 5:52 left in the quarter.
Despite nine points in the period from Clarkson and eight from Sexton, most of those coming via one-on-one moves, the teams were tied at 81 after the Bucks won the quarter 34-23.
“We hit a bump in the road in the third quarter, but we didn’t panic,” Drew said. “We maintained our composure.”
The Bucks jumped to an 11-4 lead behind Middleton, who had 14 points midway through the first quarter, but then began struggling to find offense.
The Cavs led by as many as 16 in the second period and were up 58-47 at halftime, then pulled things back together in the fourth after a poor third quarter.
“We knew what we had to do down the stretch,” Sexton said. “They’re a good team. We knew if we made a mistake, they were going to take advantage of it.”
Cavaliers 107, Bucks 102
MILWAUKEE (102): Middleton 10-21 2-2 26, Ilyasova 4-9 0-2 8, Lopez 7-11 2-2 19, Bledsoe 7-19 8-9 24, Snell 3-11 0-0 8, Wilson 1-9 4-4 6, Frazier 0-4 0-0 0, Connaughton 4-7 1-2 11. Totals 36-91 17-21 102.
CLEVELAND (107): Osman 3-10 1-2 8, Love 1-10 3-3 6, Zizic 3-6 2-4 8, Sexton 10-18 1-1 25, Knight 5-12 1-1 13, Nance Jr. 3-5 0-0 7, Chriss 0-1 1-2 1, Thompson 3-3 1-1 7, Nwaba 1-7 2-2 4, Clarkson 9-17 4-4 23, Stauskas 1-4 2-4 5. Totals 39-93 18-24 107.
Milwaukee 24 23 34 21 — 102
Cleveland 30 28 23 26 — 107
3-Point Goals—Milwaukee 13-32 (Middleton 4-6, Lopez 3-5, Connaughton 2-4, Bledsoe 2-5, Snell 2-6, Wilson 0-2, Frazier 0-2, Ilyasova 0-2), Cleveland 11-39 (Sexton 4-7, Knight 2-7, Nance Jr. 1-2, Stauskas 1-3, Clarkson 1-4, Osman 1-5, Love 1-9, Nwaba 0-1, Chriss 0-1). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Milwaukee 51 (Middleton 12), Cleveland 54 (Zizic, Love 10). Assists—Milwaukee 24 (Bledsoe 8), Cleveland 18 (Nance Jr. 5). Total Fouls—Milwaukee 16, Cleveland 17. Technicals—Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, Bledsoe. A—19,432 (20,562).