Anthony Bennett gave us a taste of that top pick rationale last night. The Cavaliers looked lifeless defensively in the first half as Orlando shot 59% and dropped 8 three-pointers and 62 points on the Cavaliers. But, Dion Waiters caught fire in the third quarter, and the wine and gold’s pair of first round picks each had scoring binges of their own late in the contest. Bennett scored 14 of his 16 points in the game’s final six minutes as the Cavs locked down the defensive end and beat the Magic 110-105 to go 2-0 on the preseason.
Orlando looked to blow the ceiling off Amway Arena in the first half. They had 28 points in the paint, largely working through Nikola Vucevic, who had a size advantage on the Cavaliers’ bigs on the block. Victor Oladipo, the second pick in the draft, had some Cavs fans sighing with a 10-point first half. Quite frankly, just about everything was dropping for the Magic. While the Cavaliers’ defense was a step slow or late on the contests at times, the Magic were hitting contested and difficult shots as the wine and gold fell down by as many as 18. Offensively, the ball found Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack, and Anthony Bennett a little too much around the perimter, and they racked up the missed shots with Cleveland shooting just 34% in the first half. Heading into the locker room, the Cavaliers were down 13.
In the second half, the Cavaliers looked like a completely different team on the defensive end of the floor. That effort fueled the offensive output, and the trio of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters were the only offensive contributors in a 25-12 run that cut the deficit to just three late in the third. Kyrie didn’t have a very efficient shooting night as he didn’t get his normal foul calls. However, it was Dion that impressed the most from start to finish on this night. Waiters moved without the ball, turned down outside shots to drive to the basket, and looked for his teammates. It all resulted in an ultra-efficient night for Dion which included 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go with 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 assists, and just 1 turnover in 25 minutes. Dion looks a lot slimmer than last season, and he seems like a guy ready to take a big step in year two.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers completed ramped up the defensive intensity, closing off driving lanes, contesting jump shots, and getting their hands in passing lanes. With a whopping 15 steals, 25 Orlando turnovers, and 28 points off those Magic turnovers, the Cavaliers fueled their transition game where they made great decisions and got to the line plenty because of it. Cleveland converted 37-of-46 free throws compared to 14-of-19 for Orlando.
Late in the third, Sergey Karasev got off the bench for the first time in the game, and he immediately brought an offensive spark. Within two minutes, Karasev had an elbow jumper, a pair of free throws, and a three ball to give the Cavaliers the lead. Anthony Bennett, with the five personal fouls (a couple of those on moving screens on the offensive end) and a whole bunch of lazy and clanked shots early in the game, checked back in with what could be described as the Cavs’ third unit. The five man crew of Matthew Dellavedova, Henry Sims, Karasev, Bennett, and Carrick Felix kept the defensive energy going and Bennett’s offensive game appeared out of seemingly nowhere.
Bennett started with a messy, fumbling bucket that he forced into the basket after doing his best “bull in a china shop” impersonation in the low post. From there, he was given space and stepped into a three-ball at the top of the key. AB followed that up with bringing the ball up the court on his own, dribbling to the left corner and firing from mid-range. Then, Bennett went no-huddle and went with a series of quick turn-around against fellow young stretch four Andrew Nicholson. He capped it off with a three-pointer that brought the Cavaliers’ bench to life and gave the team a five-point lead with under two to play. The outburst of scoring was welcomed to not just get the Cavs the confidence-building win but to give Bennett some confidence in his own game that seemed to be missing early in the first two games. It also reminded fans that Bennett can affect the game on the offensive end of the floor from the block and mid-range with an above-average handle in addition to the three-point shot. We’re bound to see plenty of ups and downs with the rook, and his minutes will likely fluctuate. Still, it felt good to see the top pick give us a preview of his potential.
The Cavaliers next play the Bobcats on Tuesday night in Canton.
(Photo: John Raoux/AP)