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Two games played, 127 points scored in the first and a season-high 131 in the second.
It appears this Isaiah Thomas thing might indeed be good for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who ran away from, then held off the struggling Orlando Magic, 131-127, on Saturday night at Amway Center.
Thomas, making his first start as a Cavalier at the point after coming off the bench in his debut in a Cleveland uniform Tuesday against Portland, wasn’t his team’s high scorer, but the difference with him on the floor, albeit in a very small sample size, is startling.
He had 19 points, two rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes Saturday night and was part of the group that piled up 40 points in the third quarter when the Cavaliers built a lead that reached as high as 23 points before holding off a late Orlando charge to record the win.
In two games, Thomas has scored 36 points in 41 minutes of play on 13-of-25 shooting. While the 131 points Saturday night are the most the Cavaliers have scored this season, the aforementioned 127 they put up against Portland are their third-highest total this season.
“I think by being out there, it’s unlocking another level, for sure,” Thomas said. “With me, I’m able to push the pace a little more, get the ball out of Bron’s hands and show the defense something different that they haven’t seen all year. I think with me being out there, it definitely gives us another level that we can reach.
“I know I’m on a minutes restriction now, but the whole time I’m out there, especially when I have the ball, my job is to put as much pressure on the defense as possible. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.”
Now, for some other Cavalier vitals:
- LeBron James flirted with a triple-double, scoring 33 points, to go with 10 rebounds, nine assists, six steals and a blocked shot in 37 minutes.
- Kevin Love backed up James with 27 points in only 28 minutes on 8-of-17 shooting, including 6-of-12 from 3, and five rebounds despite picking up two early fouls.
- Dwyane Wade continued to thrive off the bench, posting 16 points, nine boards, three dimes and a steal in 25 minutes.
- J.R. Smith quietly contributed 10 points, two rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes.
- Tristan Thompson made it four straight solid games in a row as he works himself back into shape after missing six weeks because of a calf strain, scoring nine points and grabbing seven boards in 20 active minutes.
- Rookie Cedi Osman was the first guy off the bench in both the first and second half, subbing in for Thomas. He played 13 high-energy minutes, posting six points, 3 rebounds and an assist. However, his soccer goalie-like heave after a made basket to a wide open Love for an and-1 was the top highlight of the night.
- Though he scored but two points in 24 minutes, shooting 1-of-7, Jae Crowder had the best plus/minus mark of all who played, on both sides — plus-29.
But the big story going in was Thomas making his first start after a seven-month layoff while rehabilitating a torn labrum in his right hip.
He didn’t disappoint.
“Listen to me — (Thomas) hasn’t played a basketball game in seven months, besides the other day back at home against Portland,” James said. “And for him to have (17) in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2 after being off for seven months, that is classified as a professional scorer.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue was impressed with Thomas’ performance as well.
“I thought he was good,” he said. “A little rusty, (but) like I said, making plays and getting into the paint.
“But, as you could see, he’s going to really help us and having 19 points in 21 minutes, missed a couple of free throws, but once gets the timing and everything down, he’ll really help us. I’m happy with the effort he gave us tonight.”
Thomas had several impressive plays for the Cavaliers, who improved to 26-13 with the win and snapped a five-game losing streak on the road, a skid that had reach six losses in seven games.
Midway through the third quarter, Thomas received the basketball on the left wing outside the 3-point line, where he was defended by Aaron Gordon, who led the Magic with 30 points and eight rebounds before fouling out after 32 minutes.
Thomas crossed over to the left, then crossed back over to the right, driving toward the free-throw line, where he executed a perfect hesitation dribble that momentarily froze the ultra-athletic Gordon. That was what Thomas was waiting for and he suddenly burst down the middle of the key. He then went up on the right side of the hoop, felt contact from the trailing Gordon, so he wrapped the ball around to the left side, finishing with a soft kiss off the glass.
Thomas spilled onto the hardwood, landing on his wallet. As teammates Thompson and Kyle Korver ran to help him to his feet, Thomas sat up, clenched both fists and let out a guttural roar.
“It just felt good,” Thomas said of the play through a huge smile. “I feel like I’m getting to where I want to be. I’m still a ways away from where I really want to be physically, but I feel like what I do moves like that, it gives me a lot of confidence to keep being aggressive, to make plays and to get into the paint and do things like that.”
As the Magic (12-28) made their late charge, Lue put Thomas back into the game with less than a minute to play. He came off a screen on the right wing and lofted a 20-foot jumper from the top of the key, which was an airball. However, the always-active Wade, seeing Thomas’ shot was going short, moved along the left baseline, caught the ball in the air and scored on a reverse layup with 17.8 seconds to play to push the Cavaliers’ advantage to 130-125 to seal the deal.
Thomas, who is on a minutes restriction as he works his way back to 100 percent, said he was not surprised to go back into the game.
“No!” he said with another big smile when asked if he was surprised at reentering the game. “I mean, I looked (at Lue), I think it was 40 seconds left, and I was like, ‘I can at least make some free throws.’
“He looked at Steve (Spiro, the Cavaliers’ head athletic trainer) and Steve game him the OK, especially (for) that last 40 seconds.”
But then, there was the airball.
“I’m just glad D-Wade looked out for me with the airball,” Thomas said, laughing.
While that play drew smiles and laughs from the Cavaliers, the same could not be said for the Magic of that one and another that took place earlier in the game.
In the third quarter, James missed a mid-range jumper and Thomas, the league’s shortest player at 5-foot-9, raced in and grabbed the loose ball as no Magic player boxed him out. Thomas passed out to Smith, who then fired the ball to Love, who drained a corner 3-ball.
Those two plays framed the night in a microcosm, according to Orland coach Frank Vogel, whose struggling squad refused to roll over and die and outscored the Cavaliers, 40-24, in the fourth quarter after watching Cleveland put it on his team, 40-23, in the third quarter. The Cavaliers led at halftime, 67-64.
“We talk about it every day,” Vogel told reporters after the game. “We work on it on a ridiculous level, and it’s part of what has to change for us to become a winning team. We’ve got to box out our man on every shot.
“It’s an elementary school fundamental that we continue to break down on, and it hurts us.”
Point guard Elfrid Payton backed Gordon’s 33-point performance with 20 points, 7 rebounds and five assists), while Evan Fournier (18 points, 5 assists), Mario Hezonja (16 points, 10 boards, 2 assists) and Wesley Iwundu (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 dimes, 2 steals) also reached double figures. Center Bismack Biyombo, tasked with the difficult chore of chasing Love all around the 3-point line, had eight points, 11 boards and two steals.
However, the name atop the marquee on this one was Thomas, whose inspired play helped the Cavaliers make it nine consecutive victories at Amway Center.
His assessment of his own play on the night — and perhaps the rest of the season — in pass/fail terms put everything in perspective for the Cavaliers.
“I think it was all right, as long as he win,” he said through yet another smile. “I think it’s a pass.”