CLEVELAND — It never should have been this close, not against this opponent, not on a night in which the Cavaliers once led by 22 points.
But for the most part, the Cavs conducted themselves like professionals and took care of business when it mattered most.
So make it three games and three wins for the defending champs after Saturday’s 105-99 escape job vs. the visiting Orlando Magic.
And if you’re looking for a reason the Cavs were able to hold on, look no further than J.R. Smith.
It was his huge trio of triples late that again proved the Cavs are more than just their famed Big Three.
Of course, most fans already knew that. It was Smith, after all, who lifted the Cavs in their Game 7 win over Golden State in last season’s NBA Finals. If you remember (and you most certainly do), Smith did it with some clutch 3-point shooting in the third quarter.
This time, the stage and the challenge were considerably smaller, but Smith came up every bit as big.
It seemed as if every time the Magic cut the deficit to three points in the fourth, there was Smith, behind the arc, knocking one down.
But he didn’t want to take all the credit. That’s not the J.R. way.
“My teammates set the table for me,” he said.
In the end, Smith finished with 16 points, 11 coming in the final 12 minutes.
LeBron James, also no stranger to important buckets (and he had more than a few), scored a game-high 23 while passing for nine assists. Kyrie Irving added 20 points and Kevin Love 19.
So yeah, the Big Three were on their games. But the hero was Smith, and all he did was do what he does best.
“J.R. made some tough shots,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “That’s what he does.”
Smith missed the majority of training camp because of a contract holdout. He missed lots of practice, and it showed a little in the first two games.
Nothing drastic, but noticeable.
“Unfortunately, I have to use these game as my preseason,” Smith said. “But it’s coming back. I got great teammates helping me in practice.”
As for James, well, so much for the idea of resting the 31-year old superstar on the second night of back-to-backs.
Remember, he played 39 minutes in the Cavs’ big road win over Toronto the previous night. But he hardly looked tired.
In the first half, James threw down a few monster jams, tossed several fancy passes and generally looked to be in late-season form. He also powered his way to a couple scores late in the fourth.
Then again, this was the type of night James and other key Cavs members could have been resting for the final 12 minutes.
Instead, Evan Fournier (22 points), Serge Ibaka (19) and the determined Magic (0-3) kept coming at the Cavs, and the Cavs kept backing away.
“I have to look at the film, but I felt we messed around with the game,” Lue said.
“We took some bad shots and defensively, we let our guards down. They have a good team, but we didn’t respect that.”
Added Love, “I don’t want to say we took a step back, but I guess we got a little complacent.”
For now, though, it doesn’t matter much. The important thing is the win, and from the looks of things, the real return of the man who calls himself Swish.
On this night, Smith lived up to the nickname and the Cavs thanked him very much.
Rookie point guard Kay Felder made his season debut, checking in late in the first quarter. Felder finished with two points, one assist and one rebound in 5 minutes. He also set a nasty pick to help free James for a three. … Lue on Felder: “I thought Kay did a good job. He made some good plays, pushed the tempo and changed the pace.” … Chris Andersen, Richard Jefferson and Mike Dunleavy scored six apiece off the Cavs’ bench. … Former Cavs and Canton Charge center Arinze Onuaku did not get in the game for the Magic. … This marked the Cavs’ 15th straight win over the Magic. “It’s not always going to be perfect early,” said Magic coach Frank Vogel. “We’re remaining confident.” … Next up for the Cavs: James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Tuesday at The Q.