The Cleveland Cavaliers were in need of a win. After two losses in a row -- including a blowout defeat to the Wizards on Sunday -- even J.R. Smith was calling his team's effort into question. And while the Cavaliers didn't come out firing to play their best game of the season, they upped the intensity down the stretch behind LeBron James and a game-saving block from Tristan Thompson to pick up a 100-96 win over the Indiana Pacers.
James had 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting with five rebounds and four assists, plus Kyrie Irving added 22 points, but it wasn't all roses for the Cavaliers, who fell asleep on both sides of the ball for spells on a night they needed a big effort. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they were able to lock down the Pacers in the final minutes. That's when they attacked and swarmed defensively. Thompson -- who was especially great in the fourth quarter with 10 points, seven rebounds and a block -- cinched the win with his swat of George Hill's tough drive to the hoop.
Paul George had 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the loss. He also had a three-point shot taken away after review in the fourth quarter that killed the Pacers' momentum. Indiana couldn't take advantage on a night when it had multiple opportunities to pull away.
Every game has its ebbs and flows and no team plays consistently well for 48 minutes, but the Cavaliers were miserable defensively for multiple stretches. In the first half, Irving fell asleep on defense multiple times and struggled to guard the pick-and-roll when working with Kevin Love. The Cavaliers lost track of the Pacers on too many occasions. Granted this is a broken play, but no one was even close to boxing out Chase Budinger on this put-back dunk.
The Cavaliers did tighten the defense in the second half, and notably in the final minutes. While the defense has been a question mark, the offense has moved at a quicker pace under new coach Tyronn Lue when it's at its best. That offense was nonexistent against the Pacers -- they went scoreless for nearly three minutes in the fourth quarter. They were able to pull away from the Pacers because of the intensity on the defensive end of the court and with James barreling to the hoop.
Make no mistake about it, the Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. It is fair to be concerned, however. Come playoff time, they won't be able to coast by on spurts of strong play. If they want to win a title, they need to find consistency on both sides of the court.
2 other things we learned
The legend of the Boston Celtics' late-game heroics is growing
Trailing the Utah Jazz by one with 42 seconds to play, the Celtics needed a big play -- which happens to be coach Brad Stevens' specialty. The Celtics ran a beautiful set with Jae Crowder getting a wide open look from three -- and he nailed it.
Brad Stevens gets his guys an open look with game on line Every. Friggin. Time. pic.twitter.com/NrBsGsPkUe— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) March 1, 2016
Avery Bradley blocked Gordon Hayward on the next possession and the Celtics held on for a 100-95 win.
The Celtics are building a name for themselves as world-beaters in the final minute -- the opposite of which was true earlier this season. Stevens can get good looks for his players when he has the time to set up plays. Remember Bradley's game-winner in Cleveland? The Celtics continue to improve. They look capable of challenging anyone in the East, even the Cavaliers.
The Houston Rockets' inability to beat bad teams could ruin their season
With the Jazz losing to the Celtics, the Rockets had a chance to pad their lead over Utah in the race for the eighth playoff spot in the West. Instead, a 128-121 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks dropped the Rockets to 29-31, which keeps them a half-game ahead of the Jazz for that eighth spot. It was a brutal loss to the Bucks, who ran circles around the Rockets defense. Jabari Parker had 36 points to lead Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo also had a triple-double with 18 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists.
For the Rockets, it was another loss to a team with a losing record. The Rockets are 17-12 against teams below .500 this year -- they were 34-5 last season in those games, per David Weiner. The Rockets have been an anomaly all season, appearing at moments to be a playoff team, but a truth is emerging through 60 games: Houston isn't going to make a run. They're going to show signs of brilliance for moments, but this is a mediocre team.
Play of the night