The Cavaliers outscored the Knicks by 22 points before the small forward tripped over his own feet and re-injured his troublesome right knee midway through the second quarter, then promptly got outscored by 27 with the league’s leading scorer sidelined for the night.
Figure out the easy math — don’t bother with the extremely high improbability — and the Cavs let one slip away in front of 19,784 fans at Quicken Loans Arena, falling 102-97 to the never-say-die Knicks.
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“He went out and they regrouped,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said. “Maybe we looked at that and took a big exhale and thought, ‘We’ve got them.’”
The Cavs (20-40) were leading 52-30 and shooting an incredible 81.5 percent from the field (22-for-27) before Anthony exited with 6:42 left in the first half.
Without their leader, the Knicks (36-21) immediately went on a 10-0 run to get within 12. They got as close as nine before trailing 61-49 at halftime, at which point the Cavs were still shooting 68.4 percent (26-for-38) and had 20 assists.
Cleveland then bricked its first nine shots of the third period while getting outscored 10-0 and 12-1. Its first point came on a free throw by Tristan Thompson with 7:32 left, its first field goal on an Alonzo Gee dunk at 5:22.
“We didn’t seem to have the same energy,” Scott said. “You know you’re playing against a veteran team. They’re not going to panic.”
The younger Cavs might have just a bit, but even with rookie starters Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller sidelined due to illness, they were in the game right until the end.
“We’re not that good yet to be able to turn that switch on and off,” reserve C.J. Miles said.
The biggest basket of the night was probably an off-balance Jason Kidd 3-pointer that put the Knicks up 97-91 with 1:36 to go, but there were several other key moments after that.
New York, which did not have a starter score in double figures but whose bench outscored Cleveland’s 70-21, was clinging to a 99-97 lead when Thompson blocked a layup attempt by Raymond Felton out of bounds with 12.9 seconds left in the game and 3 seconds on the 24-second shot clock.
Following a timeout, 6-foot-11 Amar’e Stoudemire (22 points, 10-for-15 FG), who was defended by the 6-6 Gee most of the fourth quarter, missed a jumper from the corner.
New York’s Tyson Chandler tipped the ball out, forcing the Cavs to foul Kidd with 6.0 ticks on the clock. Kidd split two free throws to make it a three-point game and the Cavs used their final timeout, a 20-second one.
When play resumed, Miles inbounded to Kyrie Irving, who, because of a switch, was being defended by the long-armed, 7-1 Chandler.
Irving, who almost never passes in end-of-game situations when the Cavs are down, tried to shoot a leaning 3-pointer, but Chandler, who was on the 6-3 point guard’s right shoulder, easily and cleanly blocked the attempt, though the 20-year-old apparently didn’t see it that way.
“Tyson supposedly got a fair block on that play,” said Irving, who had 22 points, five rebounds and six assists in 36 minutes after missing three games with a minor knee injury.
Asked if he thought he was fouled, Irving said, “It doesn’t matter now.”
New York’s J.R. Smith (18 points, 6-for-17 FG) rebounded Irving’s miss and was fouled with 0.7 seconds left, making two free throws to complete his team’s 32-23 scoring advantage in the fourth quarter and 53-36 edge in the second half.
“We got the ball in Kyrie’s hands,” Scott said. “That’s what we wanted. Tyson did a real nice job of getting a piece of the ball.”
After going 26-for-38 from the field and passing for 20 assists in the first half, the Cavs were just 11-for-35 in the second (.314), when they had five assists.
Luke Walton, who had nine assists in the first half, finished with a career-high 12, but the four Cleveland starters not named Irving — Wayne Ellington started in place of Waiters and Marreese Speights played for Zeller — combined for one in 120 minutes.
“We moved the ball (in the first half),” Scott said. “The energy was great. We were flying around. We didn’t do that in the second half.”
Instead, the Cavs jacked up contested jumpers, with Speights the perfect example of how quickly those can stop falling.
After going 10-for-10 from the field and tying his Cavs career high with 21 points in the first half, Speights had two points and went 0-for-4 from the field in the second.
“I thought we stopped attacking,” Scott said. “We were settling for jump shots.”
The Knicks did that as well, but that’s their game. They went 7-for-11 on 3-pointers in the pivotal fourth quarter, when Steve Novak (15 points) made three and Kidd (12) knocked down two.
“They live and die from that (3-point line),” Scott said. “That’s where they’re tough.”
It was a tough loss for Irving, who in the first quarter became the ninth player in league history to reach 2,000 career points before the age of 21, and the Cavs, who dropped their second straight.
“It’s human nature,” Irving said when asked if the Cavs let off the gas when they got the 22-point lead. “That goes back to a learning experience for our team.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.