DALLAS -- Iman Shumpert was giving up seven inches and 25 pounds to Dirk Nowitzki when the Cleveland Cavaliers' reserve guard found himself matched up on an island defensively with the Dallas Mavericks' surefire Hall of Famer as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter during a tied game on Tuesday.
As Nowitzki sized him up, using his pivot to position himself just right at the foul line extended to prepare to launch his patented pull-up jumper, so much hung in the balance for these streaking Cavs -- their 16-point comeback, their seven-game unbeaten streak, their perfect road trip up to that point.
But before Nowitzki could shoot the shot he has swished so many times before, Shumpert short-circuited his plan, reaching in for a clean strip with 3.9 seconds left, gaining the Cavs the possession and eventually forcing overtime.
“We know Shump’s got the best hands in the business,” LeBron James said.
Those hands weren’t done there. In the extra period, while it was James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who combined to score all 15 of Cleveland’s points -- an egalitarian five apiece -- Shumpert once again came up with a game-sealing strip, this one on Deron Williams, with the Cavs up four with 5.6 seconds left, to set up the final 110-107 win.
“My guys, they trust me on one-on-one coverage with anybody in the league,” Shumpert said. “I’ve got to do my homework, I’ve got to know guys’ moves, I’ve got to know guys’ tendencies. Sometimes it’s a guess, sometimes it’s a read. I take my chances on that.”
The Cavs like their chances against anyone these days as they’ve now won 14 of their past 16 games to surge to the top record in the Eastern Conference by a 4.5-game lead over Toronto. As they entered into their toughest portion of the schedule all season on Tuesday -- over a six-day stretch their schedule reads at Dallas, at San Antonio, at Houston (on a back-to-back) and home against the defending champion Golden State Warriors -- the manner in which they beat the Mavs makes you think they’re ready for whatever comes next.
That’s not to say they’ll sweep the next three games of this murderer’s row to extend their streak to double digits while handing the Spurs their first home loss of the season in the process. It’s just that the way they approached the Dallas game seems like a solid formula for success along the way.
No, not the way they fell down 23-7 in the game’s first seven minutes. And not the way they settled for 44 3-pointers out of their 97 shots. But the way it was a true top-to-bottom type of effort. Seven of the nine players to see the court scored in double figures. Everyone took care of the ball, amassing only nine turnovers as a team in 53 minutes. Everyone shared the ball, too, notching 28 assists on their 40 made field goals.
There was the two-man tandem of Matthew Dellavedova (12 points, five assists) and Timofey Mozgov (10 points, nine rebounds, two steals), with “Delly” getting “Mozzy” going with an early alley-oop that seemed to spark easily his best game in a month. “In my mind I was just going, and going again and just tried to play hard,” Mozgov said. “Like I keep saying every time, you in the game can be good or bad, you still have to play hard. There’s only one way. It’s simple.”
And of course, there was the big three, closing things out in OT by combining to shoot 6-for-9, with Irving finding Love for a 3 to start things off and James finding Irving for a 3 to close things out. It wasn’t just any old 3 for Irving, either. James had the ball open for a midrange jumper after Williams fell in front of him, but instead pitched it back to Irving for a 27-foot dagger with 13.8 seconds left.
“He was waiting for the play to develop,” explained Irving, who bounced back from a 2-for-10 start to the game to finish with 22 points on 8-for-20 shooting. “We talked about it afterward. I was just looking at him the whole time. I just had my hands ready the whole time. And just trying to space out, trying to space out and give him enough room to make that decision, and he made the right play.”
Irving added nine assists, finding James (27 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) and Love (15 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks) throughout. And the Cavs came away with one of those nights that makes believers out of a team that spent the first several months of the season wondering when they’d ever find their stride.
“We’re finally whole,” James said. “It took us a long time go get whole and it’s paying dividends to our team and obviously we’re not going to win every game, but we want to go out, we want to play our type of game -- and that’s defend at a high level. That’s come out and move the ball, share the ball, and put guys in position to be successful, and when we do that we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to compete.”