CLEVELAND — There is life after Anderson Varejao after all.
After learning earlier in the day that their inspirational leader would miss six to eight more weeks with a quadriceps injury, the Cavaliers went out and downed the Atlanta Hawks 99-83 Wednesday night in front of 13,149 fans at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We all just have to look forward,” said point guard Kyrie Irving, who had 18 of his game-high 33 points in the third quarter. “Obviously, Andy’s production and effort and whole morale around the team are going to be missed, but it’s an opportunity for everybody else to step up.”
For one night, anyway, that’s exactly what happened.
The Cavs (9-28) got 15 points and six rebounds from Alonzo Gee, who made 5-of-9 3-pointers, 11 points and a career-high 12 rebounds from Tyler Zeller, who notched his third career double-double, and 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds from Tristan Thompson, who tallied his eighth double-double in the last 11 games.
Toss in eight points, four rebounds and a season-high five assists from 6-foot-7 backup point guard Shaun Livingston and the Cavs halted a six-game losing streak at home, where they won for the first time since beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 11.
With a grueling five-game road trip set to begin Friday in Denver, it was exactly the kind of win Cleveland needed at The Q, where it is just 4-12.
“We’ve proven we can play with anybody in the league,” Irving said. “We just have to put a full 48 minutes together. That’s our problem right now.”
Save for poor defense in the first period, when Atlanta made 13-of-19 shots, and a lull early in the third period, when they were outscored 11-2, the Cavs displayed pretty decent consistency on a night when it wouldn’t have been shocking if they had been flat, given the Varejao news and the fact starting shooting guard C.J. Miles missed the game with back spasms.
“We talked before the game about just having fun,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said. “Let’s go out there and have fun and just play hard and see what happens. Play hard, play together and play smart. If we can do those three things, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
The Hawks (20-14), who were called soft by coach Larry Drew after losing in Minnesota on Tuesday, seemed intent on proving their mentor correct against the Cavs.
Forwards Al Horford and Josh Smith took turns chucking horrible-looking shots, with each recording an attempt in the fourth quarter that fell so short of the rim it looked like it had been launched into a 40-mph headwind. Smith’s came on a free throw, Horford’s on a jumper.
Cleveland, meanwhile, came out with a sense of urgency it often lacks at home.
The Cavs made 7-of-10 3-point attempts in the first quarter — Gee was already 4-for-7 from long range and had hoisted nine shots overall — but led just 29-28 because they allowed the Hawks to connect at a .684 clip from the field.
Cleveland cooled off in the second period, but outscored Atlanta 20-12 to go up 49-40 at the half because its defense tightened considerably.
With the poor-shooting Smith jacking up left-handed set shots from here, there and everywhere, the Hawks went 7-for-22 from the field in the second period.
It looked like the Cavs were going to go through their traditional collapse when Atlanta opened the third quarter with an 11-2 run to tie the game at 51, but Cleveland came right back with an 11-2 spurt of its own.
Irving was sensational all night, hitting 11-for-15 from the field, 5-of-6 3-pointers and all six of his free throws. He was particularly impressive in the third, when he made 6-of-8 shots, 2-of-3 threes and four free throws.
“He was aggressive, but I didn’t think he was out of control,” Scott said. “I didn’t think he took any bad shots. I felt he really let the offense kind of come to him.”
The outburst gave the second-year pro 31 points, and he was able to sit half the final period as the Cavs improved to 4-8 without Varejao.
Cleveland is only 5-20 with Varejao, but that mark is skewed by the fact Irving missed 11 of those games and the Cavs went 2-9.
“We all had to step up for Andy,” Irving said. “We were all aware of that.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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