CLEVELAND — Dion Waiters could have been the hero. He ended up being the goat. He was a stand-up goat, but a goat nonetheless.
After hitting a late step-back jumper to put the Cavaliers up two, the rookie had a mental lapse and left his man in the closing moments, allowing Kawhi Leonard to hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 2.9 seconds left to give the San Antonio Spurs a 96-95 victory Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I blame myself for trying to help out too far,” Waiters said. “I left him open.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” he added. “I can’t even explain it. I’ve got a nasty taste in my mouth.”
After four frantic possessions where neither team scored, Waiters (20 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) hit a jumper from just inside the 3-point line to give the Cavs a 95-93 lead with 9.5 seconds left.
San Antonio, which will go into the All-Star break with an NBA-best 42-12 record after winning for the 14th time in its last 15 games, called time, with just about everyone in the building realizing the veteran Spurs would go for the win if given the opportunity.
Cavs coach Byron Scott even warned his team about that, telling his players, “We can live with a tie game and go into overtime. You don’t want to give up a three.”
Waiters got the message, but made a mental blunder when the stakes were highest.
After the Cavs fouled on purpose with 8.8 seconds left, Spurs point guard Tony Parker (24 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists) took the inbounds pass and immediately drove down the lane, to the left side of the rim.
Instead of going all the way to the rack, Parker swung the ball to the right corner, where Leonard was open because Waiters had turned his head and taken a couple steps toward the key.
With no Cleveland player close enough to alter his shot, Leonard buried San Antonio’s fifth 3-pointer in 19 attempts.
“We practiced that 1,000 times, so I knew we’d be able to execute it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If Tony had an open layup, he would have gotten the layup. He beat the guy and everyone had to come in. That (3-pointer) is the alternative.”
The Cavs had one last chance, but Kyrie Irving took Alonzo Gee’s inbounds pass from half court while going away from the basket, lost his balance while being defended by Parker and badly missed an off-balance 20-foot jumper at the buzzer.
“Sometimes it goes good at the end of the game and sometimes it goes bad,” said Irving, who already has five game-winners in his young career. “That’s just part of the game. It’s the law of averages.”
The whole night went bad for Irving, who had a season-low six points on 2-for-15 shooting.
“It was probably the worst shooting night I’ve ever had,” the 20-year-old said.
Of more concern to the Cavs, Irving’s legs again looked extremely tired. A day after saying Monday’s loss to Minnesota felt like “a triple back-to-back,” Irving was taken off the lightning-quick Parker for large portions of the second half in favor of Waiters, who is not known as a great defender.
Irving is now headed to Houston for All-Star Weekend, where he will take part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, the Three-Point Contest on Saturday and the All-Star Game on Sunday.
“The All-Star break is not really a break for me,” he said. “I’m just going to do my best to get some rest and get my legs back under me.”
When the Cavs (16-37) return to practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts on Monday evening, they will do so with a three-game losing streak, though their effort against the talented and experienced Spurs was encouraging.
“That was a tough one,” Scott said. “I really thought our guys played hard.”
Cleveland got 16 points — two more than he had scored over the three previous games — from Tyler Zeller, who added nine rebounds and four assists, but San Antonio countered with 15 points from guard Gary Neal, 13 points and 10 boards from small forward Leonard and 13 points and six boards from power forward Tim Duncan.
Zeller, who was 7-for-10 from the field after going 1-for-5 over his last three games, had 12 points in the first half as the Cavs took a 54-46 lead, but the Spurs scored the first eight points of the third quarter to immediately draw even.
San Antonio’s last two buckets prior to Leonard’s game-winner — a runner by Neal and a 3-pointer by Neal — came after offensive rebounds, while both teams missed a shot and committed a turnover in the closing moments, when neither club called a timeout prior to Waiters making his jumper.
“The one thing we didn’t want to give up at the end of the game was a three,” Scott said. “That’s the one thing we talked about.”
Without being reminded, the 21-year-old Waiters mentioned he also left his man down the stretch in Miami, allowing Ray Allen to hit a 3-pointer in the Heat’s 110-108 victory on Nov. 24.
“You learn from it, but at the end of the day, I hate to lose that way,” Waiters said. “We played hard. We battled hard. We just came up short, and it hurts.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.