CLEVELAND — The first words that came out of the mouth of Cavaliers coach Byron Scott in his postgame press conference were, “Merry Christmas to us.”
After playing in slow motion for most of the night, the Cavs got a big present Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, where they somehow found a way to defeat the Utah Jazz 104-101 in front of 12,124 stunned but happy fans.
“We got lucky,” said Scott, whose team trailed 74-60 late in the third period and 100-92 with less than three minutes to go. “That was a gift, basically.”
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As it almost always is, the key was point guard Kyrie Irving. Just 4-for-13 after three periods, the 20-year-old re-entered the game with 7:26 to play and the Cavs down 12. He scored 11 points in the last 4:25, with eight coming in a 12-1 Cleveland run over the final 2:35.
“My shot was crap tonight,” said Irving, who had 20 points on 7-for-20 shooting, seven rebounds and 10 assists. “My teammates held down the fort.”
Not exactly known as a great defender, Irving also made the play of the night on that end of the court, stealing the ball from Gordon Hayward (25 points, seven assists) — the officials let an earlier bump go — and feeding Wayne Ellington for a dunk that gave the Cavs a 102-101 lead with 56.4 seconds left.
“I’ve got to be a leader out there,” Irving said. “It starts on the defensive end. Now that I’m preaching it, I’ve got to go out there and do it and be the head of the snake.”
The other big key was Utah point guard Mo Williams, who did something he rarely did in almost three full seasons in Cleveland. That is, help the Cavs win a game when the pressure was on.
First, Williams missed an ill-advised 3-pointer with 1:24 left, plenty of time on the shot clock and Utah up four. More critical, he missed a semi-contested layup that spun in and out with five seconds to go and the Jazz down one.
“I’ve never seen a layup come out like that,” said Williams, who missed nine of his last 10 shots in his first action since hurting his thumb on Dec. 22. “I haven’t seen the replay, but that was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a layup, even practicing. I’ve shot a trillion layups in my life, but I’ve never missed one like that.”
After Ellington made a pair of free throws with 2.8 ticks on the clock, Williams capped his 3-for-12 night by missing what was officially called a 21-footer — he was trying to shoot a fadeaway 3-pointer from the corner — under heavy pressure from Ellington.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Cavs (21-40) had matched their win total from last season’s 66-game season and handed Utah (32-29), which is trying to hold on to a playoff spot, a crushing defeat.
“I’ll look at the film (today) and try to figure out how we won this game,” Scott said.
Five teammates joined Irving in double figures in scoring. Tristan Thompson had 16 points and 12 rebounds, Ellington had 16 points on 4-for-12 shooting, Alonzo Gee had 15 points on 6-for-16 and Marreese Speights had 14 points and seven boards.
Last but not least, C.J. Miles had all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the period that got the Cavs back into the game.
“I did my job,” Miles said.
In addition to Hayward, who had 15 points in the second quarter and was sensational most of the night, the Jazz got 17 points and seven boards off the bench from Enes Kanter, 16 points and eight rebounds from Paul Millsap and 14 points from reserve Alec Burks.
Utah was playing without center Al Jefferson, who missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle.
“We have to make smarter decisions and close ballgames,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We need to make sure we understand the sense of urgency.”
Minus shooting guards Dion Waiters and Daniel Gibson, who were out with stomach viruses, the Cavs went through the motions for most of three quarters, but a 36-point fourth period and season-high 12 blocks — Thompson and Tyler Zeller had three each — helped save the day.
“Our energy level, for some reason, just went sky high in the last 15 minutes of the game,” Scott said. “We just started getting into it.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.