CLEVELAND — With no Kyrie Irving and no Jarrett Jack, the Cavaliers appeared to have no chance Sunday night against the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers did in fact improve their NBA-best record to 27-6, but they had to work extremely hard to post an 82-78 victory in front of 17,502 fans at Quicken Loans Arena.
“It’s another tough loss,” said sixth man Dion Waiters, whose 12 straight points sparked a fantastic comeback in the fourth quarter. “We fought back. We never put our heads down when they went up 16.
“These losses kind of hurt. We were right there. We’ve been right there all season.”
The Cavs (11-23), who lost for the eighth time in their last nine games, were minus Irving (bruised knee) for the third straight game and learned about 35 minutes before tipoff that his backup, Jack, would sit out due to lower back spasms.
That made undrafted rookie Matthew Dellavedova (11 points, 3-for-10 shooting, 2 assists, 3 turnovers) the starting point guard and seemingly guaranteed Cleveland would lose to the Pacers for the ninth straight time.
That’s ultimately what happened, but Cleveland had its chances.
The Cavs trailed 80-78 after Indiana’s Roy Hibbert (16 points, 6 rebounds) split a pair of free throws with 43.4 seconds left.
Waiters (14 points, 6-for-17 shooting, 5 assists, 3 turnovers) missed a 3-pointer, but the long rebound was tapped out by Indiana and wound up in the hands of C.J. Miles, who led Cleveland with 21 points but didn’t score over the final 20:01.
The Cavs called time with 20.4 seconds left in the game and 19 seconds on the shot clock, with coach Mike Brown knowing right off the bat he wanted the ball in Waiters’ hands.
The second-year pro easily got past 6-9 Paul George (16 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists), but was confronted by the 7-2 Hibbert near the hoop and tossed up a wild shot that didn’t draw iron.
“Paul George is a good defender, but I knew I could get by him,” Waiters said. “It’s that next guy you have to worry about. If I could do it differently, I would. I was just trying to be aggressive.
“There was a couple moves I could have did,” he said. “It is what it is.”
Hibbert rebounded Waiters’ miss and was fouled with 7.9 seconds left, but only managed to split a pair of free throws to put Indiana up 81-78, leaving the Cavs with one last chance.
Brown called back-to-back 20-second timeouts because his players weren’t in the proper position the first time, then Dellavedova inbounded to Earl Clark, who promptly stepped on the sideline with 6.9 seconds to go.
“It’s a great learning experience for us,” Brown said when asked about his team’s repeated struggles to inbound the ball in crucial situations. “Hopefully, we get better as time goes on.”
The Pacers’ David West (11 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) split a pair of free throws with 5.4 ticks on the clock and all the Cavs had to show for their hard work was a moral victory.
“Our guys competed,” Brown said. “They tried to play the game the right way against a very good Pacers team. We gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Down nine at halftime — Miles had 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting and the rest of the team had 20 on 8-for-34 — the Cavs worked extremely hard and were within two late in the third period, only to watch the Pacers score seven unanswered points in the final 1:30.
Indiana then scored the first nine points of the final quarter to go up 74-58 with 9:39 to go, but the Cavs stormed right back with a 16-1 run to get within one with 3:35 remaining.
Struggling rookie Anthony Bennett had the first four, then Waiters caught fire and scored the next 12.
Waiters went on to feed Anderson Varejao (7 points, 13 rebounds) for two dunks, but the Cavs never regained the lead because they committed five turnovers during their 16-1 spurt and eight in the quarter.
“There were no style points tonight. None. Zero,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Unless you like defense. Our defense was pretty strong most of the night.”
On the night his bobblehead was given to fans in attendance, the outgoing Waiters attributed some trash talk from Indiana’s Lance Stephenson for finally getting him going.
“I’m from North Philly,” Waiters said. “That brings the best out of me. That’s what got me going. … If we would have won, I would have had something for him.”
Small forwards Clark (0-for-6) and Alonzo Gee (0-5) combined for two points and went 0-for-11 from the field in 34 minutes.
• The Cavs were outscored 4-0 over the final 54.4 seconds of the first quarter, 9-2 over the last 4:07 of the second, 7-0 over the final 1:30 of the third and 3-0 over the last 43.4 seconds of the fourth. That adds up to 23-2.
• The Pacers made two field goals and scored eight points over the final 9:39.
• The Cavs shot .342 from the field (27-for-79) and the Pacers hit .364 (28-for-77).
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.