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Humble Beginnings, Miserable Middle and a Happy Ending
The Cavaliers started and ended the month of February in stellar fashion.
The middle part? Not so much.
Cleveland came into the month with a 9-11 mark – closing out January with a loss against the Timberwolves in Minnesota and opening February with a home meeting against that same struggling squad.
Normally, the month of February is time for the All-Star Break and the Trade Deadline – two perennials that allow teams to reload and refresh themselves for the stretch run. But as we all know, this season was anything but normal. And with the pre-Christmas start, the Wine and Gold worked their way through the month.
That labor of love began encouragingly enough with a tough win over the T-Wolves at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on February 1, tipping off a four-game homestand. Despite the absence of big men, Larry Nance Jr. and Andre Drummond, the Cavs held off a late Minnesota rally behind a 26-point night from Collin Sexton and a 23-point, 18-rebound, five-block night from Jarrett Allen.
Things did not go well from there.
Before welcoming the Clippers to town on Feb. 3, the Cavaliers were one game below .500, with a 7-4 mark at home and trailing the Division-leading Bucks by just 2.5 games.
But Paul George and the Clippers came to town in a bad mood and those same Milwaukee Bucks followed in a back-to-back that sent Cleveland reeling.
George went 8-of-9 from beyond the arc as L.A. shot 59 percent from deep and the Clips clobbered Cleveland by 22 points. The Cavs starting backcourt of Sexton and Darius Garland combined for 50 points in the loss.
The Bucks simply outmuscled the Cavaliers in the first of two lopsided losses – piling up 74 points in the paint in the Friday night decision – and bombed them out on Saturday – drilling 16 triples, with reserve Bryn Forbes drilling all six that he attempted.
J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad hit the road for their first West Coast trip of the season from there – beginning with a valiant effort against the Suns in Phoenix, leading by two with just over two minutes to play before Monty Williams’ squad score the game’s final eight points to steal the win.
Unfortunately, that tight loss would be the highlight of the five-game sojourn, with Cleveland taking it on the chin at stops in Denver, Portland, L.A. and Golden State – dropping the four-game set by an average of 27.0 points per.
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had pedestrian nights, but it didn’t matter as Denver hit its first seven shots, led by double-digits midway through the first quarter and blew the Cavs out at Ball Arena.
Cleveland didn’t fare much better the following night in Portland and despite good games from Collin Sexton and Jarrett Allen off the bench, the Blazers scored 73 points by intermission and coasted home in what would be Drummond’s final game action as a Cavalier.
With not much left in the tank, L.A. cruised past Cleveland at Staples Center, led by then-Clipper Lou Williams’ 30 points off the bench and the Wine and Gold wrapped up the trip with a 31-point loss to the Warriors – with longtime nemeses, Draymond Green and Steph Curry, leading the way over a Cavs team with just nine active players.
The Cavaliers returned home and, after a three-day break, welcomed the Nuggets to town.
Denver only dropped Cleveland by 17 points in this one, but Jamal Murray was a force to be reckoned with – connecting on a jaw-dropping 21-of-25 shots from the floor, including 8-of-10 from beyond the arc, becoming the first player in NBA history to score 50 points without attempting a single free throw.
Things hit rock-bottom that Sunday, with the rebuilding Thunder handing Cleveland its 10th straight loss – nine of those by double-figures – scoring 30-plus in each of the first two quarters and holding the Cavs off after half, spoiling Jarrett Allen’s 26-point, 17-rebound performance, going 11-for-11 from the floor in the loss.
Then … the sun came out.
The Cavaliers got one of their most desperately-needed wins of the season, and it came from one of the most unlikely sources.
Cleveland trailed Atlanta by five with just over three minutes to play, but squeezed the Hawks down the stretch and were within one after holding Atlanta scoreless at the rim in three close-range attempts.
On the Cavs last possession, Sexton fed undrafted rookie Lamar Stevens – who maneuvered around a Jarrett Allen screen and got directly to the basket, dunking home the two-handed game-winner with 4.1 to play, giving Cleveland its first win since the first day of the month.
The following night, the Cavaliers kept the meter running – blowing out the Rockets to wrap up a four-game homestand. Cleveland trailed by a deuce at the half but shot 68 percent from the floor in the second stanza to seal the deal.
Two games after hitting all 11 shots from the floor against OKC, Allen went 10-of-11 against the Rockets to notch his sixth straight double-double. Rookie Dylan Windler hit all four three-pointers he attempted in the win over Houston – one night after going 5-of-5 from deep the previous night against Atlanta.
The Cavs hit the road, but still closed out the month in style – weathering a monster performance from Joel Embiid to drop the Conference-leading Sixers in overtime, getting clutch performances across the board, from Collin Sexton to Dean Wade to Darius Garland to Damyean Dotson.
Garland was especially good, overcoming a tough start to notch 11 of his 25 points in the overtime session, going 3-of-4 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the stripe as Cleveland dropped Philly for the second time.
Overall, February was a difficult month for the young Cavaliers, but they bounced back from their roughest stretch of the season to right the ship and march into March with a winning streak.