INDIANAPOLIS — Larry Nance Jr. led the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers to an improbable 92-91 win on Tuesday night, snapping the Indiana Pacers’ seven-game winning streak with a tip-in at the buzzer.
The Cavs were playing without three of their top five leading scorers — Kevin Love, Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson. They were on the road, the first game of a brutal three-in-four-nights stretch against the Eastern Conference’s third seed. They trailed for a majority of the fourth quarter — forced to use two-way player Jaron Blossomgame to fill important minutes.
Everything was working against them.
Yet, they still found a way, showing the kind of character head coach Larry Drew has raved about during an otherwise dismal season filled with losses.
“This team was hot. They are one of the best teams in the East and they are going to be a big problem in the playoffs,” Nance said following the game. “So getting a win like this, with the type of season and stuff we are going through, is really encouraging. I think it’s big, showing signs of growth with the guys we had down and the way we fought.”
Victor Oladipo’s pair of missed free throws in the final seconds kept the door open.
After his second brick, the Cavs grabbed the rebound and Drew called timeout to set up a play.
Once again, he diagrammed it for Rodney Hood, one of the Cavs’ go-to players down the stretch.
Hood started against Oladipo and then got a screen from Nance that led to a switch against Indiana center Myles Turner. Hood worked to his dominant left hand and took a contested mid-range jumper from near the free-throw line that bounced high off the bracket before Nance tipped it off the backboard and through the net.
The buzzer sounded, leaving the Pacers — and the crowd inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse — completely stunned.
“Got it to the guy we wanted to get it to,” Nance said. “Before we had to get the ball in I told Hood, ‘Hey put it up on the rim with a couple seconds left or at least a tick left so I can see if I can do something with it.’ He made a good move, did exactly that and I was lucky enough to get a hand on it and direct it in.”
With a new-look starting lineup, the 13th this season, and a mashed together second unit, the Cavs scrapped all game.
Each night requires something different. For the Cavs, they needed to make Tuesday as ugly as possible and hang around until the end where a few plays could be the difference.
Given their lack of offensive weaponry, they weren’t going to win a high-scoring game.
The Cavs dug in defensively, holding Indiana to its second-lowest first-half point total (44) of the season. The Cavs played with that same stinginess in the second half, limiting the Pacers to just 47 points.
The Cavs trimmed the lead to just one after Alec Burks’ driving transition layup with 12 seconds left. Then Oladipo missed both free throws.
Nance punctuated the victory with his first ever game-winner in the NBA, giving Cleveland its first lead in the final 6:26 of the fourth period.
Hood led a balanced scoring attack with 17 points. Nance tallied 15 points to go with 16 rebounds and six assists. Burks, anchoring the second unit in Clarkson’s absence, added 14.
In all, six players reached double figures.
No matter the outcome, this was going to be a successful night. The Cavs have spoken all season about being able to live with hard-fought defeats, sometimes clinging to moral victories.
There was no need for that on Tuesday. Thanks to Nance, and Cleveland’s ability to keep the Pacers from separating, the Cavs walked out of Indiana with their most impressive victory of the season.
“Having the group that we had going into tonight’s game, I was a little concerned,” Drew admitted. “Obviously when you lose a guy like Jordan, your leading scorer, where would we get productivity with him being out? As I told the guys before the game, I didn’t expect anyone to go out and try to get it all himself.
“We have to do it by committee, we have to do it as a team. I thought we did that for the most part.”
Nance makes a point
Getting his first start at center after Drew chose to bring him off the bench in the previous three games, Nance showed that he can hold his own against one of the Eastern Conference’s up-and-coming bigs.
The matchup against Turner is not as difficult as most for the undersized Nance. He capitalized, recording his third double-double of the season and filling in admirably for the injured Thompson while bringing the toughness on the boards the Cavs had been missing lately.
“Well Larry was terrific tonight,” Drew said. “Beyond the putback at the end, I just thought he did a phenomenal job.”
The Cavs will play the second game of a back-to-back in Charlotte Tuesday night. Cleveland has split the first two matchups against the Hornets.