CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Wednesday night, with 32.5 seconds left and the Cleveland Cavaliers trailing by one — another game starting to slip through their grasp in the fourth quarter — head coach Larry Drew could’ve diagramed the play for anyone.
Jordan Clarkson was sitting on a season-high 28 points. Those late-game pressure moments are supposed to be earmarked for rookie Collin Sexton as part of his development. Matthew Dellavedova had a chance to cap a storybook return to Cleveland with a go-ahead basket.
Instead, Drew went to Rodney Hood.
The Cavs recognize they don’t have a predetermined closer. It’s about matchups and feel. Hood had the look early, repeatedly attacking the defense on his way to a 13-point first quarter. But had cooled off as the game progressed. That’s why choosing him in that moment might have had a deeper meaning, especially given what Drew said nearly two weeks ago.
“I mean, the one thing I try to do with Rodney is be that little birdie on his shoulder and just to tell him to stay aggressive,” Drew said. “When I say stay aggressive that doesn’t mean always shooting the ball. That means staying in an attack mode if the defense allows you to get to the basket or get to your pull-up then so be it.
“With the ball in his hands I always want him in attack mode and then allow his natural basketball instincts to take over. If there’s help on his drive then he makes the right pass out. If he’s in the post and they double then he makes the right pass out. It’s about making the right play. When you’re aggressive it does not mean to shoot the ball every time you touch it. It just means to be in attack mode and take what the defense gives you.”
Sometimes that takes a little nudge. The Cavs have urged Hood to be aggressive since the start of the season. They’ve demanded more from him in Kevin Love’s absence.
Admittedly it’s not always easy for Hood to be that assertive. It’s not his nature.
“I’m a naturally talented scorer and people take it as passiveness or stuff like that,” Hood told cleveland.com. “But I play the game the right way. Sometimes I come into the game and Collin is really aggressive or JC is really aggressive and I turn more into a playmaker and try to get the ball moving. Sometimes it’s to a fault.”
Hood looks the part of an elite scorer. A 6-foot-8 wing that can fill it at all three levels, he’s oozing with intrigue. According to early-season NBA stats that haven’t been updated this month, Hood was playing like one of the league’s best as a pick-and-roll ballhandler.
That’s where the Cavs went in that moment against New York.
Hood took the inbounds pass and dribbled a few times near the top of the key before Larry Nance Jr. scrambled over to set a screen for him. Hood went around to his dominant left hand and then between his legs. He darted right of the key, stopped, spun back to his left and drained a left-handed runner over the smaller Frank Nkilitina.
It was a confident, aggressive move without any hint of hesitation.
If your next question is, “Why doesn’t Hood do that more often,” you aren’t alone. Sometimes members of the organization have those same thoughts.
“I’m not a gunner,” Hood told cleveland.com when asked about others telling him to be more aggressive. “I think it’s not great for our team for me to be a gunner. We have a lot of guys who can score the ball. I draw attention so when I draw attention make the dump-off pass and make the right play, spray out to shooters and some nights we hit shots and it’s great and some nights we don’t hit shots and it’s like, ‘You need to shoot the ball more.’
“Just figuring it out. Trying to figure out the even balance of being real aggressive and making plays like I’ve been trying to do.”
On the season, Hood is averaging 13.0 points — the fourth-highest mark on the team — on 44.4 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc. His numbers are up across the board compared to his 21-game stint with the Cavaliers last season, but still way down from what he was doing in Utah in the first half of the 2017-18 campaign when he seemed to be morphing into a legitimate second scoring option.
That’s what the Cavs were hoping he would become this season. Before head coach Tyronn Lue’s firing, that’s the label he kept using.
This seems to be the ideal situation for Hood to be a little more selfish. The Cavs have been without All-Star Love since the fourth game. Tristan Thompson is now sidelined for possibly a month and the Cavs will need to replace his scoring production. Someone needs to score. Someone needs to create.
Hood turned down a three-year deal worth around $20 million with the Cavs this past off-season. He chose to bet on himself, entering into an extremely important contract year with teams all over the NBA looking for guys with his skill set.
Through the first month-plus of the season, Hood ranks tied for fourth on the team in shot attempts, taking just 10.7 per game — the fewest since his rookie year and a number probably too low given Cleveland’s needs. He’s fifth in usage.
Hood’s talent is undeniable and flashes like Wednesday night against New York only add to the appeal. But when he starts to drift in and out of the offense while sometimes appearing passive, it can lead to a reputation — as the guy who leaves teams wanting more.
Finding his balance continues to be an internal battle.
“I think this year has been exciting for me, it’s been good,” Hood said. “I’ve been great in spurts and there are other times where I’ve still been trying to figure it out.”