It took a 23-point deficit, a charged crowd at Madison Square Garden and a manufactured rivalry for Cleveland to seemingly give a damn Monday night. The Cavs still only cared to play attentive basketball for about 12 minutes or so—but it was good enough for a 104–101, thrilling win against the Knicks.
The Cavs entered their showdown with the fun-and-frisky Knicks on the heels of LeBron James engaged in water-balloon-battle-of-words with Enes Kanter and Frank Ntilikina. In an effort to slight Phil Jackson one last time, James—while praising Dennis Smith Jr.—indirectly slighted Ntilikina, which set off an inconsequential back-and-forth between James and the Knicks in the media. The off-court talk eventually manifested on the hardwood when James, Kanter and Ntilikina engaged in what amounted to little more than a three-way staredown during the first half, a moment that ended up being the highlight of the night for the Knicks.
New York jumped out a huge lead over the Cavs shortly after Ntilikina’s show of bravery, looking primed to blowout Cleveland for the second time in as many matchups this season. But James and Co. rallied hard in the fourth quarter, pulling off the type of comeback his teams are good for four or five times a season.
And look, it’s silly to give the entire credit for this win to effort. The Cavs have legitimate problems, and their defense is actually, definitively, without question bad. But then you see them play the way they did in the fourth quarter, and you understand why Cleveland has such a stranglehold on the East.
It starts with LeBron, who erased Kristaps Porzingis on multiple possessions, and found open shooter after open shooter on offense. When James gives max effort, the rest of the team seems to follow suit. J.R. Smith and Channing Frye give a little more juice on the glass. Dwyane Wade decides to play defense for a full shot clock. (Wade actually had a couple big moments in the fourth, including a key steal and some timely offensive boards.) Kyle Korver fights a little bit harder through every screen. Korver, in fact, was perhaps the hero of the game, drilling five threes in the fourth to kickstart the Cavs’ comeback. (It should probably be said there would be no praise for the Cavaliers right now if Korver didn’t go off the way he did.)
Cleveland’s fourth-quarter flurry stunned the Knicks, who until then were enjoying their renaissance under the stewardship of Porzingis. New York was clearly fired up to send a message to the Cavs. Even with Kristaps struggling from the field, the Knicks built a big lead, thanks to bountiful scoring nights from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter, who briefly made everyone forget about their contracts.
But the Cavs were too locked in come closing time. They actually rotated on defense. You could feel the effort in their box outs. Players looked focus. Hustle plays created extra possessions. It’s the type of performance we’ve seen to rarely from Cleveland so far this season, or the type of effort that often occurs too late in a game to matter.
Maybe it really just comes down to motivation for the Cavs. Or maybe their defense, which has been statistically, uh, underwhelming since the start of last season will betray them when it comes playoff time. Or maybe every NBA team is unbeatable when Kyle Korver achieves nirvana for an entire quarter. Ultimately, not every Cleveland win or loss has to be a referendum on what it means for next June. But for one night (even if it was more for like one quarter), it was fun to see the Cavaliers play as if the outcome actually mattered.