After the Cavaliers blew a 16-point lead last Saturday night and saw a fourth-quarter lead disappear on Tuesday, the magic and resolve they showed in a comeback victory on opening night seemed like a distant memory.
They were 1-3, the second-half defense (much like last year) was non-existent, and offensive execution in the fourth quarter was...not sharp, to say the least. Players were unsure of where to be on the floor and no one looked comfortable with the ball in their hands during crunch time.
But there was one major element missing in those first four games: the starting point guard.
Kind of an important position to have, especially in close games. And especially considering that the guy who would always have the ball in his hands down the stretch in a close game is gone.
Now that Mo Williams is back in the rotation, the Cavs look like they have four of their primary fourth-quarter options set: Williams, Bobby Gibson, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao.
Varejao was a part of every Cavs team that advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs since 2006.
Gibson has been a part of four of those games and already stepped up on the biggest of stages, scoring 31 points on just nine field-goal attempts in Cleveland's series-clinching Game 6 win over Detroit in 2007.
And Williams, though his postseason struggles in '09 and '10 are well documented, still was a leader of back-to-back 60-plus-win teams.
This is a core that's used to winning. Not only that, but they know how to finish close games. Maybe they weren't the ones taking the game-winning shots or running the fourth quarter offense, but they've seen how it's done.
They showed it last night in Philadelphia.
The Cavs jumped out to a 19-point first-half lead but quickly let it dissipate thanks to some shoddy defense. Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams consistently broke down the guards and that created shots for Philly's post and wing players.
An Andres Nocioni three-pointer from the corner gave the 76ers a 98-91 lead with six minutes to go and it looked like the Cavs' third-quarter blunders and lack of firepower in a half-court offense would cost them their fourth straight game.
But for a six-minute stretch to finish the game, everything clicked. The offensive sets were crisp, the defense was intense and the core of Gibson, Williams and Varejao all stepped up when it mattered most.
Bobby scored 10 consecutive points in 2:03, including a fantastic layup where he drove the length of the court and went right at Jrue Holiday to re-claim the lead for the Cavs.
With a one-point lead in the final two minutes, Byron Scott drew up a fantastic play out of a timeout. They ran a pick-and-roll with Gibson and Varejao, but the coaching staff knew Tony Battie wouldn't have the speed to meet Andy at the hoop. So Gibson passed to the top of the key to Williams, who fired a bullet to a still-rolling Varejao for a reverse dunk.
A few defensive stops and four straight points from Mo Williams gave the Cavs a seven-point lead—game over.
Byron Scott asked fans to be patient before the season began. This isn't a team that's going to compete for a championship soon but his system allows them to be in contention to win several games. It gives them a slightly larger margin for error.
Despite what the 123 points on the scoreboard suggest, the players aren't quite acclimated to Scott's system. It's a process that will take time—maybe it takes a year, maybe it's just a few months.
But when they finally get there, they have a nucleus that knows how to finish close games. That's one distinct advantage they have over young, rebuilding teams such as Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto.
And as long as they keep growing more comfortable in their roles and in the system, they can be a challenger for one of the final two playoff spots in the East.