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CHRIS GRANTLAND: THE SNOW MONSTER

There’s no way in hell that there were the announced 14,248 people in attendance at Quicken Loans Arena last night.  

But neither the blizzard outside, cars sliding down the slush filled icy streets, nor the howling wind and snow would overshadow Anderson Varejao – tonight the Brazilian Blizzard – who collected an astounding 25 rebounds.  Nor could it overcome the Cavaliers' defense, who allowed only 2 points in overtime, defeating the Orlando Magic 87-81.

FANS NAVIGATED A STORM.  CAVS DID THE FANS JUSTICE IN OVERTIME. (Cleveland Jackson)

There were 6 losses in a row before this game, 3 of which were home losses.  They have seen the team’s falling out with Andrew Bynum, leaving only his jar of peanut butter in his locker, the shocking buzzer beater ending against the Hawks when Jeff Teague ripped 18,682+ hearts out with just a single shot to end the game, the full on massacre by the Detroit Pistons.  They will not see Kyrie Irving play tonight as he is listed “day to day” with today being one of those days.

There is nothing simple about this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Not on the court, where they've shuffled lineups, learned new systems, struggled to adopt new teammates strengths.  Not off the court, where new and bizarre rumors about the details of Andrew Bynum’s suspension from the team range from half court shots during practice to locker room confrontation with coaches and from refusal to commit to rehabilitation to sexual liaisons and impregnating the a coach’s either girlfriend or wife. 

But this night, last night, without it’s starting point guard, without Bynum, and in front of a skeleton crowd that made ridiculous risks to slide cars though unplowed streets and to plod into strangers footprints down unsalted sidewalks, the losing streak ended, and, perhaps the Cavaliers caught the break that they had long deserved.

 

TWO FANS SITTING UP IN THE STILL EXISTANT "BYNUM'S BLOCK" SECTION.  (Cleveland Jackson)

The attendance for Cavaliers games currently ranks 16th of 30 teams.  Through this losing streak, they have drawn 19,215 on a Tuesday to see the Pistons, 18,682 on Thursday to see the Hawks and 19,384 on Sunday, which was also the day of the concluding game of the Cleveland Browns season.   Now, here in season 3 of the rebuild, in a snowstorm, there is a small but vocal crowd which is further thinned by the piling snow on the roads outside and the maddening slow pace of the game on the court and finally, the appearance of a looming 7th loss in a row.

From the beginning the Cavaliers offensive attack is muted by Irving’s glaring absence.  Jarrett Jack plays the backup point guard without letdown, however.  While his shooting is imperfect, and his shot selection – punctuated by seemingly ill-advised mid-range jump shots which miss – is frustrating, Jack is a professional basketball player in the truest sense.   Last time we saw Jack was New Year’s Eve in Indiana after the loss to the Pacers when he literally gave his post-game interview in a tuxedo.  His 7 rebounds, 7 assists and only 1 turnover were the solid night of work that Jarrett Jack can reliably provide in the absence of Kyrie Irving.

But without Irving, the rafters and the lights and the players on the court and the coaches and the crows and the slogging foot traffic on the concourses moves in slow motion.   Jack calls it a “crazy ugly ass game”. 

The players mush though icy and slightly hardened slush and the wind is ripping at everyone’s skin, the coaches standing behind lines and in front of benches, the fans huddled in corners in small groups, watching every visible breath.  The sky is open, angry and in constant bitter motion.  It is pouring winter snow.  Shots do not fall, passes are short, drives miss.  There are pools of darkening snowflakes, soft and blackened  and trampled again and again.  The Cavaliers shoot only 41.5% from the floor for the first half, the Magic 38.5%. 

The crowd has bundled for a snowy night.  They let loose with powerful sounds that echo through the darkness across the sections of seats.  Down and on the court, Jarrett Jack is calling out plays so loudly that they themselves echo into the crowd and around the arena.

We can hear you, Jarrett Jack, in the darkness back into the stands, back up where we warming ourselves, hands in pockets, hands in gloves. Beards and hair frozen, fingertips numbed.

Anderson Varejao had played 15:15 at halftime, and in that time he had 6 rebounds, one of which was offensive.  His passing also led to 3 assists, but this Anderson Varejao was about to become something more.

Varejao’s season began in recovery from the life threatening blood clot in his left lung that developed after surgery on his knee and ended his season with the Cavaliers.  The blood clot had never been an issue for him before and had nothing to do with his basketball activities, other than that he is a basketball player and that it developed after the knee injury which was basketball related.  The number of minutes or the usage of Anderson Varejao on the court would not impact this kind of situation.  The activity of Anderson Varejao on the court would not impact a blood clot.

SOMETIMES THE THINGS VAREJAO DOES SHOW UP IN THE BOXSCORE, EMPHATICALLY

(David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)

However, the recovery from the blood clot condition certainly impacted his play.  He claimed that he was 70% recovered in September, and through the season, playing with Bynum, he looked like he was finally in decline after 500 games as a Cavalier, still formidable, still unmistakably Varejao, but a shell of the force of nature that was leading the league in rebounding and seemed headed for an All Star game before his injury a season ago.

As the game slogged on around him in slow motion, Varejao became what he had been, the human buzzsaw that led the 2012 Brazilian National Team, a hurricane of activity, effort, power, precision, and gently curled hair that seemed to dash around his newly bearded 2014 head.  Rust fell from him and he was again the 2012 man who had scored 17 points in one quarter, who snatched 23 rebounds in one game, who helped the Cavaliers to win games with effort and guile.

Varejao has kept the Cavaliers closer than they might have been.  He had already set franchise's rebouding record against the Magic and the series rebouding record with the Magic, when there are 14 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter of the game.  He has erased Carlos Boozer and Dwight Howard from the record books, but the Magic have led the Cavaliers in this fourth quarter by as many as 10 points. 

With 14 seconds left, the Magic are winning by 7 points.  People are leaving to warm up their cars, perhaps scrape and carve ice off of windows, certainly struggle to slowly drive home over ice, snow, and slush.

Jack, Dion Waiters and Matthew Dellavedova are on the court and each plays a role.  Dellavedova has grappled with Glenn Big Baby Davis in this game, wrestling with him for the basketball after the whistle for a jump ball has been blown, pressing the issue in the fourth quarter and making critical defensive plays here, in that 14 second blitz of time.  Waiters, who has struggled shooting the entire game, drives directly to the basket twice and make critical and fearless layups.

Somehow, this 14 seconds has seen the Cavaliers score 7, and the game move into overtime.

"IT'S HARD TO EXPLAIN HIS IMPORTANCE," BROWN SAID OF VAREJAO. (Cleveland Jackson)

Who are these 5,000 or 6,000 remaining people, screaming their guts out in echoes though the arena, though the snow and out into the bitterly cold air?  This is Cleveland, and it could be a summer day, sugary cocktails in hands.  Mike Brown’s team has locked down the Orlando Magic, who score only two points in overtime and he has won 87-81.  This losing streak is over.  The winning record at home remains intact at 9-7.

Dellavedova’s effort, his and Jack’s leadership, Tristan Thompson in the paint and the human blizzard himself, Varejao, grabbing an astounding franchise record tying 25 rebounds to go with 18 points.  It is Mike Brown basketball and they have won with defensive stops, with ugliness and with copious effort and with Anderson Varejao.  They can win despite the loss of Kyrie Irving.  They can win despite making only 34.4% of their shots.

"I don't know how we won that game," Varejao would claim after it was over.  But everyone that saw him play basketball last night knows.

There will come a time when Varejao will no longer be a Cavalier, but that time is not now, not this night, not through these roads, these sidewalks and this center of the storm, who walked off the court cemented further into the franchise’s history than when he walked on, on this night and forever. This night, the Cavaliers move slowly forward though a slogging winter night and out into the fresh blanket of snow for what awaits next.

 

 

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