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You Need Someone To Huck It On Up There

Teammates fling water onto Max Strus following his game-winner.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Max Strus had not had a very good night. Strus's Cleveland Cavaliers, perhaps the hottest team of the calendar year, were trading leads with the visiting Dallas Mavericks, another of the NBA's surging contenders, and Strus was having a rotten time. Through three quarters he'd mustered six points on seven shots, and the Cavs had been outscored by 19 points during his 21 minutes of action. The Cavs led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but the Mavericks clawed it all back and had a lead late in the third; the home team had a run to start the fourth and gained a little breathing room, and then the crowd watched in horror as the visitors drew even and then used a 10–0 run to breeze off into the distance. The lead was still 10 points when the clock ticked under four minutes, following a sweet backdoor cut and finger-roll finish from Kyrie Irving.

Irving's visits to Cleveland are still important to Cavs fans and are treated with extra care by the Cavaliers, and probably always will be. This was the sixth time in seven seasons that Irving has played in Cleveland as a visitor, but the Cavaliers still rolled out a tribute video during the game's first stoppage, which Irving politely acknowledged by forming a heart shape with his hands. Irving played six seasons in Cleveland; the last of these ended in 2017. Irving has now spent more time in the NBA as not-a-Cavalier, although persistent health troubles in Boston and Brooklyn and one extremely avoidable suspension have made it so that it is still true that more than half of the regular season games of his career were played in a Cavs uniform. And the high point of his career, of course, is the time he took and made a very cool and very bold game-winning jumper to deliver the franchise its first and only NBA title.

(It still surprises me sometimes to be reminded that for all the hoopla and conference dominance of LeBron James's second stint in Cleveland, the Cavaliers won just one title, and as massive underdogs, and on a sequence of improbable last-minute heroics. The Shot, the one that Irving manufactured over Stephen Curry to win the 2016 Finals, wasn't the final shot of that game—who can forget Kevin Love locking up Curry for two desperate isolation sequences, or LeBron attempting to dunk Draymond Green into hell—but it was the last one to go into the basket, and for that Irving will eat free in Cleveland for the rest of his life.)

The Kyrie Irving era in Cleveland ended weirdly and abruptly and a little bit painfully, and the Cavaliers thrashed around for one more season before James departed for Los Angeles, and the team went straight back into the toilet, where they remained for three seasons of irrelevance. J.B Bickerstaff came on board and started using lots of huge guys; Jarrett Allen became a defensive identity unto himself; the Cavs drafted Darius Garland and traded for Donovan Mitchell to form up a deadly backcourt; Evan Mobley now does enough of everything to caulk up a lot of holes. The point is that they're cool again. They've gone a league-best 20–5 so far in 2024; they have the NBA's second-ranked defense by points per possession, per Cleaning The Glass; from the start of January they have the NBA's seventh-ranked offense. They're up to second in the Eastern Conference standings, a game clear of the Milwaukee Bucks, four games clear of the East's messy middle, and six games clear of the play-in.

Max Strus is not at all a pillar of this rebuild. Strus joined the Cavaliers over the summer in a sign-and-trade that returned to the Miami Heat a single lousy second-round draft pick. He's a starter in Cleveland, and a good one, but he is not a part of the team's core. To fans of teams that do not employ Strus, he is an infuriating gunner. Even when I am rooting for whatever team employs him—the Heat have been a reliable back-up team for years, and these Cavs are a delightful dark-horse—I am always kind of rooting against Strus personally. I find him to be largely intolerable; as a player, he has all the skittering unpleasantness of J.J. Redick, or a version of Redick that can dunk and has identified "swag" as the tentpole characteristic of his personal brand. I would prefer never to watch him on my television!

I'm sure Cavaliers fans do not feel this way. Strus is playing a career-high 32 minutes a night with the Cavs; in his expanded role his efficiency has taken a dip, but he's made up for it with career-best productivity as a playmaker and rebounder, and the Cavs tend to win his minutes. His percentages undersell his capabilities as a long-range sniper, and his box stats undersell his competence and creativity as a secondary ball-handler. That other stuff keeps him on the floor even when his shot's not falling, but the reason you want him on the floor is for those times when his shot is falling, and his eyes go red and little disgusting horns peek out from his hair, and suddenly he is doing a little too much strutting and is cackling demonically and burning down the building.

Strus caught one of those grooves Tuesday night just at the moment when the Cavaliers were facing near-certain death, immediately after Irving's layup seemed to suck the last of the life out of the arena. He and Mitchell worked a nifty little two-man game above the arc to gain a sliver of space, and Strus bombed home a deep three-pointer over a lunging Maxi Kleber. Following a quick Irving turnover the Cavs ran an out-of-bounds play that sent Strus flying toward the corner, where he gathered the pass and raised up for a daring off-balance catch-and-shoot three-pointer, which also fell, shrinking the margin to four points. Irving responded with a sick and insane pull-up 33-footer which under other circumstances might've iced the game, but Mitchell and Strus once again went right into a pick-and-pop and Strus answered Irving's heroics with another deep three. By now he was entirely out of his mind; after Irving missed a layup at the other end, Garland dropped the ball off to Strus in transition and the maniac gunner rose up immediately for a psychotic 29-footer that the NBA's stat's service classifies as a running shot attempt. It fell, Bally Sports Ohio play-by-play guy John Michael moaned, "Oh my word," the crowd lost its mind, and Jason Kidd called a desperate timeout.

This was all prelude. The teams traded buckets into the game's final half-minute. A loose ball gave Luka Doncic an unexpected runway to the cup inside of 10 seconds; Doncic dished to P.J. Washington for a point-blank layup to put the Mavericks up a point. The clock paused with 2.6 seconds left in regulation. Bickerstaff had already used up the last of his timeouts; Tyus Edney himself couldn't have raced the ball into range for a responsible shot attempt. Cleveland's primary shot-taker, Mitchell, had been pulled to the bench for the defensive sequence and was unavailable to save the day. Strus, who'd contested Washington's layup, found himself on the baseline, the ball bouncing at his feet, having to gather his wits and trigger the game's final sequence, without a plan and without time to make a plan.

You don't need a no-conscience-having maniac gunner to take a last-second 59-footer, or to make one, but if what you need is a last-second 59-footer, probably the first person you'd choose to take it is whichever of your team's maniac gunners has the quietest conscience. Strus inbounded the ball to Mobley and then tore ass after it; Mobley, who might've very reasonably shot the ball but who lacks the derangement for the moment, immediately pitched it back to Strus. Strus, who when he is feeling good has a blessedly uncomplicated understanding of what should be done with a basketball once it is in his hands, had neither the time nor the inclination to consider his options. His only thought: "Get it up."

Strus knew it was going in. He knew everything he hucked basketwards in the game's frenetic finale was going to splash home. "It felt good. Last five of them felt pretty good," he said after the game. "Every time I shot it, I felt like it was going in, and it was. Even the last one." Strus scored 15 of Cleveland's final 21 points, all inside the game's last four minutes, on five three-pointers and zero misses.

The Cavaliers have things to prove this season, about how seriously they must be taken as contenders. But they find themselves in a place of almost inconceivable luxury. They've got a pair of shot-making guards in Mitchell and Garland, slick and bold deep-bombing stars, either one of whom could otherwise be a team's sole late-game hero. But they've also got an absolute freak of a role-player who can and absolutely will again win them a game on fearless heat-check gunning. It's a strange and hilarious superpower. "At the end of the day," said Allen, of how the Cavs pulled off the comeback, "we have a guy like Max Strus. Anything is possible."

Any team with Cleveland's ambitions is going to need some heroics, and the Cavs can feel good that they've got the would-be heroes. Strus isn't the typical candidate but he's got the juice. "It’s not the first time any of us have seen Max Strus hit tough shots in tough games. He is a big-game player, I think that is why Cleveland signed him," said Irving, from the loser's locker room, having had his homecoming brutally spoiled. "I could have gone without him making that shot.”

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