There were other moments when Sexton stumbled late, having his shot rejected in Chicago, going scoreless in the fourth quarter of a tight game against LeBron James’ Lakers or missing a potential tying layup late in Atlanta.
But here’s the thing: Those were some of his most important moments. Lessons in this journey. And they led him to Wednesday night.
“I think that has been a big help to him,” Drew said following Wednesday’s 107-102 win against short-handed Milwaukee. “I think failure can be one of your best teaching tools. I really believe that with Collin because he has had the opportunity to sit over there and watch late in the game and also been in situations where he has been out there late, and it’s not always going to turn out positive, but the most important thing is you learn from it. I think as we have progressed through this season he has done that. Think he has learned a great deal being out there, whether it comes up positive or negative at the end.”
On Wednesday night against the Bucks, Sexton came through again. A few days after helping close out the playoff-bound Detroit Pistons with timely plays in the fourth quarter, Sexton delivered the dagger against Milwaukee, keeping the top-seeded Bucks from clinching the division title. And once again, leader Kevin Love wasn’t on the floor — this time being evaluated for a head injury that kept him out a majority of the second half.
A one-possession game with under two minutes remaining, Jordan Clarkson drove into the paint and kicked to Sexton, who drained a 3-pointer that showed his progression as an off-the-ball player. That triple gave the Cavaliers a five-point advantage.
Two plays later, after Eric Bledsoe trimmed Cleveland’s lead to three once again, Sexton attacked Ersan Ilyasova on a switch and tossed in a left-handed layup. The emerging rookie bounced up and down toward center court while his teammates burst off the bench and gave nods of approval.
Swagger. Confidence. Assuredness. A much different vibe than the early months.
“It was just motivation because you want to be out there for the final seconds so I just had to pick up my defense, my effort on defense because sometimes they took me out on the defensive side,” Sexton said. ”So I had to pick that up and make shots.”
When Sexton came up short against Chicago in November, leading to a one-point loss, he vowed to be better.
“I’m going to make it next time,” Sexton said.
Only he didn’t. There were a few more failures before coming out better on the other side. In clutch situations this season, as defined by NBA.com, Sexton is averaging 1.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting, many of those numbers pointing to early-season struggles. Since the All-Star break, Sexton is 8-of-9 (88.8 percent) from the field and 5-of-6 (83.3 percent) from 3-point range in those situations.
“He’s a gamer. He’s been like that his whole career,” Tristan Thompson said. “In the last two minutes he read the game the right way. The first time he made the 3, the second time he hit the J in the corner, those are the right basketball plays. Whether you’re a team that makes it or not, what we’re trying to build moving forward you make the right plays, and it’s on the next guy to make the shot. Even if you’re a team that misses it, you’ve still got to make that play ‘cause it’s the right basketball play. He’s understanding that and that’s what we want from our point guard.”
The Cavs entered this season without a closer. Kyrie Irving is long gone. James, who always had the ball in his hands late, is floundering in his first season with Los Angeles. Early in this transition, the Cavs took mostly a committee approach, sometimes drawing up plays for Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Hill, Clarkson, Osman, whoever made the most sense given the situation. But lately, Drew has put his confidence in Sexton. And that faith is starting to seep through the the locker room.
Both Thompson and Clarkson have noticed the game starting to slow down for Sexton. They even praised him for another fourth-quarter play that might get overlooked.
With the Cavs clinging to a three-point lead and the shot clock ticking down, Sexton went right to left, between his legs and surged toward the rim. He drew three defenders, jumped in the air, hung for a brief second and lofted a pass for Cedi Osman into the corner. On Monday, Osman buried the shot. This time, the ball rattled in and out, giving Milwaukee another chance.
But in a rebuilding season, it’s about the process, not simply the result.
“That’s a great shot for us,” Clarkson said. “That’s just showing his growth. Early in the year he was going in there and kinda challenging those bigs in that kind of moment. Him making those extra passes is definitely showing growth.
“Definitely have more confidence (in him). Early as a young guy you’ve still got to prove yourself a little bit. He’s showing strides. He’s improving. He works hard. Just got to continue to watch film and get it there and make those plays until your teammates trust you. I feel like he’s gaining that from a lot of guys right now.”