LeBron James’ 37 Leads Cavs Over Sixers 95-85
There are some games that, while close at the time, feel like they are on the precipice of becoming a blowout.
After the Sixers pulled the game to within 1 at the half, their Sunday night game against the Cleveland Cavaliers felt that way. Too many times the overmatched Sixers had played a vastly superior opponent well in the first half, only to come out in the third quarter and fold when their opponent kicks it into gear.
When that one point deficit slowly but steadily ballooned to 12 points with 3:18 left in the third quarter, history seemed to be repeating itself.
But the Sixers bounced back, reeling off a 9-3 run to finish out the third quarter down just 6. That run continued into the fourth quarter, when an Ish Smith three pointer pulled the Sixers to within 2 points with 8:22 remaining.
Then LeBron James checked in for Matthew Dellavedova.
The Sixers had held their own against James up until that point, as the Cavs had only outscored the Sixers by 2 points with James on the court through the first 40 minutes of play.
But James, as he is known to do, had another gear left in him. After James checked into the game with 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter the Cavaliers’ 2 point lead immediately ballooned to 16, with LeBron scoring 12 of the Cavaliers 14 points during the decisive 14-0 run midway through the fourth quarter.
“It’s a two point game, [LeBron] checks in and they go on a 14-0 run,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “LeBron goes 15-22, had 37 points, and you’re not going to get many wins when he does something like that.”
James finished the night with 37 points on 15-22 shooting from the field, which included 3-5 from three point range. He also had 7 rebound, 9 assists, 2 steals, and only 2 turnovers on the night.
“There’s an intellect. If you’re courtside and you hear comments from him, you’re blown away at the sophistication and intellect of his conversations with others,” Brett Brown said after the game about the Cavs star player. “It’s at an incredibly high level.
“You see him just walk down a game. Sometimes it’s because he makes a brilliant read on a steal and finishes with something acrobatic and circus-like and we say ‘Wow, that’s an amazing athlete’. And that’s true. But I see him talking to teammates on punishing rotations,” Brown continued. “He creates and orchestrates the whole thing.”
Even with the outburst from James, the Sixers held their own defensively, holding the Cavaliers to 38.9% shooting from the field, nearly 7% below their season average. The Sixers were beaten by turnovers (9 more turnovers than the Cavaliers), offensive rebounds (6 less than Cleveland), and free throws (the Sixers went 9-19 from the line).
Still, the Sixers, who were led by 21 points and 7 rebounds from rookie Jahlil Okafor, were able to keep it close. They competed defensively, played hard, and overall earned the praise of their head coach for their efforts.
“I think [The Cavaliers] are championship material. You weigh yourself up against the best, and we came out of it I think quite well. I was proud, for the most part, of our effort tonight,” Brown said after the game.
LeBron James agreed with his evaluation.
“That’s been them all year. They don’t quit. They play. They play hard, they’re very athletic and they play together,” James said after the game. “They’ve been playing better basketball.”
In addition to Okafor, the Sixers got good performances from Ish Smith (18 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds) and Nerlens Noel (12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists).
Jahlil Okafor At Power Forward?
Sixers head coach Brett Brown has talked at times about potentially trying big man Jahlil Okafor at power forward.
That possibility seems to no longer be under consideration.
“I don’t think Jahlil can guard and chase guys like the Rudy Gay‘s and Kevin Love‘s. I don’t think he can do it,” Brown said about Okafor before the game.
“I think it’s one thing for me to sit here and beat my chest and say we’re going to persevere and we’re going to grow these two young guys, and it’s another thing to be too reckless and say ‘Jahlil go guard these high flyers and three point [shooters]’,” Brown continued. “That’s never been him. And I think foot speed and his body right now won’t allow it.”
But Brown is not yet ready to abandon the Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor combination entirely.
“Every sort of gut feel, if you’re just trying to win the championship now, says you’d split them up and off we go,” Brown said about playing Okafor and Noel together. “You have two great 5 men and you pair them up with the point guards and sprinkle shooters around them and life’s nice.
“But that’s not my place now. My place is to develop these guys and try to grow them and give it a chance,” Brown continued. “It comes with pain as a team, and at times with the individuals because they’re out of position at times, but to just say ‘You’re not this and you’re never going to be this’ at 21 years old is just so reckless and wrong and naive on my part.”
* Jahlil Okafor’s offensive game was once again outstanding, especially in the first half, where Okafor led the Sixers with 12 points on 5-9 shooting, including the last 7 points for the Sixers to pull the home team to within 1, 48-47, at the half. He continued that in the second half, finishing the night with 21 points on 9-15 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds.
* Okafor entered the game last in the league in plus-minus at -370, but he was only a -3 in the game. Over his last 5 games, Okafor is only a -21, or -4.2 per game, after averaging -11.4 per game over his first 31 games played.
* Nik Stauskas connected on 2 of his 4 three point attempts, finishing with 6 points on the night. He’s now shooting 12-21 from three over his last 5 games.
* The Sixers ended the first half with a lineup of Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor. With the exception of Ish Smith, who was acquired late in December, that was the starting wing and front court rotation head coach Brett Brown envisioned before the start of the season, yet because of injuries to Covington and struggles by both Stauskas and Covington, that lineup had only played in 17 minutes of play together before tonight’s game.
* The Sixers have a bit of a logjam in the front court, with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor both being natural centers, Carl Landry and Richaun Holmes off the bench, then Jerami Grant and Robert Covington as potential small-ball power forwards. Richaun Holmes‘ playing time has suffered the most as a result, as he received a DNP-CD despite his strong play of late. Carl Landry didn’t do much with his playing time, finishing with 3 points and 5 fouls in 9 minutes of play.
* Robert Covington had the most playing time he’s had in a while, and he responded pretty well. He still struggled from the perimeter, shooting only 1-5 from three point range, but he found other ways to contribute, adding in 8 rebounds and 4 assists on the evening to finish with a +2 on the night, the only Sixers player to finish with a positive plus-minus. It goes without saying, but getting Covington back on track would be big for the Sixers.
* Ish Smith and Nerlens Noel continue to play well together. Ish finished with 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 10 assists, and made a number of tough shots. But his 5 turnovers and relative inefficiency (18 points on 7-21 shooting) showcase the problems for a guard who has been as high-usage as Smith has been with the Sixers, but one who doesn’t get to the line or have much of a game from beyond the arc. Still, the Sixers offense flows much better than it did before Smith’s arrival, as less players are forcing the issue and playing outside of their comfort zones.
* Noel had a great all-around game with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 assists, and made his presence felt consistently throughout the game.
* Free throw shooting was a huge problem with the Sixers, who finished 9-19 from the line. Jerami Grant, who was 0-5 from the line himself, was especially problematic.
* In addition to Holmes’ DNP-CD, Isaiah Canaan and Kendall Marshall were both healthy scratches as well. Marshall, who has fallen behind Ish Smith and T.J. McConnell in the depth chart, has seen only sporadic playing time of late, but Canaan is typically in the rotation. The size of the Cavs perimeter players was partially at play here, as Canaan would have had trouble defending Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, or Richard Jefferson. Robert Covington returning, at least somewhat, to form also impacted Canaan’s DNP-CD.
* The Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor lineups continue to play better than they did earlier in the season, especially with Ish Smith at the point and when there are shooters at the wing positions.
* The Sixers actually shot better than the Cavs from the field, 45.5% to 38.9%. Where the Cavs made up their points was on turnovers (+9 differential) and the offensive glass, where the Cavs pulled down 13 of their 55 missed shots.
* The 38.9% Cleveland shot from the field was the lowest they’ve shot since December 26th against Portland.