Kyrie Irving’s 39 Points Lift Cavs to 112-108 Victory Over Sixers

Led by Kyrie Irving (39 points) and LeBron James (26 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists), the Cleveland Cavaliers came back to beat the 76ers 112-108.

LeBron James (left) and Kyrie Irving (right) react after a basket in the second quarter of Cleveland's 112-108 victory | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James (left) and Kyrie Irving (right) react after a basket in the second quarter of Cleveland’s 112-108 victory | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There are some odd traditions that have developed over the four seasons since the Sixers began their rebuild, with few stranger than the Sixers playing competitively against LeBron James led teams.

While the Sixers have been able to, for the most part, keep these games against the Eastern Conference Champion (or better) squads close, they haven’t been able to pull out many victories in the process. The Sixers have lost the last eight games between the two teams, many in agonizing fashion.

Through 35 minutes of play, it seemed as if the Sixers could flip the script. The Sixers pushed through their typical third-quarter collapse, building up a 10-point lead with just a little over a minute left in the third quarter. The Cavs had never led in the game up to that point, and it seemed like this could be the day the Sixers finally hold on for a win.

After the Sixers took an 81-71 lead with 1:15 left in the 3rd quarter, the Cavs stormed back with a 26-8 run to take a 97-89 lead with 5:45 remaining, and the game was never the same. Kyrie Irving had 13 points during that decisive run, with the Cavs committing 0 turnovers to the Sixers 6 in that span.

It’s a formula that isn’t all too unfamiliar for these Sixers, with the top teams in the league frequently coasting through the first half against the Sixers only to turn up the intensity when the game threatened to get out of hand.

This game felt different though, with the Sixers controlling the game for most of the day. The Sixers have played the Cavs close at times, but that’s mostly been when trying to come from behind. The 1-point loss to Cleveland earlier this month, for example, saw the Sixers erase a 15-point first quarter deficit only to fall short at the end.

The Cavs first lead in today’s game didn’t come until they took an 85-84 lead with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter.

“This team passes as good as anybody in the NBA,” head coach Brett Brown said about the Cavs after the game. “You feel that the slightest false step, where you shouldn’t be rotating or you shouldn’t be stunting, that there’s a ball flying right over your ear.”

The Sixers made a few late pushes to keep it interesting, most notably when Ersan Ilyasova made a huge four-point play with a minute left to pull the Sixers back to within 5, but the Sixers were never able to get the stops required to come all the way back. Cleveland shot 63.2 percent from the field in the final quarter of play.

“You just get punished. You get punished off a turnover, you get punished off an inappropriate shift, a slight guess wrong in a rotation,” Brown continued. “That’s why they are the world champs.”

The Cavs were, unsurprisingly, led by their big three. LeBron James finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 13 assists, with Kyrie Irving scoring 39 points on 14-27 shooting, including 26 second-half points to fuel the Cavs comeback. Kevin Love also chipped in with 25 points and 11 rebounds. That trio combined for over 80 percent of the Cavs points on the day.

“When players of that caliber choose to, they can rise up to a different level,” Brown said about the Cavs star players,” You go through the rhythm of a regular season NBA game, and the first period goes away, and the second period goes away, then the third period starts getting a little bit towards the end of the game and you start getting a little bit tense, it gets real. They can go to another level, and they did, and we all felt it and saw it.”

The Sixers were once again led by their two center pieces, with Joel Embiid finishing the game with 22 points on 8-18 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds, a career-high 4 assists, and 3 blocked shots, while Jahlil Okafor came off the bench to attack Cleveland’s poor rim protection and fight for rebounds more consistently than he has for most of the year, totaling 14 points and 9 rebounds in one of his best all-around performances of the season.

Embiid used a late flurry to improve his shooting percentage, scoring 5 points in the final 12 seconds of a game the Sixers were desperately trying to claw their way back into. He had been struggling from the field for much of the game, missing some point blank shots he normally makes and shooting airballs on a pair of jump shots.

Still, the peripherals in Embiid’s game were fantastic. He quarterbacked the team’s defense, with a noticeable difference in Cleveland’s offensive philosophy when Embiid went to the bench. He controlled the glass on both sides of the court, and he handled double teams and made the correct passes as well as he has at any point in his NBA career, showing growth in a part of his game that showed the most signs of rust due to his long layoff from playing competitive basketball.

Today was the first game of Embiid’s career where he finished with more assists (4) than turnovers (3). He has now reached double figures in scoring in all 12 of his NBA games.

“I thought I passed out of double teams better today. I was taking my time, I was baiting them, and I passed at the right time and we made a couple of shots,” Embiid said after the game when asking about handling double teams. “I thought I did better.”

Embiid and Okafor were also joined by Ersan Ilyasova (13 points, 6 rebounds), Gerald Henderson (13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists), Sergio Rodriguez (12 points, 7 assists), Nik Stauskas (11 points, 4 assists), and Dario Saric (10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) in double figures.

The Sixers finished the game with 29 assists on 43 made field goals and shot 15-34 (44.1 percent) from the field, one of their best offensive showings of the season.

Starting point guard Jerryd Bayless missed the game due to soreness in his left wrist.

The Cavs started the game off by missing their first 14 shots from the field, finally breaking through with a bucket by LeBron James with 6:50 left in the first quarter. The Cavs shot just 32.7 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three-point range in the first half, but committed just 4 turnovers, grabbed 10 offensive rebounds, and made 12 of 14 free-throw attempts in the first half to keep the game within reach for when their perimeter shots eventually started to fall.

The Sixers fell to 4-13 on the season, but after last year’s 0-18 start, that feels like progress in and of itself. Still, the team has been oh-so-close to a couple of signature wins, having lost close games to the Grizzlies and Cavs (twice) that could have given Brown’s young core a boost of confidence. It’s not particularly surprising that the Cavs shifted to a gear late in the game that the Sixers couldn’t match, and Brown is happy with his young team’s effort.

“They’re getting better. They’re starting to figure each other out,” Brown said. “By and large you walk out of the game thinking our guys played well.”

The Sixers will travel to Toronto for a game tomorrow night in hopes to rebound against the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors, who are 10-6 on the season and 4-3 at the Air Canada Centre.

Embiid’s minutes restriction

With Embiid running into his minutes restriction late in another close game, Sixers head coach Brett Brown ran into another tough decision on whether to allow Embiid to play more minutes than the doctors have allocated him.

This came just a few days after Embiid wasn’t available in the second overtime period during a close loss to the Memphis Grizzlies because he had gone beyond his minutes restriction.

Would some of these close losses turn into victories if Brown were able to keep Embiid in the game for longer periods of time down the stretch?

“I don’t know. I think about that sitting down on the bench sometimes too,” Brown jokingly admitted.

Brown was then asked whether he’s ever considered telling management that Embiid was no longer going to follow the doctor’s recommended minutes restriction.

“No. You know what, that is not my place. It really isn’t. I feel, and I’ve said this to everybody, I’m a steward of our business, our organization. I need to do what’s right for the team, and the organization. That’s the bottom line,” Brown explained. “That’s what I try to do, always.

“You come up with some really hard decisions that maybe don’t favor me, or us, or whatever, but for the long-term lens that we all have, we have to be responsible with Joel Embiid, and our (other) players,” Brown continued. “We all get what we have in Joel Embiid. So winning a game in the middle of November in 2016, sometimes that takes a back seat.”

Bayless questionable, Embiid unavailable for Monday’s game against the Raptors

Starting point guard Jerryd Bayless did not play today due to soreness in his left wrist.

Bayless had missed the first four weeks of the season because of the injury, which he suffered during training camp. He made his season debut on Monday against the Miami Heat and has appeared in three games so far for the Sixers.

Bayless did travel with the team to Toronto for Monday night’s game against the Raptors. His status for the Raptors game is listed as questionable.

Since Embiid played on Sunday against the Cavs he will be unavailable (rest) for Monday’s game against Toronto. The Sixers do not play Embiid in both games of back-to-backs as they continue to ramp up his workload.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.