PHILADELPHIA — Larry Nance Jr.‘s tip-in attempt off an intentionally missed free throw by LeBron James bounced off the rim at the buzzer, cutting the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback against the 76ers just short in a 132-130 loss Friday night.
As frantic as the finish was, what led up to it was even more remarkable: The Cavs trailed the Sixers by 30 points in the second quarter and found themselves down only one with 12.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Had Cleveland pulled off the victory, it would have marked the biggest comeback of the entire NBA season — eclipsing the Washington Wizards overcoming a 27-point deficit against the New York Knicks on Feb. 14, according to ESPN Stats Information.
Instead, the Cavs were left to digest how they put themselves in the position to need a second-half surge of that magnitude just to make it a game.
‘Playoff LeBron’ is real, and defense is the reason
The NBA playoffs are imminent, which means LeBron James will again be expected to transform into the legend who found his way to the NBA Finals in seven straight years. The key to understanding “playoff LeBron” starts on the defensive end of the floor.
“I mean, we dug ourselves that hole,” James said after a 44-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist night (his career-high 18th triple-double on the season) was spoiled by the defeat. “So we’re a prideful team, and the only way we get back into the game was just kind of get scrappy and play a little bit more physical, make some shots. But no, listen, we was down 30, and for us to come all the way back, it just shows what we’re capable of doing.”
James and Kevin Love showed they were more than capable of executing their late-game “touchdown” play, in which Love throws an inbounds pass from the baseline past the half-court line to a streaking James to catch and shoot. They had run it only one other time this season, and Love told ESPN the pair hadn’t practiced it since training camp.
“Kevin’s a great passer in that situation and Bron being able to shield his man off and go up and catch it and get it,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “We had our chances.”
Love threw the pass with 3.3 seconds left and the Cavs trailing by three, and James caught it on the right wing, where Philly forward Robert Covington was called for a shooting foul on the Cavs star. James, who went on to make the first free throw and miss the second, leading to the intentional miss on the third, told ESPN after the game that he believed Covington fouled him on the floor before he was in his shooting motion.
Not that James was going to argue the call made in his favor by referee Lauren Holtkamp with 1.9 seconds to go.
“I was still trying to get my hands on the ball to kind of get it up there to try to get a four-point play, but it didn’t happen,” James told reporters. “I wasn’t able to get it up there.”
The Cavs, ultimately, weren’t able to complete the comeback, as the Sixers won their 13th game in a row to take a half-game lead on Cleveland for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If Philadelphia — which has the Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks remaining on its regular-season schedule — wins out, it will hold on to the No. 3 spot, even if Cleveland finishes 2-0 in its home-and-home set against the New York Knicks to close out the schedule.
Should Cleveland fall to No. 4 and win its first-round series, it would potentially face the No. 1-seeded Toronto Raptors in the second round, rather than in a conference finals matchup — should both teams advance.
“You got to go through whoever it is anyway,” Lue said, downplaying the significance of the implications if Cleveland stays at No. 4. “The best team is going to win their matchup, so, play them first round, second round, third round, you still got to get through ’em, so it really doesn’t matter. As long as we’re healthy, find our rhythm, we’ll be fine.”
Friday’s game certainly had a playoff atmosphere, punctuated by Lue’s approach to coaching the second half. Lue, who likes to save certain plays, lineups and schemes for the postseason so he can spring them on an opponent without it having the chance to have scouted them in the regular season, broke that habit by going into his postseason playbook to start the second half, team sources told ESPN.
The versatile, positionless lineup he went with meant sacrificing minutes for Cavs big men Nance and Tristan Thompson — something that would be more difficult to do if Philadelphia has center Joel Embiid healthy and on the court — but it was effective.
“We could’ve just gave in, but the guys showed pride and came out and fought tonight,” Lue said of his team, playing on the second night of a back-to-back after needing a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Washington Wizards on Thursday. “Hats off to them. They played very well, and we might see them down the road.”
James just doesn’t want to have to rely on too many comebacks in the future.
“I mean, you don’t want to be in that situation,” he said. “If you’re down 30 in the postseason, that can lose you a series. You don’t want to hang your hat on, ‘OK, well, we can come back from deficits like that.’ You want to try to play well, but we know what we’re capable of as far as that. We’ve come back. We came back last night, we came back today. So, it’s all about defense, and when we defend, we can do some real good things offensively.”