LeBron James was spectacular after the Cleveland Cavaliers fell behind by 30 in the first half to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. James played fireman in the second half, not just calming Philadelphia’s all-consuming scoreboard blaze, but also mounting a serious comeback bid.
Ben Simmons produced like a facsimile of James with 27 points (on 12-of-17 shooting), 15 rebounds and 13 assists. James proved there’s nothing like the original by registering a more extravagant 44-point (on 17-of-29 shooting), 11-assist and 11-rebound triple-double. However, James’ effort was marred by his miscues from the free throw line, as he made only 6-of-11 shots from the line and missed a crucial one in the final seconds of regulation.
After squashing Philadelphia’s big lead early, the Cavs still trailed by 8 with 1:30 to play before fighting to within one possession. With 1.9 seconds remaining, Robert Covington fouled James on the wing as he turned to launch an off-balance triple off the dribble. All James had to do was hit the three freebies to force overtime. Instead, he missed the second and intentionally clanked the third. Larry Nance Jr. was unable to convert the tip-in under the rim and Philadelphia survived with the 132-130 win.
Proficiency from the free throw line has long been a blemish in James’ immaculate skillset. As valiantly as James performed Friday, his stumbles at the line have been part of a pattern. He missed a critical free throw against the Brooklyn Nets in October and was forced to intentionally miss the second for Cleveland to have a shot at securing the tie.
Aside from missing gimmes in the clutch, James deserves credit for putting Cleveland into position to win. Two milestones of antipodal significance were knocked down by James in the loss. En route to becoming the youngest player to score 31,000 points, James also became oldest player to register two 40-point triple doubles in a season.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 7, 2018
Meanwhile, it’s not all that surprising to see Philadelphia turn a trouncing into a knock ’em down, drag ’em out brawl. On Dec. 28, they allowed Portland to escape with a win in a game Philadelphia led by as many as 18.
In February, they took a 20-point lead on Miami into the fourth quarter and nearly lost it after Eric Spoelstra inserted his reserves. Earlier in the season, they got dinged by the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 22, and 14 entering the fourth quarter. They blew a 22-point lead to the Celtics.
In December, the Warriors needed only 10 minutes to flip a 22-point halftime deficit to Philadelphia into a lead and runaway win and in January. The Sixers lost another game to Toronto after leading by 22 points.
In the long run, Philadelphia’s pattern of diminishing focus in the second half will be an issue for them in the postseason. Cleveland’s inept first half gave Philly just enough of a cushion to squeak out a win, and officially vaulted them past the Cavs in their neck-and-neck race for the third seed. In the aftermath of Kyrie Irving’s season-ending surgery, it may also mean a second-round matchup with a depleted Celtics unit.
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