Game Notes: Cavs at Sixers
The crowd was rocking ‘til LBJ came a knocking.
by Doobie Okon
As I approach the Wachovia center to cover my second game, I feel more calm and collected than on November 9th before the Sixers-Suns matchup. Truthfully, my mind is focused on the media room buffet rather than meeting some of the biggest names in basketball history – Iverson, James, O’Neal.
However, once I step into the room, it hits me. Unlike a month ago, the media room is full of people with neck-laced press passes ready to get their hands on the King. Plus, the Big Aristotle’s in town. And the Answer is starting to get his game back. This is a big event, especially for a struggling club like Philadelphia. Suddenly the tuna wrap tastes much better once the excitement for the ensuing game begins to brew. (Oh, and the fact that the Roy Halladay press conference coincided with my entrance doesn’t hurt the mood either).
After the quick bite, I stroll onto the beautiful, retro 76ers court about 90 minutes before tip-off expecting to see both teams’ bench players warming up. This is the case, except one LeBron Raymone James was out there as well, practicing harder and faster than anybody else on the floor. I don’t know why I was shocked at first, but then I realized there are just some simple reasons that help define his greatness.
As Donyell Marshall, now commentator for Comcast SportsNet, stood behind me, I overhear him talking with some Cavs players and coaches. They all want to know how AI’s doing over here. Donyell thinks it’s just a matter of time.
The mood is extremely upbeat in the home locker room. Weezy’s talking about loving women’s sacred places while some players are dancing and joking. Two guys looking the happiest? Marreese Speights and Lou Williams. Speights is slotted to play tonight, way ahead of schedule following the knee injury on Nov. 16th. “I actually found out today that I was playing.” Lou, meanwhile, finally had the wires removed from his jaw and was smiling like a rook.
And then…Allen walked in, black doo-rag and all. Albeit it for only a couple seconds to grab his cell, I’ll say this: After now meeting some of the greatest basketball players on the planet, I only felt that sharp, nervous stab in the gut when AI came in the room. I froze just a tad. I don’t know why, but I thought I should mention that.
Sixers coach Eddie Jordan stresses a strong defensive opening to the game. “They’re one of the best scoring teams in the League. LeBron – you need five guys to corral him at all times. Mo Williams and others-you need two or three. So, we need a high level first quarter, defensively.” He also believes Speights will play a couple minutes then come up winded. We shall see, Eddie.
In the visiting locker room, James is just hilarious. Guy’s got 15 reporters staring at him while he’s being stretched for twenty minutes. Still, he belts Clipse’s ‘Champion’ in short outbursts. See I’m a champion/ Shorty I’m a champion/I’ve been around the map now I’m on the victory lap. Once the cameras rolling and the mics merge in front of his face, LeBron of course transforms into the professional interviewee.
He’s asked about Iverson first. “I didn’t know what was going on with Allen early in the season. I wasn’t a big fan of hearing of his retirement because I’ve always been a big fan of his game. I think it fits perfectly with him being here in Philly.”
As LeBron is asked about Shaq’s comments towards his high basketball IQ, the Daddy timely rolls by and says, “Yeah, tell ‘em, Coach.” But in all honesty, James says he appreciates it very much, especially considering all the stars O’Neal’s played with.
I thank Bron and head back to the media section. One thing to note: Delonte West and Phil Martelli, West’s former coach at St. Joe’s, are conversing outside the locker room for about an hour. Although I am a Temple/’Nova boy and pretty anti-Hawk, it is great to see. Back to the court – Iverson is introduced second which is just so strange to me. But he still gets the most cheers from the crowd of 19,517. No surprise there. Ok…game time.
Bad news for the Sixers: the crowd is silenced after Cleveland sprints out to an 11-2 lead only three minutes in. More bad news: Samuel Dalembert looks awful at the gun, struggling to handle any pass headed his direction while on the defensive end he is guarding a man literally twice as thick. Worse news: LeBron has barely done anything in the stretch, notching only one assist and one steal. Watch out.
The only bright side for Philly in that sequence was AI scoring the Sixers’ first deuce, a nice drive and finger-roll.
Speights subs in for Dalembert, and immediately contributes with an offensive rebound and finishes with the foul. Following a one-footed three pointer by LeBron (yeah, read that again), Speights hits a nice turnaround jumper to go 2-2 in the early minutes. 14-6 Cavs. Speights seems to have woken up the Sixer offense, finally. But let’s see if his coach’s pre-game remarks hold water and Marreese gets winded soon.
O’Neal’s doing everything he wants in the paint, and hack-a-Shaq isn’t panning out. The 325-pounder has eight early points, marked by a nice running hook, an easy slam and a nice 4-4 start from the strike. Cavs lead 24-16 when Shaq leaves in favor of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Jrue Holiday is having a beast of a quarter. First he strips JJ Hickson under the basket, weaves his way down the court and finds Andre Iguodala for an easy slam. Less than a minute later, Holiday picks the ball away from LeBron near half court, hail-marys the rock to a gunning Iguodala who finishes with the right-handed throw down. 26-18 Cavs. Holiday has 5 assists and 2 steals already – love that.
Although LeBron is having a quiet opening quarter and just committed his second turnover, it’s easy to see why he’s so special. As the Sixers cut the deficit to six, LBJ has Iguodala, Holiday and Elton Brand all watching him which enables West to drive the open lane. Once Bron lasers it to Delonte, all those men collapse which frees Ilgauskas up for a wide open jumper. 28-20 Cleveland. Eddie Jordan was right – James needs five to corral him.
Sixers play much better at the end of the first – down 32-26. Jrue Holiday has kept them in this game so far.
Before play begins, Leonard Weaver and DeSean Jackson of the Eagles get a huge ovation – well deserved, boys.
Varejao and Ilgauskas dominate the first three and a half minutes – stretching the Cleveland lead to 40-32, but Speights is looking fleet on the offensive end after playing 10 minutes. To Eddie Jordan…wrong! I’ll let the Wachovia Center speak for me now:
“Fire Eddie! Fire Eddie!” And it’s not a small section either. It’s a booming chant as LeBron, Shaq and Mo Williams re-enter the game.
Iggy looks horrible handling the ball tonight, committing his second straight turnover at the hands of James. Andre can only respond with a goal-tend at the other side of the court. 47-38, Cavaliers.
Seventeen seconds later, Willie Green drains a three from the top off a nice find from Holiday. It feels like a big shot for some reason. 47-41.
Thaddeus Young continues to greatly improve as the season wears on. He’s having another strong quarter with 10 points and 6 boards, his last four points sparking an 8-2 stretch for Philly that cuts the deficit to 51-49 and includes a beautiful alley-oop lay-up from one Jrue Holiday (seventh assist).
Ryan Howard’s in the house – receiving a deafening applause…..only to be outdone by the announcement of Roy Halladay’s presence. Fans in front of the new Phillies pitcher do not sit down as their new hurler stands and waves proudly – again, this is a big night in Philadelphia.
LeBron’s spot up jumper is as its best. Cleveland leads 57-51. While LeBron is having his most successful shooting season, it’s scary to imagine him getting better than he currently is.
Sixers are playing horrible on the defensive end but are showing some tenacity against Cleveland’s own porous ‘D.’ Cavs lead 60-55 at half.
Like old times – Iverson first challenges Shaq and gets the call. Then, only a minute or so later, AI is defended by Williams and takes him hard to the rim. The 6-0 guard is 4-4 from the free throw line to start off the quarter as Cleveland leads, 62-59. Allen at the strike – that’s how I remember him.
Sit down, Dalembert. You’re getting manhandled by O’Neal. You’re posting a donut right now. Just sit down. After Shaq records a board on four straight possessions, Holiday nails a three-ball followed by a Iggy steal-and-slam. 66-64, Cleveland is barely holding onto this lead.
Jrue does a nice job faking the shot and giving up the ball to a wide-open AI, whose 19-footer gives Philadelphia its first lead at 68-67. The crowd loves it, obviously.
The seesaw battle ensue now until the end of the quarter with 10 lead changes in the final six minutes, including a gorgeous behind-the-back dribble and kick to an wide open Iverson on the baseline for an easy deuce. After Mo Williams takes his turn at the strike, Iverson repays his teammate with a phenomenal no-look lob to Iguodala for the ooooop. Like old times.
LeBron finishes the quarter strong with a couple of rebounds and an amazing tear dropper at the buzzer to keep Cleveland’s small lead, 83-80, heading into the fourth. James has 23 points while Iguodala, Iverson and Young are tied for the Sixer lead with 16.
Holiday is just playing great ball at the point. After a Bron miss, Jrue takes the ball the full length of the court, surveys the defense before finding a cutting Speights who is fouled. Deja Vu about a minute later after a Daniel Gibson trifecta as Holiday weaves his way through mid-court defenders to find Marreese on the baseline. Speights finishes with a huge slam that cuts the Cleveland lead to 87-84. Nine assists for the former Bruin.
LeBron is everywhere. Sixers play good defense on Mo Williams and Gibson, but he comes out of the paint to fight for a loose ball and creates an easy layup for himself with his massive body. 89-86.
Elton Brand finally makes his presence known in the game – he snatches rebounds off two air-balls in as many possessions and finishes strong down low, the latter bucket being a three-point play. 89-89. Game on.
With six minutes left in regulation – the sweetest tune thundered through the arena: “We want AI! We want AI!” LBJ was right in his pre-game interview – this fits. This feels right. Allen responds by solely standing at the bench and heartily claps for his teammates.
Soon after, the other AI dials in as Iguodala hits a baseline three to give Philly their largest lead of the night at 94-90. The full house is rocking – a rare sight these days in Sixerville.
LBJ apparently has seen enough. He immediately spots up for a long three to bring his team back within one point. Then, after Iguodala hits two at the line to give his Sixers a 96-93 cushion, LBJ steals the ball from Iverson, who had just entered, kicks the ball to the corner only to back up a few steps and tie the game back up with another high archer. Grunts and sighs. The life of a Sixer fan, these days.
Bron pulls the same move twice in a row to help finish off Philadelphia, drawing two defenders at the top of the key only to kick the ball out to a rolling Mo Williams, who drains his only two buckets of the game to cap a two minute, 8-0 stretch by the Cavs. 101-96, Cleveland back on top – that was quick. Same two plays in a row. Seriously. Eddie Jordan needs a clue.
As LeBron strolls down the court with his team leading 101-98, the reporter to the left and I share disgusted reactions as Willie Green defends LBJ who promptly nails the long two in Green’s face that essentially ends the game. Eddie Jordan needs a clue.
Final score. Cleveland 108, Philadelphia 101.
At the presser, Jordan is proud of his guys, saying they played hard but they “didn’t hit enough big shots. Cleveland does all the time. LeBron really puts you in a bind. If you just single coverage him, he’s gonna have his way. And if you give him help, then Mo Williams hits a big shot. Daniel Gibson hits a big shot. We just didn’t answer.”
In a very subdued Sixers locker room, I ask Elton Brand about his aggressive fourth quarter play. He says the benching doesn’t really affect him and he’s just trying to help his team win, especially down the stretch of a game.
AI is visibly upset. “I’m not one for moral victories – I don’t feel good about this at all. I want to win. Fans chanting for me to come in and what do I do? I throw the ball away. That was on me. We’re up three points and a critical turnover like that is unacceptable.” Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News (who incidentally was the instigator of Allen’s famous ‘practice’ press conference) tries to cheer Iverson up, saying ‘it happens’. AI responds, “Yeah, I just wish it didn’t happen to me.”
With that, he exits and I walk over to the winning locker room.
Most of the Cavaliers have checked out by now, but Bron’s still surrounded by reporters galore at his locker. On his team’s mentality in a close game: “We’ve been in many one possession, two possession games. We find a way to win and we don’t panic. That’s our M.O.” Unfortunately, I catch LBJ at the tail end of his interview, and with that the locker rooms have cleared. Good night, Philly.