PLAYING AGAINST the best often brings out the best in players.
LeBron James might not be the best player in the NBA right now, but he's certainly on a very short list that can be argued for quite some time.
His presence last night at the Wachovia Center brought out one of the finest efforts of the season by the 76ers. Still, James can, and often does, overcome obstacles just about single-handedly. He scored 13 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, many at crucial times, to lead the Cavaliers to a 108-101 win over the Sixers in front of a near-sellout crowd of 19,517.
This one was certainly winnable for the Sixers, and few games against upper-echelon teams this year have been. But again, they couldn't find a way to get a needed stop, were hurt by late three-pointers and failed to come up with baskets at the end.
Those have been the common threads during a streak in which the team has lost 13 of 14.
Last night, after taking a 94-90 lead on a three-pointer by Andre Iguodala with 5 minutes, 51 seconds left in the game, the Cavs went on an 11-2 run. During that span, James hit two treys and Mo Williams hit another. The Sixers also missed seven of their final eight shots.
"We had good looks, they just weren't falling," said forward Elton Brand, who posted 11 points and seven rebounds in 33-plus minutes off the bench. "We had a lead, we just got turnovers and LeBron hit a corner three and they just capitalized. I think once we get on a roll we can go out there and have fun and have some swagger out there."
No turnover was bigger than one committed by Allen Iverson late in the fourth. With the Sixers leading, 96-93, Iverson threw a half-look pass toward the top of the key that James picked. Seven seconds later, James drained a trey from the right wing to erase the lead and deflate the momentum.
"I can't make a turnover in a situation like that," Iverson said after going for 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. He had fluid drained from his left knee before the game and will have an MRI today. "We were up three points and I throw the ball away and they get a three-point basket. That one is on me because we were in control of that game and I come in and make a critical turnover like that. It's just unacceptable.
"I thought when I came off the pick-and-roll and the big man dived, I thought Dre [Iguodala] was going to come for it toward me, but he stayed there. I just shouldn't have made the pass. He [James] was already in the passing lane. It was just bad judgment on my part."
It shouldn't have been a game-breaker, though. But when the losses have been coming with such frequency, mistakes seem to get multiplied, the rim gets smaller and other teams seem to do no wrong.
"We did not make a big shot," said coach Eddie Jordan, whose team fell to 6-19. "They made two, maybe three big shots. They got a crucial rebound that we pretty much had in our hand that [Anderson] Varejao, with his extra effort, pursued and got possession of. That was a big play. I thought Jrue [Holiday] had a clear lane to the basket and he threw up a floater instead of taking it to the basket. Then we missed another open shot. They make shots and that was the difference down the stretch."
Holiday's miss came with the game tied at 96-96 with 4:22 remaining. The Varejao rebound came after a missed layup by James with 1:42 left. At the end of the possession, James nailed a 20-footer for a 103-98 lead.
Holiday turned in a fine performance again, finishing with nine points and a career-high nine assists. He turned the ball over just once and did a good defensive job on Williams, who had just two field goals in getting his 12 points.
Another positive was the play of forward Marreese Speights, who appeared in his first game in just over a month after partially tearing the MCL in his left knee. Speights played 22 minutes off the bench and scored 14 points. Thad Young also collected 16 points and 10 rebounds. With guard Lou Williams getting closer to returning from a broken jaw (he had the wires snipped yesterday), there seems to be some positive signs in the near future.
"It was good to see some of our guys back," Jordan said. "I like the way Marreese played and I like the way Marreese and Elton looked out there. We had some big guys finally. We played off them. It is a good future, an immediate future."
And it's needed. Close losses, no matter the quality of opponent, are getting old.