CLEVELAND - While being interviewed on the court immediately after the game against the 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving laughed and apologized to the fans, calling his team's performance "one of the ugliest we've played here."
He then went on to commend the Sixers for their hard play and coach Brett Brown for the continued good work that is being put in.
There was no laughter in the Sixers' locker room following the 87-86 loss. Brown was upset that the referees didn't take a look at a replay toward the end of the game to check the time on the clock and Nerlens Noel, who had a chance to win the game on a 7-footer with 2.8 seconds to go, wasn't feeling real good about the tough effort his team had just put in.
Despite limiting the Cavaliers (48-27) to just 34 points in the second half and 38.8 percent shooting from the floor - with LeBron James (20 points, 11 rebounds, six assists) and Irving (17 points) going just 15-for-42 - the Sixers just couldn't find a way to pull off the monster upset and keep the Cavs from winning their 16th straight at Quicken Loans arena.
"This Starts Now" is the Sixers' new slogan and Brown is taking it to heart.
In a move that screams of getting ready for next season, the coach moved Noel from his center spot to the power-forward position yesterday. It is the spot where he envisions his 6-11, 216-pounder next season when 7-foot, 270-pound Joel Embiid teams with Noel in the frontcourt. Playing the spot of Embiid yesterday was Furkan Aldemir, who contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds. And even with all that going on, the Sixers nearly pulled out a win.
The teams went scoreless the final 3:56 of the game. And in that time, the Sixers had so many opportunities, but Robert Covington (19 points) and Jerami Grant both missed a pair of foul shots while Ish Smith didn't convert a wide-open three with 37 seconds to go. After Irving then missed a runner in the lane, the Sixers had possession with 8 seconds to go and, after a timeout, went to Noel in the lane against Tristan Thompson. He backed him down in the lane but missed a good 7-footer. Thompson got the rebound and the clock read 1 second. Brown and his staff thought more time should be added, but their complaints were ignored and the Sixers dropped to 18-56.
"I thought I had a good look and I just didn't make the shot," said Noel, who finished with eight points and 11 rebounds. He played most of the game at the power-forward spot, but when Aldemir didn't get any run in the fourth, Noel went back to center. Whoever was playing where, the team did a great job keeping the surging Cavaliers off-balance the entire game.
"We felt that it was 3 seconds [to go in the game after Noel's miss] and when I'm looking at the bench and there's people saying that it was 2.8, that's frustrating," said Brown. "But they were strong that there was 1 second left.
"I thought the pairing of Nerlens and Furkan achieved what I had hoped. There were probably three threes that Nerlens, because he was in uncharted waters, gave up. He's not used to being on Kevin Love and having to dig down and then they throw it back to Kevin Love and he makes a three. He was involved in three threes that you hope to claw back.
"But it's not a problem. It's part of his learning, trying to play him on the perimeter. But it started with Furkan playing well and forcing me to keep him on the court."
In his new role, Aldemir set career highs for minutes played (26:33) and points. With Brown saying that moving Noel to the "four" is something he wants to look at for the rest of the season, you can expect a lot of playing time for Aldemir.
"I'm happy that coach trusts me and puts me in the starting five," said Aldemir. "I tried to do my best, but of course I made some mistakes. There are eight more games now and I think that I can play better and better."
Evidence of Noel's growth this season is the confidence of Brown to move him to a new position this late, but to also give him the ball on the final possession.
"It's the confidence that I have in him," said Brown. "He had a good look. You go into that locker room and see his head buried between two towels and it's a real eye-opener again for me because it's March 29 and we've won 18 games and he hurts. And I love that. And the group feels like we let one pass through our fingers here on the road. And I love that. The competitive spirit and the pride remains, despite what the calendar says it is and the record says it is."