Don’t let the Philadelphia endgame score fool you – the Cleveland Cavaliers defense is atrocious. Yes, the 76ers victory came down to LeBron drawing a 3-point foul and missing 1-of-3 shots, but the journey to that clutch ending is riddled with open lanes and mouths ajar.
The mythos of playoff LeBron is real. If not for his 44-point triple double, the Cavs may as well have left the game early. Jeff Green, the human highlight reel was also inexplicably solid, notching a season-high 33 points and ended the night a one of a trio of Cleveland double-digit scorers (of course the third was Kevin Love).
But let’s not deflect from the defensive inconsistency. Excuses are off the table. Teams, especially Cleveland need time to gel, but Friday night’s showing was indicative of a team that has rested on James’ shoulders for far too long.
Despite being just his seventh game back from an injury, Markelle Fultz began the night by putting Cleveland’s defense on trial. In no fewer than three occasions Fultz left the wine-and-gold gazing upwards wondering whose responsibility it was to guard the rim and questioning why he wasn’t there.
Where Cleveland’s defense failed to impress, Fultz did just the opposite. The rookie has become the third poster child for the Sixers elite training staff. His agility is already a step beyond the defense, and his seamless transitions into whirling spin moves puts defenders’ reactions to shame. Taken with his and Ben Simmons’ proclivity to attack the rim and a bevy of shooters sprinkled around the arc and the Sixers can replicate the James collapse and kick offense strategy to great effect. Marco Belinelli feasted on 6-for-12 from 3-point land while Reddick made 4-for-11. Though Philadelphia ended shooting a reasonable 35.9 percent from deep, the momentum gained by a ravenous three plus a ravenous Sixers crowd kept momentum in their favor.
In the process of giving up 60 points in the paint, and 132 on the night, Cleveland’s defense, or lack thereof, also yielded the third seed to a team that won just 28 games last year. Still, silver linings are aplenty in the presence of LeBron. Cleveland is a remarkably solid team given at least one day’s rest, boasting a 32-15 record. Back-to-backs are non-existent in the NBA’s playoff formula, giving the Cavs the chance to regroup before sleep walking on defense.
More importantly, the fact that James’ was one missed free throw away from overtime and potentially a win is terrifying. Cleveland no longer has the dribbling acrobatics of Kyrie Irving to distract opponents, but James shock value and muscle is equivocally dangerous. Cleveland is a mediocre at best team without James, but that doesn’t matter. If only by sheer force of will, James can account for a milk carton defense and deadbeat offense, all with the flick of a switch,
Get ready for playoff LeBron.