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CHRIS GRANTLAND: TWO NIGHTS OF PHILADELPHIA

Philadelphia is a perfect place for a massacre.  It sits beside a river, long and flat with narrow streets and bridges and lies like a small town, which it is surely not.  On Saturday, Cleveland is a cloudy November night.  It’s clear, and hours before the game, blood is already in the air, circling as if it was a funnel. It could be anywhere, it could be any time.  But Cleveland is a town for a long bloody knife fight that lingers.  That demands every inch of breath and burning lungs.  It is erratic, it is forced, and it is angry. Inside, inside, the night gets colder and darker and threatening.  

And somehow in the fourth quarter, it is as if a giant scalpel, frantically working, slices and peels away the roof, and the night pours in and the arena erupts with warmth.

There were about .08 seconds left in the second overtime when this happened. The 252 total points scored in this game were the second most of any game in the history of Quicken Loans Arena. (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)

It is then, Kyrie Irving is playing at the highest level.  He is exerting every molecule of himself.  On this night, he will play more minutes than he has ever played in an NBA game.  He will be the chief weapon that carries the Cavaliers when it is necessary,  that propels them with consistency.  He will have three chances to win this game, and that will be enough.  He will finally end this game, slicing past rookie Michael Carter Williams, raising a layup through the outstreached hands of Spencer Hawes at the conclusion of the second overtime period with just .6 seconds remaining, but if this game were to last forever in unending overtimes, Kyrie Irving would play it forever with this vigor and snarl and he would win.

It is this place, with each of three attempts to score with the balance of the game in his left shooting hand that the rotational axis of the planet has shifted into an orbit around him.  First, at the end of a 32 point Cavalier fourth quarter that overcame a 10 point deficit to tie the game with a failed layup that rattles away.  Second, at the conclusion of a 9 point overtime period that saw the Sixers recover from a quick Cavalier 7 point lead with a six foot jump shot that bounces away.  Finally, this layup.

The gigantic room would shiver as Mike Brown’s end of the game rotation fights to bring the Cavaliers back after giving up 37 third quarter points seemingly sinking into the failure of the night before.  Irving, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack, 48 minutes and 29 seconds of Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao removing ice from his shoulder in the midst of 42 minutes on the court, chose a new identity.  This is who they are.

The Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers are a young team that plays a hard, fearless style of basketball.  They are somehow led by rookie Carter Williams, who is a point guard powerhouse in his first week of his basketball career and who played over 49 minutes on the court after playing 34 minutes the night before and by the suddenly emerging Evan Turner, who will battle for 31 points.

The night before… if Saturday night was a knife fight, then Friday night was a bloodletting, a hit.  A 94-79 Sixer win that brought insidious memories to the surface of last season’s Bryon Scott coached effort-free basketball.    Friday, in Philadelphia, after taking a 28-14 lead into the second quarter, the Cavaliers were walked around the corner by a number of very large men, and nearly never heard from again.

Friday night was Andrew Bynum’s first game playing the Sixers since he and his $16 million dollar contract were traded there before the 2012-13 season.  Before the game he explained that he had suffered from such serious knee problems and pain that he considered retirement, that he still considered thoughts of retirement and that he was still, on this Friday afternoon, looking to find “the joy in basketball”.  Before and during Friday night’s game, Bynum was jeered and booed by the crowd for his literal failure to perform basketball in a Sixer uniform at all during the season.

"It was kind of funny" Bynum, speaking about the crowd in Philadelphia booing him Friday night. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Perhaps Philadelphia resented what was perceived to be a lack of effort by Bynum in attempting to return, or perhaps they were booing his body itself for its betrayal of him and them collectively.  The true sense of real sadness and resignation with what he said was so real and palpable that had Bynum walked off the court in Philadelphia mid-game, gotten into a car and driven home forever, few souls that heard his words and saw his sincerity would have been shocked.  He is 26, not 38 and his body has already betrayed him.

It could well have been that Bynum’s words and honesty were underlying what happened to the Cavaliers in Philadelphia Friday night to cause a lapse into drone-like unreactive defense after the first quarter, slow feet and unreasoned offense for the remainder of the game on that night.   Plays were not run, fundamentals ignored.  It was impossible to watch Friday without thinking about last season and the resemblance to the worst of Byron Scott’s Cavaliers team’s failures. 

Brown’s explanations for the play of the team on that night: lack of focus, failure to adhere to “rules” and “principles” bore and even closer resemblance to Byron Scott’s claims that the team was not following game plans on the floor, which was even more glaringly problematic Friday, given the improvements made to the roster in the offseason and the improvements made in the actual in game play.

Brown claimed that changes would be made.  Saturday, with Bynum sitting, he went deep into the bench in the first quarter, bringing Australian point guard Matthew Dellavedova and high energy center Henry Sims to play with fellow rookie Bennett.  There’s a message of discord between Brown and starter Earl Clark, who not only did not start, but who not play in this game despite the two overtimes.

Saturday, this fight has appeared to end in the third quarter, as the Cavaliers bench has begun to shrunk and resemble Friday night in Philadelphia.  Jump shots are settled for and missed. 

There are 5 minutes left in regulation Varejao has about 20 pounds of ice a removed from a bag attached to his shoulder that was also there on Friday night and he enters the game.   It is Game 7, but it feels like a game 7.  It feels critical.  We are all reintroduced.

Dion Waiters, doing things.  (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)

Who is Philadelphian Dion Waiters?

He’s making shots that seem improbable if not more difficult.  He’s been aggressive, forcing his way to the rim since his 14 minute run against Charlotte a week before.  No one is fucking with Dion Waiters tonight.  He has become invincible.

It’s like he’s opened the arena with a giant can opener and let the night sky pour in.  And it pours in over and over, washing the court with Dion Waiters who is waving to the crowd to bring volume.  Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving are suddenly what they were designed to be.  It is beautiful and the starry sky over the court and they’ll combine with Jarrett Jack for 84 points between them before the night is over.  2 of Waiters points will come on a dunk so hard that he will lose his balance and fall to the floor while running back on defense.

Waiters is aggressive for all of his minutes.   He has made critical baskets at the end of the third quarter when he has played 43 minutes.  He is still driving, still finding his way to the basket.  He has retrieved his own missed free throw.

The Top Gun theme literally plays.   It is Military Appreciation Night.  The crowd’s ears are ringing from its own noise though the end of the fourth quarter and into both overtimes.   It is a three guard rotation, with veteran Jarrett Jack guarding the big man, with Irving and Waiters switching off on point guard and shooting guard.  It has led to open shots, to multiple players capable of shot creation creating shots.  It has forced the matchup concerns by the opponent.  It has carried them as far as they will go on this night and perhaps further.

There, in his third attempt to end the game, Irving finally scores his 38th and 39th points and the Cavaliers are up 127-125 after two overtimes.  The stars above us pierce the clouds and we ascend up, a bullet, as the last 0.6 second lop attempt by the Sixers goes past its intended recipient and out of bounds. 

There is a strange moment of pause, of realization and reconciliaiton of fact that this has, in fact, ended,  then a weird silence.  Finally, as the Cavs inbound pass comes to Waiters and the clock expires, pause ends.  We are again a missle through the open roof and rocketed out, reaching.  

Also, that local celeb guy, Cleveland Superpimp, was at the game wearing this purple suit.  He must have been in the military, because he was on the court with all these military guys before the game.  That guy on the right probably checked his credentials after the game though. #SuperpimpArmy    (Superpimp's Instagram)

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