CLEVELAND (AP)—A promising season has turned into something else for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Panic.
Not long ago, the playoffs looked like a sure thing. Now, nothing about the Cavs’ future is certain.
Jamal Crawford scored 25 points and Maurice Taylor had 16, including 11 in the fourth quarter, as the New York Knicks damaged Cleveland’s playoff chances with a 95-89 win over the Cavaliers on Thursday night.
“It was like we were just playing to play,” LeBron James said. “It wasn’t like we were playing for a playoff spot. We had no sense of urgency and I don’t know why. Hopefully, this game won’t come back to haunt us.”
With guard Stephon Marbury watching from the bench for the entire fourth quarter, the Knicks held off Cleveland’s rally and handed the Cavs a loss they couldn’t afford with less than a week left in the regular season.
James scored 27 points on 7-of-25 shooting—4-of-13 on 3-pointers—and had a career-high 18 rebounds for the Cavaliers (40-38), who are tied with Philadelphia (40-38) for the No. 7 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but would lose a tiebreaker to the 76ers, who defeated Miami 126-119 in overtime.
Cleveland leads idle New Jersey (38-40) by two games in the standings with four games left, but three of those are on the road. Also, the Cavs would lose a tiebreaker to the Nets, which is why this game, the Cavs’ third straight against a non-playoff team, was one they couldn’t let slip away.
But now that they have, the Cavs, who play in Washington on Friday, are in a spot they never imagined possible a month ago when they seemed destined to make their first trip to the playoffs since 1998.
“It’s going to be tough now, man,” said Cavs forward Drew Gooden. “Our backs are against the wall. It’s like the NCAA tournament for us—one loss and we’re out.”
The Knicks, who blew a 12-point lead in the third quarter when James had 11 points and nine rebounds, took control in the fourth behind Taylor. He made five of his first six shots to open the period to help New York build an 87-77 lead with 4:57 left.
During New York’s spurt, the Cavaliers turned the ball over five times. They had eight turnovers overall in the fourth quarter.
“We just turned the ball over down at the end,” said Cavs interim coach Brendan Malone. “We didn’t handle it well.”
James, though, made a pair of 3-pointers and fed Robert Traylor for a dunk as Cleveland cut it to 93-89 with 1:26 to go. But James couldn’t come up with a big 3-pointer, and the Knicks held on despite making just 2-of-8 free throws in the final minute.
The Knicks, who were beaten here by 25 points on Jan. 8, snapped a seven-game losing streak in Cleveland. They did it by making James beat them from the outside.
“We wanted to make him into a jump shooter,” said New York coach Herb Williams. “We wanted to keep him out of the lane.”
All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned to the Cavaliers’ starting lineup after missing four games with a dislocated right ring finger. He finished with 13 points in 27 minutes.
Down by 12 points midway through the third quarter, James and the Cavaliers finally began playing as if their season was on the line. He hit a 3-pointer and scored on a dunk during an 11-2 run that brought Cleveland within 67-64.
James made two free throws to give the Cavs a 70-69 lead and then pulled down another rebound, his ninth of the period, before Eric Snow’s layup put Cleveland up 72-70 going into the fourth.
With filmmaker Spike Lee fantasizing about him in a Knicks uniform and daily rumors swirling that he’ll demand a trade, James said he’s only focused on getting the Cavs to the playoffs. “He’s a good dude,” James said of Lee, whom he filmed a commercial with last year. “I don’t want to get into that. I’m more worried about wearing the Cavaliers uniform every night.” … Cavs owner Dan Gilbert dismissed the speculation about James’ future. “LeBron is here for three more years,” he said, pounding his fist into his hand for emphasis. “We hope he’s here for his whole career, and we’re going to do what we can to make that happen.” … Malone was twice an assistant coach on New York’s staff. His son, Michael, is a Knicks assistant. … James has played 3,200 minutes this season, breaking Wesley Person’s team record (3,198) set in 1997-98. … New York’s previous win in Cleveland was on March 20, 2001.