CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving slammed Philadelphia 76ers forward Justin Anderson into the sideline to earn a flagrant foul less than 90 seconds into the game Friday night and declared it payback for rough treatment of Cavaliers teammate LeBron James.
Anderson appeared to shove James from behind moments before and James fell to the court. Irving reacted when Anderson next got the ball and pushed him into the Sixers’ bench.
“Whether it was malicious or not … I kinda saw Justin kinda lower his shoulder and knock down Bron,” Irving said. “I was like … I gotta do something, I’ve got to protect my brother. A lot of late hits on Bron, a lot of guys trying to get one over on him. It’s over for that, it’s over for that.”
Said James: “He was protecting me from getting shoved. It’s about it being a brotherhood around here and not letting anything happen to each other.”
The play seemed to set a tone for the Cavs, who jumped out to a huge first-half lead and broke their three-game losing streak with a 122-105 victory.
The team had meetings in the locker room following losses in San Antonio and Chicago earlier this week. Prior to the game Friday, coach Tyronn Lue indicated it was time to stop talking and to start acting.
Irving, who had 24 points, appeared to look for an opportunity to send a message early in the game.
“The guys talked last night, a good talk amongst themselves,” Lue said. “Now we have to play. We’ve had enough talk over the last couple of weeks.”
Irving’s aggressive reaction seemed to surprise Anderson, who said neither his play nor Irving’s was dirty.
“He was just protecting his teammate. I think he saw LeBron went down … He fell, and it was kind of weird because I didn’t think he was going to fall as big as he was,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a dirty play on my end and I don’t think it was dirty on his. I was fine and we continued to move on.”
Some Cavs players watched the end of the Boston Celtics’ one-point victory over the Orlando Magic in the locker room. It kept the team a half-game back for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with less than two weeks left in the regular season. After a 7-10 March that cost them playoff positioning, the Cavs showed signs of improved defense over the past few games and now some renewed fight they hope will help trigger a turnaround.
“Our process was probably started about five-six days ago,” Irving said, referring to the team meeting following the loss in San Antonio. “Now the seed’s been planted and now it’s just going to grow. So I’m excited about it.”