Kyle Korver hits a three late in the fourth quarter to cut the Philadelphia 76ers' lead, as big as 13 earlier in the frame, down to one. The Sixers have missed a couple chip shots and a number of free throws, Joel Embiid has struggled from the floor all night, and Ben Simmons is a foul away from getting himself DQ'd. Oh, and LeBron James is on the other side. You can think of any number of ways for this game to end for the Sixers, and none of them are all that good.
But somehow, Philly not only held on for the win in Cleveland last night, they surged back to win handily, 108-97 -- and they were disrespectful about it.
Dario Saric nailed a three from the corner to get Philly some breathing room, then stared down the nearby Cavs bench. Embiid hit a fadeaway over double coverage, then dedicated it to a heckler in the stands. By the time Simmons inbounded off an inattentive Cleveland defender and drove for an uncontested dunk (what!?!?!?) the game was so over that the TNT crew didn't even seem to register what had just happened. LeBron didn't even score in the final three minutes.
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I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to call this the biggest win of the Sixers season. On the road, on national TV, following two straight losses (including the heartbreaker in Miami), against a team they haven't beaten in years -- and without either particularly scorching three-point shooting (10-30), or a particularly dominant Embiid outing (17 points on 7-18 FG). It's huge that they were able to pull this one out, and bodes extremely well for their postseason readiness.
How did they do it? Well, ball security definitely helps: just nine turnovers in this one, after coughing it up 20-plus times in Miami. Ben Simmons was all-around brilliant as well, posting an 18-9-8 on 8-14 shooting, with a couple huge steals, and keeping the Sixers liquid in the third quarter with his repeated abuse of Cedi Osman in the post. And even though Embiid struggled from the field (and the line, where he had an uncharacteristic 3-8 night), he was a monster on the boards, grabbing 14 of 'em, and also handed out six assists, and made his usual huge impact on defense, particularly late.
And as much as you can quantify this stuff, the Sixers just seemed ready. Earlier this season, they would've undoubtedly folded down the stretch, but this time they stayed calm, they executed, and they showed what happens when a team plays well down the stretch without having to deal with a player getting an entire season's worth of unlikely makes and preferential foul calls at the other end. (No, I'm not still seething about that Dwyane Wade game or anything.) They showed what we might be able to expect from their first playoff appearance in six seasons, and it couldn't be much more encouraging.
Of course, the talking points from this one probably won't have much to do with the Sixers' postseason push. One will be about the Sixers' final bucket of the game -- an uncontested Saric dunk with 14 seconds to go and the game already well in hand, which new Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson was unappreciative of, angrily (though not all that aggressively) spiking the ball off Saric in response. It was definitely a little Bush League of Dario, but I was mostly with Chris Webber on the TNT broadcast -- it's on the Cavs for putting themselves in the situation to let The Homie bite his thumb at them like that.
And the second point will be about if the Sixers might've given LeBron reason to give them a second look in free agency this summer. Hard to argue that The King wouldn't be better off trading his supporting cast for these Sixers at this point -- his 30 points (to go with nine boards and eight assist) matched the combined total for the rest of Cleveland's starting lineup last night -- though he may still get his chance to avenge this loss against Philly in the playoffs, before taking any kind of walk of shame all the way to Philadelphia in the offseason.
But then again, LeBron probably doesn't want to see Philly in the first round this spring, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the East does, either. Let's let the venerable Zach Lowe of ESPN get the final word here on the current state of The Process:
Sixers are a problem. Starting five remains one of the league's best lineup. That was just a good, solid win. Nothing nutty about it. Just a good team going on the road and doing business.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 2, 2018