Torrid second half carries Villanova to Sweet 16

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 81, Alabama 58 – Box Score

For years, the identity for the Villanova Wildcats has been to live by the three, die by the three. Saturday afternoon’s second round game against Alabama was the extreme example of that, as Villanova attempted a whopping 41 threes out of their 63 field goal attempts, a clip even well above their already high season average of 29 attempts per game.

Safe to say, with the three by their side, the Wildcats were living large. Initially, with Omari Spellman and Jalen Brunson both saddled with two fouls, and Mikal Bridges oddly struggling with just 1 point on 0-5 shooting in the first half, DiVincenzo basically carried the entire scoring load for Villanova. DiVincenzo scored all 18 of his points in the first half, going 5-9 from three prior to the break.

The sophomore guard caught fire in literal NBA Jam fashion, canning three straight triples over a two-minute stretch to take the Wildcats from being tied at 13 to ahead 22-15. DiVincenzo even sent the Wildcats into the locker room happy, knocking down yet another three-ball with just seconds remaining in the half.

Coming out of the break, DiVincenzo passed the torch to his teammates, and Villanova started the second half on a blistering 18-1 run. Mikal Bridges shook off whatever malaise was affecting him in the first half, one-upping DiVincenzo by draining four threes in a two-minute period.

In all, the Wildcats made their first six three-pointers of the second half, and suddenly a game that looked very much in doubt was pushing a 30-point margin of victory. Bridges scored 22 points in the second half to finish with a game-high 23 points, including a 5-8 mark from three. That knockdown shooting will serve Bridges well at the next level, with NBA teams salivating at his 3&D potential. But first, the potential top-10 pick has as many as four more games to win in a Villanova uniform.

Now, the Wildcats will head to Boston for next week’s Sweet 16, where they’ll take on the winner of the West Virginia-Marshall game. Through two games of the tournament, Villanova has made 15.5 threes per game, significantly above Savannah State’s Division-1-leading average of 12.2 per game this season. If the Wildcats keep working the ball around and knocking down threes at a similar rate, it doesn’t matter who will take the floor against them. Through one weekend, it’s looking more and more like we could expect another One Shining Moment for the Main Line.

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Villanova handles its business against Radford

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 87, Radford 61 – Box Score

Considering the lofty expectations placed upon it, it’s pretty remarkable that the opening day of March Madness could be said to have lived up to the hype. The very first game of the day went to overtime between Rhode Island and Oklahoma, both Loyola-Chicago and Houston won on last-second shots, and we saw any number of exciting, competitive games along the way. However, when you’re a #1 seed heading into an opening round game favored by over 20 points, the last thing you would want associated with your game is excitement.

Fortunately for Villanova fans, Thursday evening’s game between the Wildcats and Radford was the snoozer most anticipated. The Wildcats absolutely dominated the action on both sides of the floor, making nearly 60% of their field goals and going 14-27 (51.9%) from three, while holding Radford to just 33.9% shooting from the field. In trademark Villanova fashion, it was a perfectly balanced effort. Each of the five starters knocked down at least two triples and scored in double digits, led by Jalen Brunson with 16 points on 7-9 shooting.

Villanova initially put the game out of reach with a a 22-1 run in the first half to take a 23-point advantage. Then, coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats made it clear that the second half wouldn’t be any different. A few minutes into the second frame, Villanova went on an 11-0 surge, highlighted by this ferocious dunk by Omari Spellman on a steal and runout in the open court.

Midway through the second half, even the staunchest Villanova supporters were ready to flip to the Kentucky game. Head coach Jay Wright was able to empty the bench and make it so no Wildcat reached 30 minutes on the game. A dominating victory where everyone stays well-rested and healthy; it’s all you could ask for to start off your tournament run as a top seed.

The next test for the Wildcats may not be as easy. Villanova will take on star guard Collin Sexton and Alabama in the opening game Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide are coming off a 3-point victory yesterday against Virginia Tech, a game in which Sexton carried the load with 25 points and 6 assists. We should see quite an exciting show with Mikal Bridges looking to shut down Sexton in a battle of projected NBA lottery picks. Until then, Villanova fans are happy to have left the excitement to others.

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Top-seeded Kansas too much for the Quakers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Kansas 76, Pennsylvania 60 – Box Score

Widely considered to be under-seeded as a #16 seed, Penn was receiving a lot of buzz as potentially the first men’s basketball team in tournament history to knock off a #1 seed in the first round. In the early going, it looked like the Quakers might pull off the improbable against Kansas. An Antonio Woods lay-up gave the Quakers a 21-11 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the first half, allowing fans in University City and the greater Philadelphia area to start to believe.

With the sort of talent disparity inherently a part of any 1-16 matchup though, the lower-seeded team needs to play a nearly flawless 40 minutes to keep it close. Unfortunately for the Quakers, they hurt themselves in a lot of ways. Penn made just one of their first eight shots from the free throw line, finishing 5-14 for the game. They also lost the turnover battle, 11-8, with most of those turnovers coming early when the Quakers could have been building on their lead.

Instead, Kansas quickly got back into game, ending the first half on a 22-5 run, propelled by a transcendent performance from national player of the year candidate Devonte’ Graham. The Jayhawks point guard was everywhere on the court, finishing with 29 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals, while only turning it over twice. Any time the Quakers threatened to get back into the game, Graham would come through with a big three or drive to the basket and earn himself a trip to the free throw line.

While Graham could basically create offense for himself at will, Penn had to work incredibly hard for anything it got. The usual offense for AJ Brodeur wasn’t there against a large, athletic Kansas defense; the sophomore big man led the Quakers with 14 points, but shot just 6-16 from the field and turned it over 5 times. Too often, Penn settled for a Caleb Wood three-point attempt (4-12) as a last resort when it couldn’t get a good look out of its normal offensive sets. Although it was still a single digit game with as few as 7 minutes remaining, it never felt like Penn had one big run in them to pull off the historic upset.

Yet, all in all, the Quakers acquitted themselves well on the national stage against one of the top teams in the country. Surely, the school’s first tournament appearance in 11 years will greatly help the recruiting process for Steve Donahue and the coaching staff. For a Penn program that has already far exceeded expectations in its rebuild process, Thursday afternoon was another step in the right direction.

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Villanova and Penn tip off in NCAA Tournament Action

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Embed from Getty Images

Selection Sunday whets the appetite, and the First Four serves as an adequate appetizer, but beginning at noon on Thursday, we’ll finally receive the main course with the tip-off of the 2018 NCAA tournament. While watching any game in the tournament field can make for an exciting viewing experience, college basketball fans in the Philadelphia area have the added bonus of not one, but two teams in the field of 64.

Villanova finds itself in the tournament for the sixth straight season, a run obviously highlighted by the school’s 2016 National Championship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Penn returns to the postseason for the first time since 2007. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait until day two to see these two Big Five schools in action, with both schools set to take the floor Thursday.

#16 Penn vs. #1 Kansas – 2:00pm

Steve Donahue’s club exceeded all expectations this season, both winning the Ivy League regular season title and prevailing over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament final to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the tournament. Popular consensus appears to be that the Quakers were jobbed in receiving a 16-seed, and the data backs it up. According to 538’s Elo Rating, the Quakers are the best 16th seed of all time.

As a result, a groundswell has bubbled up that if ever a 16-seed is going to beat a 1-seed (they’re 0-132 thus far), this might be the time it happens. The first thing helping Penn’s cause is Kansas’ 7’0″ center Udoka Azubuike potentially being hampered by a knee injury that caused him to miss the Big 12 tournament. If he’s not at full strength, that would be a huge boon for a Penn roster that will be undersized to the Jayhawks, particularly for the scoring prospects of Quakers star big man AJ Brodeur.

Also, a lot has been made about how Penn has the second-best three-point field goal defense in the country. If the Quakers’ ability to defend on the perimeter proves to be more of an inherent ability than random variance, they could neutralize a Kansas team that shot 40.3% from behind the arc (12th-best nationally) and made the 10th-most threes in the country this season. Turn this game into a three-point shootout and force the Jayhawks to miss more than usual and you have a chance. Or so the story goes.

Yet, then there’s senior Devonte’ Graham, who earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors, leading the Jayhawks in scoring (17.3 ppg) and assists (7.5 apg). He’s the type of impactful guard that can put a team on his back in this tournament. Meanwhile, fellow senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, knocking down 45.3% of his triples on close to 7 attempts per game. It’s one thing to defend well in the Ivy League and against the soft non-conference schedule the Quakers played this season. These Jayhawks are in a different class.

Undeniably, there’s a huge talent disparity between the two teams, and just making the tournament is a terrific accomplishment for a Penn program that had its first above-.500 season since 2011-12. Still, they call it March Madness for a reason and a 1-seed has to lose eventually. Why not now? Maybe?

#1 Villanova vs. #16 Radford – 6:50pm

Later in the day, Jay Wright’s squad will begin their tournament run coming off last weekend’s exciting overtime victory over Providence to win the Big East Tournament. Near the top of the polls all season, with quite a few weeks as the #1 team in the nation, Villanova enters the tournament field as the second 1-seed behind Virginia. Most importantly for the Wildcats, Jay Wright has his 8-man rotation back to full health, after missing guards Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie for prolonged stretches this season.

The wonderfully-named Radford Highlanders enter the field of 64 having won eight straight games, most recently defeating LIU-Brooklyn 71-61 in Tuesday night’s First Four contest. Radford is led in both scoring and rebounding by 6’5″ junior Ed Polite, Jr., who recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds against LIU-Brooklyn. As is the case for many mid-majors, the Big South champions lack size; no one on the roster for the Highlanders stands taller than 6’8″.

Really though, there’s no need to overthink this game. Remember that 0-132 thing about 16-seeds against 1-seeds? While people are trying to talk up Penn, no one gives Radford much of a chance. Villanova has a projected lottery pick in Mikal Bridges and one of the four Naismith finalists in Jalen Brunson. That level of talent should simply overwhelm the Highlanders. The Wildcats should safely advance and take on the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama on Saturday.

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Pacers prevail over Sixers in potential playoff preview

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Indiana 101, Philadelphia 98 – Box Score

If the NBA playoffs had tipped off Tuesday night, the Pacers and Sixers would have faced each other as the 3 vs. 6 matchup in the Eastern Conference. Unsurprisingly then, the Wells Fargo Center had a playoff atmosphere to it during the final regular meeting between the two teams. Everyone on hand recognized the terrific chance for Philadelphia to make a serious move up the standings, as the game was one of only three remaining for the Sixers against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

As we so often see from young teams though, the Sixers did not look quite ready for the “playoff stage”. Despite Robert Covington holding Indiana star Victor Oladipo to 11 points on 4-21 shooting, Philadelphia’s own miscues held them back from victory. The Sixers turned the ball over 21 times, with Joel Embiid himself nearly matching the turnover total of the entire Pacers team (8 for Joel compared to 9 for Indiana). Philadelphia also did a poor job on the defensive glass; Indiana had 14 offensive rebounds, including 5 by longtime Sixer Thad Young, still turning garbage into gold while wearing Pacers gold.

While his turnovers were crippling to the team’s chances, Embiid was still the team’s most reliable weapon on the evening, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Thanks to Embiid’s 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were in a position to tie the game in the closing seconds. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the big man’s three-point attempt to send the game to overtime came up short.

Somewhat under the radar, Ben Simmons finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. It was Simmons’ seventh triple-double of the season, tying Magic Johnson for second-most ever by a rookie (no one is catching the 26 as a rookie by Oscar Robertson). Still, as impressive as that accomplishment is, you’d like to see more aggressiveness from your team’s lead ball handler. Simmons did not attempt a single shot in over 9 minutes of action in the fourth quarter and only had 2 free throw attempts on the game. I know the team is feeding Embiid down the stretch, but it would be nice for Philadelphia’s other young star to help carry the late-game burden.

A win would have pulled the Sixers within one game of Indiana in the standings; instead, they’re now three games back of the third seed, seemingly too wide a gap this late in the season. They’re also just a half-game up on Milwaukee for 7th place and a full game ahead of Miami for 8th. Yet, Tuesday night’s loss was remarkably the first for the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. Their next 5 games come against the Knicks, Nets, Hornets, Grizzlies, and Magic. I wouldn’t worry quite yet.

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Sixers crisply handle their business in Brooklyn

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 120, Brooklyn 97 – Box Score

With many of the eyes in the basketball world focused on college basketball’s Selection Sunday, it would be easy to forget the crucial playoff races taking place in the NBA’s final weeks. Fortunately for Philadelphia fans, there were no signs of distraction from the Sixers, who took care of business in Brooklyn from the very beginning of the Sunday night’s game.

After the Nets converted on their opening possession, the Sixers scored the game’s next 10 points and never looked back. Philadelphia shot a blistering 67% from the field prior to halftime, recording yet another 70-point first half. Following years of watching the Sixers slog their way along with a league-worst offense, these recent scoring outbursts have looked like watching an entirely different sport. Although the defense was slow to get going, the Sixers finally got their act together in the final period. holding Brooklyn to 14 points in the fourth quarter to enable Brett Brown to empty the entire bench for the game’s last handful of minutes.

For the Sixers, it was the sort of balanced team effort coaches dream about when they first drape thew whistle around their necks. All five starters finished in double figures, as did Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, and T.J. McConnell off the bench. McConnell was at his utmost peskiest with 6 assists and 4 steals. Robert Covington shook off his 0-10 performance against Miami, going 3-7 from three, and chipping in with 4 assists, a steal, and 2 blocks. Joel Embiid led the way with an efficient 21 points, and Dario Saric tallied 18 points on 8-11 shooting.

Throughout the game, the Sixers did a terrific job moving without the ball and finding their teammates with crisp, occasionally inventive passes. Philadelphia nearly doubled Brooklyn’s assist total (33-17), and most against character, only turned it over 9 times.

The following play was emblematic of the beauty on display all night at the Barclays Center. With Embiid drawing attention out of the post, Covington took advantage of Spencer Dinwiddie turning his back to his own man, and made the proper dive to the basket. A perfect bounce pass from JoJo and the finish from RoCo equaled two points for Philadelphia. Over and over again, the Sixers carved up the Nets defense with that kind of surgical precision.

Sunday marked the beginning of what is a very easy end-of-the-season schedule for Philadelphia, as noted by Vice Sports’ Michael Pina.

Still, the Sixers have to take care of business on the court. After all, they already lost to the Nets in the team’s first meeting. Sunday night in Brooklyn was the ideal scenario, proper execution allowing the superior talent to shine through, enabling some rest for Embiid and the starters in the closing minutes. The win kept the Sixers one game ahead of Miami and just 2 games behind Indiana for third place, with Cleveland and Washington in-between in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

Philadelphia can make up ground on Indiana tomorrow night at home, before a very favorable five-game stretch featuring the Knicks, Nets, Hornets, Grizzlies, and Magic. A win against the Pacers and we could easily be looking at a third-place Sixers team in two weeks.

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Weary Sixers fall in Miami

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Miami 108, Philadelphia 99 – Box Score

With less than 20 games left in the regular season, every game is critical at this point. Facing a Miami team directly behind them in the standings though, Thursday night’s game in South Beach carried an added bit of importance for the Sixers. Ultimately, whether it was due to it being the third game of a 4-game road trip, the famous nightlife in the city where the heat is on (to use a Philadelphia native’s phrase), or simply an off night in a long NBA season, the Sixers just didn’t have the energy to turn it up in the fourth quarter and come away with the victory.

Philadelphia led by 1 heading into the final frame, but a few minutes into the fourth, the Heat went on a 10-1 run to pull away. The Sixers struggled with their usual unforced turnover difficulties (18 on the game, 1 above their season average), and exhibited low energy on the defensive end. Miami went off for 35 points in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers couldn’t string the necessary stops together to make a game of it down the stretch. It certainly didn’t help that the Heat were on fire from the outside, shooting 14-26 from behind the arc, or that Dwyane Wade once again made it look like he found the Fountain of Youth in his return to Miami, scoring 16 points off the bench. Seriously, does this look like the guy people have been calling washed up for months, if not years?

Often this season, when the Sixers have been struggling to this degree, they’ve leaned on Joel Embiid to play like an MVP-caliber talent and rule the day. Lately though, the big man has been struggling, as it appears he’s hit a wall in the face of the largest workload of his life. The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann noted that Embiid has now played more minutes this season than his past four years combined.

The 1,650 minute threshold carries additional significance. As pointed out by Bobby Marks, it was the necessary mark set by the team within Embiid’s rookie extension to bypass the injury clause; Embiid now needs to reach the mark in at least two of the next three seasons.

Clearly, the front office viewed this workload as evidence of a successful season; Embiid has reached it with a month left. But he looks a little worse for wear as a result. After Dwight Howard scored 30 two nights earlier, Hassan Whiteside worked his way against Embiid for 26 points on 9-12 shooting. Embiid had no steals or blocks, unusual for a man as generally active as him defensively. On the offensive end, Embiid shot just 5-18 from the field, with many of his jumpers simply coming up short, clear evidence of not having his legs.

That’s not to pin the loss on Joel; I’m just pointing out that so often he’s been good enough to lift everyone else up, and that hasn’t been there lately for perfectly understandable reasons. The rest of the supporting cast needs to play better. Aside from J.J. Redick, who scored 18 points on 4-6 shooting from three, even the guys who contributed something had a “yeah, but” aspect to their night.

Dario Saric led the team with 20 points, continuing his torrid shooting stretch by knocking down 4 of 7 three-pointers. Yeah, but he led the turnover brigade with 6 giveaways.

Ben Simmons had a well-rounded line of 10 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Yeah, but he had 5 turnovers himself.

Robert Covington was the team’s best defender, coming away with a game-high 4 steals and a outstanding block to deny a Heat lay-up in transition. Yeah, but he shot an absolutely putrid 0-10 from the field.

Either Embiid needs to play like an All-NBA player, or the rest of the team has to be nearly flawless. Neither thing occurred Thursday night and the Sixers dropped their second game of the road trip as a result. They’re now tied in the season series with Miami (the next tiebreaker will be conference record) and hold a one-game advantage over the Heat in the standings, while sitting 1.5 games back of 5th-place Indiana. Every game matters. Fortunately, Sunday in Brooklyn should prove as an easier way to close out the road trip before heading back to Philadelphia.

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Sixers get back on track in Charlotte

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 128, Charlotte 114 – Box Score

After a one-game detour with whatever the heck happened in Milwaukee Sunday night, the Sixers got back on the road to success Tuesday night in the Queen City. For the second straight game, Philadelphia jumped out to a hot start, again scoring over 70 points in the first half. A 21-4 run late in the second quarter turned a 2-point deficit into a 15-point lead, and this time around, there would be no blowing the double-digit lead.

It was a total team effort across the board for Philadelphia, with all five starters finishing with at least 14 points, but the top star on both ends of the court was Robert Covington. Much maligned lately while stuck in a prolonged shooting slump, the forward led the team with 22 points, shooting 5-9 from three. It was the first 20-point game for Covington since December. Hopefully, this performance was a sign that the streaky shooter is entering one of his hot stretches.

On the defensive side of the ball, Covington was the primary defender on Kemba Walker, hounding the All-Star point guard into just 5 points on 1-9 shooting. As if that stellar work wasn’t enough, Covington also blocked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist so hard that MKG was ejected seconds later for arguing the no-foul call.

While Covington’s night represented a positive turnaround, one guy who hasn’t been struggling with his shot and just needed to keep the train rolling is Dario Saric. The Homie continued his stellar sophomore season, knocking down 4 of 7 threes for 19 points; he is now shooting 38.7% from downtown on the season.

Meanwhile, the guy who gets knocked for not shooting threes at all, keeps getting it done regardless. Ben Simmons tallied 16 points on 8-9 shooting from the field, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists. When he’s not orchestrating the offense, Simmons does a tremendous job either slashing off the ball in the half court or getting out in transition to finish around the basket. One left-handed alley-oop slam off a T.J. McConnell dish had the decent-sized Sixers contingent in attendance going wild.

Unlike the Milwaukee game, the Sixers received a better effort from the bench, helping to maintain that lead when the starters needed a blow. Both Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Bellinelli finished with 11 points, with Ilyasova taking a handful of charges and Belinelli finishing a game-high +26 in his 28 minutes.

This was was nothing special. It didn’t require transcendent play from Philadelphia’s young stars. Rather, we just saw a solid roster of players doing a good job playing within themselves and capably handling business on the road. In a tightly-packed Eastern Conference where the Sixers currently find themselves sitting in 6th place, here’s hoping we see more performance like it.

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Sixers double down on blown leads in loss to Milwaukee

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

-Milwaukee 118, Philadelphia 110 – Box Score

And the Oscar for biggest collapse goes to…it’s a tie! The winners are the Philadelphia 76ers in the first quarter and the Philadelphia 76ers in the third quarter.

Although they’ve been much better in this area recently, the Sixers have certainly lost their share of big leads this season. However, I don’t think there was a game this season prior to Sunday night when the team lost not one, but two huge leads. In the process, the team missed a huge opportunity to advance in the Eastern Conference standings.

With over 400 listeners of the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast in attendance, chanting “Trust the Process” and cheering on the Sixers, there were plenty of times Sunday night’s game in Milwaukee sounded like a Sixers home game. At the onset, the team played like they have in not losing in South Philadelphia in 2018. There was a 10-0 run to start the game. Dario Saric (25 points on 9-11 shooting) shot a perfect 6-6 from the field for 15 points in the first 9 minutes of the game. Ben Simmons had 8 assists in the first quarter alone. The Sixers led by as many as 20 points and finished with a whopping 43 points in the opening frame.

Of course, it was still far too early to consider the game over. Suddenly, a Jabari Parker buzzer-beating three to end the quarter, followed by some knockdown triples from the immortal Jason Terry, and the Bucks had fought their way back to tie the game at 51. Not to worry though. The Sixers immediately went on a 7-0 run to retake control. Former Buck J.J. Redick (17 points, 4-6 from three) hit a couple big threes, and Philadelphia was back up 12 at halftime. They would extend the lead to 19 a few minutes into the third quarter. Surely, this time the lead would stick?

Alas, the first collapse was mere prelude to the Day After Tomorrow-like meltdown the Sixers underwent in the third quarter. Milwaukee ended the quarter on a 21-0 run; after leading in the quarter by as many as 19, they entered the fourth trailing by 7.

While it’s nice the Sixers have two unicorns, the Bucks have one of their own and Giannis Antetokounmpo was an unstoppable force of nature in the second half. He accounted for 14 points and 2 assists in the third, ending the game with a ridiculous line of 35 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.

While Philadelphia had no answer for the Greek Freak, a 21-0 run takes a two-sided effort, and the team absolutely shot themselves in the foot on the other end of the court. The Sixers gave the ball away 9 times in the third quarter alone, on their way to a season-high 26 turnovers. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for as many turnovers (13) as Milwaukee had as an entire team, and former Redick somehow had 5 giveaways, forcing sloppy passes in traffic and even dribbling it off his foot out-of-bounds at one point.

The Sixers didn’t have a third big surge in them, missing a golden opportunity to move into 5th place and just 1 game back of 3rd-place Cleveland in the standings. Instead, they remain in 6th place, with Milwaukee a half-game back and now leading the season series 2-1. On the surface, a road loss to Milwaukee where Giannis plays like an All-NBA level talent isn’t inexcusable. But the Sixers showed they’re the better team in building those 20 and 19-point leads. More than anything, they beat themselves. When they’re ripping off 7 straight wins and topping LeBron on the road, it’s easy to forget they’re still a team led by very young stars. Nights like Sunday in Milwaukee bring it back into perspective.

Yet, what other fan base would head to Milwaukee in droves to protest the franchise center missing out on Rookie of the Year? There’s still something special here. Don’t forget it because of one terrible game.

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Sixers show LeBron they’re ready for the big stage

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 108, Cleveland 97 – Box Score

There was no shortage of storylines heading into Philadelphia’s nationally-televised game in Cleveland Thursday night. Milwaukee had lost the night before, giving the Sixers a lead by mere percentage points for 6th place in the Eastern Conference. Of course, because the game was in Cleveland, and involved LeBron James, everything was about the possibility of his coming to Philadelphia in free agency in July.

We had the Philadelphia-area business buying billboards outside Cleveland imploring LeBron to come to Philadelphia (which LeBron deemed “dope”), rumors about him or a representative visiting high schools in the Philadelphia area for his son over the All-Star break (which LeBron fiercely denied), and all the chatter among those in the know in the league in recent weeks, with some folks even considering it a 50/50 proposition.

All the months-away drama and speculation aside, the action on the court Thursday night turned out to be equally captivating. Fresh off a month of February where he averaged a triple-double, King James certainly came to play, logging 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists across 39 minutes of action. LeBron was clearly in “flip the switch” mode, attacking the basket time and time again as only a 6’8″ statue of marble with T-1000-like maneuverability can. This play where he somehow dribbled behind his back and between his own teammates’ legs, before switching hands in mid-air to absorb the contact and make the lay-up, is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen. I don’t care one bit if the Tristan Thompson aspect of it was a little lucky.

Fortunately for the Sixers, LeBron didn’t have much help from his Cavaliers teammates. Filling in for a suspended J.R. Smith in the starting lineup, Rodney Hood was a -20 in 39 minutes, shooting 5-14 from the field. Overall, Cavaliers not considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game shot just 38.1% on the evening.

Hey LeBron, do you know where you could get some help? In Philadelphia, with young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It wasn’t even one of Embiid’s better games, shooting 7-18 from the field, but he still ended up with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists. Most amazingly, he showed off what I think is his absolute ceiling (but who knows at this point) for scoring the basketball no matter what the defense throws at him. Late in the fourth quarter, Embiid sank a spinning, fadeaway, baseline jumper with two Cavaliers draped on him. After the game, he said he was channeling his inner Kobe. I don’t care who he’s trying to emulate; I just know there’s nothing anybody in this or any other league across all of time could do to stop it.

As for LeBron’s Klutch Sports protege, Ben Simmons, he was clearly trying to show out for his mentor. The Rookie of the Year favorite was more aggressive than usual, attempting four shots from outside 10 feet (only making one, but the threat was there), and just showing no fear in attacking LeBron in isolation situations. Simmons was pivotal during the third quarter, scoring 10 of the team’s 18 points to help keep the Sixers in the driver’s seat. On the whole, he played a tremendous, all-around efficient game, finishing with 18 points on 8-14 shooting, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. It was a line LeBron would have been proud of while playing as the Sixers in NBA 2k.

After the game, LeBron further fanned the flames of the heading-to-Philadelphia narrative, shouting out Simmons and Embiid on Instragram. You know, as one normally does when getting beaten by an up-and-coming team that you could face in the playoffs.

There is also plenty for Sixers fans to be excited about in the here and now. The win maintains their 6th spot in the East, and they’re only 2.5 games behind Cleveland for 3rd place. More importantly, they just went on the road and calmly took care of business against a team many still consider the favorite to reach the Finals. The stars showed out, J.J. Redick shook off his miss at the buzzer last game to have a hot shooting night, Dario Saric was knocking down shots and getting chippy with the Cleveland bench. What more could you want from this team right now? Let’s enjoy this incredibly fun season and worry about LeBron later.

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