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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