By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
— x – Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 7, 2018
Philadelphia 132, Cleveland 130 – Box Score
Maybe it had to end that way. The Sixers had led Cleveland by as many as 30 points and were ahead by 23 at halftime. Then, in a throwback to December of 2017, Philadelphia gave up 43 points in the third quarter, allowing the Cavaliers to eventually trim the gap to as little as 1 point in the game’s final minute. So when Robert Covington was whistled for a foul with 1.9 seconds remaining, the Sixers up 3, and LeBron James ruled to be in the act of shooting from behind the arc, Philadelphia fans were mentally prepared for the gut punch to come. We had seen this movie far too many times before.
Except this time, the final blow never came. LeBron missed the second free throw, and after he intentionally missed the third, Cleveland’s tip-in attempt somehow didn’t go in and the Sixers escaped with the victory. It felt like an exorcism for every terrible loss we’ve had to sit through over the last however-many years. Arguably the greatest player of all time in the sport missed a free throw with a chance to tie the game and the Sixers won their 13th straight contest to move into 3rd place in the Eastern Conference with less than one week remaining in the regular season. 2018 is truly a charmed year for Philadelphia sports.
It was a memorable finish to a truly epic game. The first half was like a fever dream for Sixers fans, as the team dropped 78 points on the Cavs, their highest first half total since February 11, 1992. Ben Simmons was clearly fired up to face his mentor (and future teammate?) on such a big stage. Simmons finished two assists shy of a triple-double in the first half, eventually achieving the feat in the third quarter, thereby tying Russell Westbrook for an NBA-best 4 triple-doubles before the fourth quarter this season.
The rookie finished with an incredible 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, and 4 steals, but what really stood out was the flair he brought to the table for this game. Simmons was just routinely pulling off crazy, And-1 stuff like this behind-the-legs dribble into an assist:
— x – Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 6, 2018
Even the King wanted no part of Simmons when he was making his way down the lane.
Ben Simmons is special. pic.twitter.com/keMZTF3gaW
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) April 6, 2018
With Simmons simply everywhere on both ends, teammates were able to feed off that energy around him. J.J. Redick scored 19 of his his team-high 28 points prior to halftime, doing a terrific job running around screens and losing Cavaliers defenders who have, at best, a passing interest in playing defense. Likewise for Marco Belinelli, who had 12 points at the half, and eventually hit 6 threes on the night for 23 points. Markelle Fultz even hit a 20-footer! Everything was going right for Philadelphia.
Fultz is even hitting shots now pic.twitter.com/bG9RrRvm2f
— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) April 6, 2018
But you knew LeBron James wasn’t going to get punked like that. Not in this important a game. The King scored 19 points in his 8 minutes of playing time in the third quarter. He dropped another 16 in the fourth, and after starting the game 1-7 from the field, suddenly he’s looking at a 44-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist night. Seriously, Ersan Ilyasova had about as much chance here as the cow in Twister:
Yet, even LeBron’s heroics weren’t quite enough. This was the first time we saw Brett Brown coaching in a playoff-like atmosphere and the results were promising. He made the adjustment to start sending a double-team at LeBron in the final minutes. It resulted in consecutive open threes for Cedi Osman, who crucially, missed them. You live with having Osman try to beat you rather than letting LeBron keep torching you.
Brown perfectly subbed in units for free throw shooting, defense, or rebounding down the stretch. I also liked his decision to foul up three with under 30 seconds left. The final time, I maintain Covington has to realize they aren’t blowing the whistle right away and get his hands off LeBron once he starts going into his shooting motion.
In the end though, the Sixers survived King James and the once-every-few months explosion from Jeff Green (33 points), all without Joel Embiid! The big man was at the game and in good spirits following his surgery. Hopefully, if these two teams meet again in the next month or so, he’ll be in uniform.
For now, the Sixers are the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, which takes on added importance with the news that the 2nd-seed Celtics will be without Kyrie Irving until next season. Philadelphia’s remaining games come against tankers in Dallas and Atlanta, and a possible meaningless-for-them finale against the Bucks, so the path to finish 3rd is right in front of them. Plus, Indiana lost last night, so 1 Sixers win or 1 Pacers loss guarantees them at least the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round. But they fought for the 3-seed Friday night and they’ll look to keep it. From everyone I’m seeing, there will be even more epic battles to come.