Good results last night for Lakers' pick set to go to Philly

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Good results last night for Lakers' pick set to go to Philly

The Philadelphia 76ers won a weird one last night against the Hawks in Atlanta. Already without Joel Embiid for the seventh straight game, the Sixers also had a compromised Ben Simmons suffering from a stomach bug, and lost Dario Saric about 15 seconds into the game with a busted lip and chipped tooth, resulting in a game against an undermanned, super-lottery-bound Hawks squad where it still wasn't totally obvious most of the way who the playoff-bound roster was. It ended as a largely unconvincing 121-113 victory for Philly — but a Victory nonetheless, their 51st in 81 tries, and their 15th in a row, leaving their season-closing home game against the Milwaukee Bucks as the final challenge standing between them and entering the playoffs on a 16-game heater. 

All good stuff, but not what I was principally concerned with last night. The real scoreboard watching to be done as a Sixers fan Tuesday was for the Hornets-Pacers and Rockets-Lakers games, which remarkably both fell as the Process Phaithful would've hoped: The Hornets crushed the largely-resting Pacers in their 82nd game to finish the season at 36-46, while the Lakers fell to the Rockets at home to move to 34-47 for the year. With those two results, the Lakes clinched having a worse record than the Hornets for the year — which means they will enter this year's draft lottery in the tenth spot of the tanking rankings, and will most likely hand the No. 10 overall pick over to the 76ers shortly after. 

Of course, at season's beginning, we all had higher hopes for the Lakers pick. Personally, I was hoping it fell in the top five, meaning it would either transfer to us as the No. 1 pick or go to Boston at No. 2 to 5, which would mean we got a totally unprotected Sacramento Kings pick next year instead — a hell of a proposition, considering that team is never gonna be good. And it looked extremely likely for half the season, as a nine-game losing streak that stretched from late December to early January dropped them to a West-worst 11-27. But then the team somehow congealed well enough to win 12 of their next 16, and fought all the way back to 31-36, looking like they might land as low as 12th in the tanking rankings, particularly if the flailing Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons couldn't get their acts together in front of them. 

But luckily, the Hornets and Pistons leveled off a little, and the Lakers have gone 3-11 in their last 14, clinching a bottom-10 record for the NBA season. The chances of them jumping into the top three are pretty negligible — about 4 percent total — and there's about a 9 percent chance of them sliding back a spot. But that leaves a fat 87 percent chance of them sticking at No. 10, which is just fine by me — usually high enough in the draft to either grab the most reliable future role player or sometimes to snag the one potential future star that slips for reasons no one can adequately explain. Most importantly, it's one higher than No. 11 — the pick with which we took Michael Carter-Williams in 2013, who we traded a year and a half later for this Lakers pick — which is all the validation I could possibly need on that deal, certainly. 

Tonight we close the season playing for the three seed at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, a game that would leave the Sixers with as clear a path to the Eastern Conference Finals as could reasonably be expected if they win. It'll be a challenge for sure — the second night of a back-to-back, with an injury-ailed and increasingly tired-looking roster — but even if we lose, c'mon: atop-four seed and a top-10 draft pick in the same season. Sounds like time and money pretty well spent to me.

The playoffs started a week early for the Sixers

The playoffs started a week early for the Sixers

The playoffs started a week early for the 76ers. With the three seed likely on the line, the Sixers pounded the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half Friday night, but apparently not into total submission, as the Cavs came zooming back in the third to make it a game, and nearly stole it outright. Though their lead was tested to its absolute breaking beyond, it never snapped entirely, and the Sixers walked away dazed but victorious, 132-130.

Hard to know where to start with this one, so let's just start in the first half. There is nothing in basketball more fun than watching your up-and-coming group of fringe contenders straight blowing one of the league's actual contenders out of the water, as the Sixers put such a hurting on the Cavs it looked like there was no way they could recover before the clock ran out on the fourth. They were up 75-45, stunting on Cleveland and LeBron in just about every way possible — circus passes, dunks, blocks, threes on threes on threes. Cleveland was allowing open lanes to the basket, throwing the ball away, generally just looking disinterested in competing with the fully actualized 76ers. On a night like last night, it would've been hard to blame them.

But despite trailing by as much as 30, the Cavs ended the half on a 7-0 run that set the tone for the half to come. Cleveland started the third with two straight triples, and were increasingly indomitable from there, as the Sixers started pulling their old-fashioned third-quarter shenanigans of missing wide-open dunks (luv ya Amir Johnson!!) and running into each other on offense and dribbling the ball off their leg out of bounds. LeBron was LeBron, second night of a back-to-back be damned — nailing three-pointers with impunity, backing Marco Belinelli all the way to South Carolina, dunking through Ersan Ilyasova like he was a cardboard cutout of a defender.

Halfway through the third quarter, the lead was basically gone, causing many a flashback to the Warriors beat down of half a season prior, where the team doing the beating flipped halfway through and by the beginning of the fourth, it was already Golden State that was pulling away. But the Sixers never actually sacrificed the lead in this one — they somehow maintained it until the final buzzer, despite several times reaching what looked to be their absolute breaking point of elasticity. Every time the Cavs came within a bucket, Philly was able to maintain order — eventually ending up with a win that was even more impressive than if they'd just continued whooshing Cleveland off the floor for the full 48.

First and foremost, this was a Ben Simmons game. J.J. Redick scored 28, Robert Covington was amazing on defense, Markelle Fultz had his strongest game of the season off the bench, Marco Belinelli hit six threes, but Simmons was the guy who was at the heart of everything last night. I mentioned on Twitter last night that this version of Ben Simmons is already a better player than I thought he'd ever be, let alone as a rookie, and it's hard to know what much more you could want from him than he gave us last night: 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals, 12-17 FG, and a huge play seemingly whenever the Sixers desperately needed one (see story). He went toe-to-toe with the greatest player in the world -- his mentor, even, who's put him in his place in head-to-head matchups earlier this season — and to say he showed no fear would be an unfair implication that he shows any such emotion, like, ever. I won't say he's better or more important to this team than Joel Embiid, but I will say that I think if it was Embiid and no Simmons in that game last night, I don't think they would've been able to hold on.

And this team only just barely did, really. Jeff Green, who somehow scored 33 points on just 12 shots last night, hit a three with 12 seconds to go to make it a one-point Cavs advantage, and after a couple rounds of playing the foul game back and forth, Robert Covington somehow ended up putting LeBron on the line for three with Cleveland down that many, giving them a chance to tie. (Cov actually fouled before the shot attempt, but remarkably, the ref only saw the shooting foul.) LeBron missed the second, luckily, but gave the Cavs another chance with a perfect intentional miss of his third attempt, with Larry Nance Jr. actually getting his hand on the rebound for a decent put-back look to tie. But it spilled off, the Cavs were out of miracles, and the Sixers limped away winners.

In the end, that's the important thing: The W. This could've been a moral victory either way, but the Sixers are at that magical point in their timeline where it actually matters whether they literally win the game or not, and last night they did. It was their 13th in a row, and their 49th on the season — one away from that magic number JoJo wanted and I thought they'd never get. With the Pacers losing, they're just one more win (or an Indy loss) away from clinching home court in the first round — though they basically need to win out to secure the three seed, as they're only a half-game over the Cavs, without the tiebreaker, and all Cleveland has left on their schedule is a home-and-home against the woeful Knicks.

Regardless, even if it doesn't end up clinching 'em the three seed — and a potential first-round showdown against the Heat, which could lead to a second-round matchup with the injury-stricken Celtics — last night was the kind of Sixers game fans will remember for a long, long time. They won big, until they had to win small, and then they did that too — against a guy Brett Brown called pre-game "the best player to have ever played," (see story) and without our own best player in uniform. As the "Trust the Process" chants rained down on the Wells Fargo Center last night, it was hard to remember what the other options even were for all these years.

Will Markelle Fultz attempt a 3 this season?

Will Markelle Fultz attempt a 3 this season?

Do you still get those twinges in the early evening on a game day where you think to yourself "Hmm, maybe I should check to see if there's any beat writer footage of Markelle Fultz taking jumpers at shootaround today" — before you remember he's really playing in the games proper now? It's a hard habit to break, especially for those of us who were fairly convinced we weren't gonna see him put ball in basket and have it actually count for two points again this season. 

But indeed, Fultz is playing for real now — as he did in last night's 26-point home immolation of the Brooklyn Nets — and he's hitting jumpers with pretty impressive frequency. In his five games since returning from his whatever now, he's scored in double digits three times (exactly 10 points each time, but who's counting), including last night's 10 on 5 of 8 shooting, the first coming on a pull-up 18-footer from near the baseline that might've been his longest made jumper yet. It was enough to beg the question: Might we actually see Markelle take a three at some point this season? 

At this point, it's pretty clear Fultz is finally, legitimately Back. He's averaging 7.4 points on 44 percent shooting in just 17 minutes a night since returning, he's racked up 22 assists to just three turnovers, he runs the second unit well and keeps the offense humming, and he's been pretty impressive on defense, even getting a couple Dwyane Wade-style mega blocks at the rim. He really only has one test remaining to prove himself all the way ready to resume his No. 1 overall pick hype: He's gotta take a damn triple. 

Clearly, Fultz is still lacking confidence in his long-distance stroke, and Brett Brown has wisely alleviated a lot of the shooting pressure on his rookie point guard by refraining from pairing him with his other rookie point guard, Ben Simmons, so Fultz never has to be waiting behind the arc for the opportunity to convert a Simmons kick out. Asked pregame about playing his two No. 1 overall picks on the court together, Brown said he planned to do it some before season's end, but was valuing wins over experimentation at the moment — understandable for the last six games of a home-court playoff push — and would have to pick his spots with doing so. 

With the Sixers' advantage over Brooklyn swelling into the 20s last night, Brown decided it was time to pull the trigger on a Simmons-Fultz backcourt. The experiment was short-lived, and largely inconclusive, though it did lead to one Fultz bucket. The Sixers are stomping teams to such an extent right now that they don't need to really force Fultz-Simmons reps, and the team is doing such a good job of bombing from deep around their two point guards — 9 of 21 last night — that they don't really need Fultz's additional shooting to help things for Simmons. 

Still, at some point, dude is gonna have to shoot a three-pointer. If only for himself, if only to know that he can. He doesn't have to make it, as long as he's in the general vicinity, but the longer he goes without even attempting one, the more of a thing it's gonna become, and the harder it's gonna be to actually break that seal. Yeah, Simmons hasn't willingly taken one yet this year either, but shooting was never supposed to be his thing, and as the old NBA truism goes, every team can survive one point guard eccentric who doesn't want to shoot. The best version of this team is one with Fultz shooting (and ultimately, making) threes, and a necessary first step towards realizing that version begins with Fultz squaring up behind the arc and lifting. 

There's not a lot left for the Sixers to accomplish this season. They're 47-30, winners of 11 straight, nine straight by double figures, the fifth seed at a minimum. Once they get through the important seeding showdown against the Cavs on Friday there's not a ton left for them to play for. But they can play for one — just one — attempted Markelle Fultz three-pointer. Hell, make it a free Frosty giveaway so the fans cheer no matter how it goes. Just get the damn thing up.