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.