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.

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton wasn't the first player to wear a mask in the NBA but sometimes it feels like he was.

Newsweek caught up with Rip this week to talk about his mask-wearing days and to see if he had any words of wisdom for Joel Embiid. Hamilton first wore a mask for breaking his nose, but he continued to wear it for the remainder of his career.

Embiid made his first playoff appearance of his career last night in Miami while rocking a new mask complete with a custom visor to protect his eyes. It was clearly bothering him but he didn't let it dictate his play.

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player."

Hamilton has famously said that he embraced the mask to the point of it becoming his "Batman cape" which allowed him to be more aggresive.

"Over a period of time I started to get used to it. As basketball players, a lot of times you go to the basket and it’s a lot of elbows being thrown, guys are getting poked in the eye," he told Newsweek this week. "You tend to clench up because you don’t want to get hit in the face. Once I started wearing that mask I wasn’t clenching up no more. I was willing to take contact more. I was able to get to the free throw line more because now I’m not scared of getting hit in the face. It kind of made me into a more aggressive and better basketball player."

Hamilton's message to Embiid prior to the series?

"Embrace it. Make it cool. Make it fun. Make it like a prop. Don’t get caught up in saying like, 'I got a piece of plastic on my face. I’m worrying about how I look, I’m worrying about my perception when I shoot.' When you’re out there in, like, shooting drills, don’t be so caught up in putting the mask on and trying to worry about how you shoot with it on. Put it on in the game and just wear it because our game is a non-thinking sport. React. You gotta read and react as quick as possible. The less thinking you do, the better you’ll be."

Rip also took notice of Embiid's frustration with the mask following the game. He encouraged Jo that it only gets easier.

I’ve thrown my mask off numerous times lil bro @joelembiid ...It will get more comfortable game by game ..Trust The Process. #MaskOnMaskOff#YouGotTheJuiceNow #Holdat #Yessir#Mask #TnT #nba #nbaplayoffs #sixers#sixersvsheat #LoveThisGame

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

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Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

The Eagles don’t hit the practice field as a team for another five weeks, yet each year coaches point to players who distinguish themselves during the months of April and May. These are the players with the most to gain in phases one and two of OTAs.

There isn’t an unheralded prospect in better position to climb the Eagles’ depth chart this spring than Tre Sullivan.

Never mind the fact that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas just got done lauding Sullivan’s performance in a pre-draft interview on Thursday. The 24-year-old also happens to be one of only four safeties on the Eagles roster for the time being, creating a huge opportunity for an undrafted free agent from Shepherd College.

Competition will come soon enough, as safety is an obvious target for the Eagles in the upcoming draft. Even then, Sullivan could find himself in the mix for a big role with a good spring.

Last season, Corey Graham was the Eagles’ third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Graham, a free agent departure, wound up playing nearly 40 percent of the team’s snaps.

This isn’t merely a backup job. There’s serious playing time at stake – and Sullivan can get a jump on the competition.

Sullivan made a name for himself in last year’s preseason opener against the Packers with a vicious hit on wide receiver Malachi Dupre. It was a scary moment, as Dupre was knocked out by the collision, but also a clean play and an example of the defensive back’s physicality.

Sullivan forced a fumble on the hit and finished with four tackles. He would go on to acquit himself well in three other preseason games, eventually landing on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Sullivan is a relatively average size for a safety, but plays downhill and hits like a truck.

The Eagles liked the instincts and aggressiveness they saw on the field. Now, Sullivan has a chance to work out and learn from coaches in an environment where there really aren’t any other young players right now and he can be the focus of a lot of attention. Phases one and two of OTAs and the two weeks before the draft in particular could be a pivotal period.

If Sullivan impresses during these early stages, it could go a long way toward solidifying his place with the team.

Even if Sullivan is bested for the third safety spot, he could still wind up on the 53-man roster. The Eagles may opt to carry five since Chris Maragos primarily plays on special teams.

Sullivan will likely enter training camp as a player who’s considered to be on the bubble, and what he does when the pads go on will be most important. However, if he showed up and really nailed these workouts, that could go a long way toward how the team views him heading into this summer.