Kyle Korver hits a three late in the fourth quarter to cut the Philadelphia 76ers' lead, as big as 13 earlier in the frame, down to one. The Sixers have missed a couple chip shots and a number of free throws, Joel Embiid has struggled from the floor all night, and Ben Simmons is a foul away from getting himself DQ'd. Oh, and LeBron James is on the other side. You can think of any number of ways for this game to end for the Sixers, and none of them are all that good.
But somehow, the Sixers not only held on to win handily in Cleveland, they were disrespectful about it.
Dario Saric nailed a three from the corner to get them some breathing room, then stared down the nearby Cavs bench. Embiid hit a fadeaway over double coverage, then dedicated it to a heckler in the stands. By the time Simmons inbounded off an inattentive Cleveland defender and drove for an uncontested dunk (what!?!?!?) the game was so over that the TNT crew didn't even seem to register what had just happened. LeBron didn't even score in the final three minutes.
I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to call this the biggest win of the Sixers' season. On the road, on national TV, following two straight losses (including the heartbreaker in Miami), against a team they haven't beaten in years — and without either particularly scorching three-point shooting (10 for 30), or a dominant Embiid outing (17 points on 7 for 18). It's huge that they were able to pull this one out, and it bodes extremely well for their postseason readiness.
How did they do it? Well, ball security definitely helps — just nine turnovers in this one after coughing it up 20-plus times in Miami. Simmons was brilliant as well, posting an 18-9-8 on 8 for 14 with a couple huge steals, and keeping the Sixers liquid in the third quarter with his repeated abuse of Cedi Osman in the post. And even though Embiid struggled from the field (and the line, where he had an uncharacteristic 3 for 8 night), he was a monster on the boards, grabbing 14 while also handing out six assists and making his usual huge impact on defense, particularly late.
And as much as you can quantify this stuff, the Sixers just seemed ready. Earlier this season, they would've folded down the stretch, but this time they stayed calm, executed and showed what happens when a team plays well down the stretch without having to deal with a player getting an entire season's worth of unlikely makes and preferential foul calls at the other end. (No, I'm not still seething about that Dwyane Wade game or anything.) They showed what we might be able to expect from their first playoff appearance in six seasons.
Of course, the talking points from this one probably won't have much to do with the Sixers' postseason push. One will be about the Sixers' final bucket of the game — an uncontested Saric dunk with 14 seconds left and the game already well in hand, which new Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson was unappreciative of, angrily spiking the ball off Saric in response. It was definitely a little Bush League of Dario, but I was mostly with Chris Webber on the TNT broadcast: It's on the Cavs for putting themselves in the situation to let The Homie bite his thumb at them like that.
The second point will be whether the Sixers gave LeBron enough reason to give them a second look in free agency this summer. Hard to argue that The King wouldn't be better off trading his supporting cast for these Sixers at this point. His 30 points (with 9 boards and 8 assists) matched the combined total for the rest of Cleveland's starting lineup last night — though he may still get his chance to avenge this loss against the Sixers in the playoffs, before taking any kind of walk of shame all the way to Philadelphia in the offseason.
Then again, LeBron probably doesn't want to see the Sixers in the first round this spring, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the East does, either. Let's let the venerable Zach Lowe of ESPN get the final word here on the current state of The Process:
Sixers are a problem. Starting five remains one of the league's best lineup. That was just a good, solid win. Nothing nutty about it. Just a good team going on the road and doing business.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 2, 2018