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Coming off consecutive disappointing losses earlier this week, the 76ers went into Quicken Loans Arena and took care of business, leading wire-to-wire against LeBron James and company en route to a commanding and impressive 108-97 win. Two nights after missing a would-be game-winning 3 in Miami, J.J. Redick locked in and led six Sixers in double figures with 22 points (7-for-11 shooting, 4-for-7 from 3-point range) in 29 minutes for Philadelphia, who improved to 33-27, just a half-game back of the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference playoff race — and only 2 1/2 games south of the Cavs, who have now dropped three of five since the All-Star break.
LeBron turned in his customary do-everything performance, scoring 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting with nine rebounds, eight assists and a steal in 39 minutes. (He even kicked in a little something extra, just for funsies.) But with the exception of an energetic performance off the bench by Larry Nance Jr. (13 points on seven shots, six rebounds, three blocks) and some timely makes by Kyle Korver and Jordan Clarkson, Cleveland just didn’t get a whole heck of a lot from anyone else.
Starting in place of the surprise-suspended J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood needed 14 shots to score 11 points (though he did chip in five rebounds and five assists). George Hill couldn’t build on a strong performance in Tuesday’s win over Brooklyn, struggling with Philly’s size and length on his way to seven points on 3-for-10 shooting with three rebounds and three assists in 22 quiet minutes.
Tristan Thompson did yeoman’s work on the glass, pulling down 11 rebounds, including six on the offensive end, but he missed four of his six shots. Jeff Green did him one better, missing five of the six he jacked in 10 minutes of burn. The Cavs as a team shot just 41.4 percent from the field and 9-for-32 from the 3-point line, and missed seven of their 23 free throws.
Tyronn Lue’s club has been better defensively since the roster overhaul that came a week before the All-Star break, but Cleveland’s still not good enough on that end to win games on the strength of its ability to get stops. Without a second scoring star capable of sustaining the offense for stretches — get well soon, Kevin Love — the Cavs just can’t afford to have pretty much everybody not named LeBron miss shots. (Especially from long distance; Cleveland’s just 25-for-101 from deep in their last three losses.) When Smith literally no-shows and Hood, Hill and Clarkson combine for 28 points on 31 attempts, Cleveland’s going to have problems.
The Cavs had other problems on Thursday, too. They were young, and big, and wearing blue.
Ben Simmons continued to showcase the feathery playmaking touch, jumbo-jet combination of size and speed, and capacity to generate buckets for himself and others that’s made him the Rookie of the Year favorite, scoring 18 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block in 32 minutes. (He also took his turns guarding LeBron, who’s made no bones about how intriguing he finds his fellow former No. 1 overall pick and Klutch Sports associate.)
Joel Embiid struggled some with his shot, going 7-for-18 from the floor for his 17 points, but he beasted on the glass (14 boards, six offensive), took advantage of all the defensive attention the Cavs gave him by moving the ball for six assists, served as a monster deterrent in space and at the rim. He also turned a beautiful series of post moves into a turnaround fadeaway along the baseline that splashed through to give Philly a six-point edge with 1:28 to go:
Embiid’s bucket extended a lead that Dario Saric had pushed to four with a big corner 3-pointer right in front of the Cavaliers bench … and the Croatian forward made sure Cleveland’s reserves knew that he’d heard them chirping as he caught, raised up and fired. And that was just for starters:
Saric finished with 16 points and nine boards in the win, Philly’s first over the Cavs in more than three years, and their first win in Cleveland in nearly five. The Sixers are now 9-3 since the start of February, with the NBA’s second-stingiest defense and sixth-best net rating in that span.
Embiid and Simmons each have a chance to be the best player on the floor in an awful lot of matchups, regular-season or postseason. They also come as part of an absolute hammer lineup — that pair plus Saric, Covington and Redick has outscored opponents by a whopping 18.1 points per 100 possessions over the span of 447 minutes this season, fifth-best in the league among groups to have shared the floor for at least 100 minutes.
Brett Brown’s Sixers will make mistakes in big situations; all young teams do. But they’re tough, versatile, well-coached and well-prepared, and the sheer combination of size and talent on hand means, should Philly maintain its current form and make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, they’ll absolutely be a threat to make life miserable for higher-seeded squads come April. Like, for instance, the one they just beat, and the one they’d be lined up against in Round 1 if the playoffs started today.
Whoever they’ll be (and whoever they’ll employ) next year remains to be seen. Right now, though, it looks like Embiid, Simmons and the Sixers know who they are, how they want to play, and how to win. It’s clear that LeBron and company will need the next six weeks to keep figuring all that out.
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