CLEVELAND – The review and subsequent overthrow will make headlines. It’s the kind of game that’s popular on Twitter.
Here’s the situation: Joel Embiid made five fouls while isolated against Evan Mobley late in the fourth quarter. Like many big men before him, sensing a potentially game-changing play, Mobley chased a sixth and disqualifying foul on Embiid.
Mobley is one of the most promising young defenders in the NBA, which means he is Good at sales contact. When Embiid sprang into action, Mobley flew backwards like he was in ‘The Matrix’. It was an excellent sale and the first call was an offensive error, Embiid’s sixth. Without their MVP candidate, the Sixers would have to hold onto a seven-point lead over the past four minutes.
That is until Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers twirled his finger and the green light came on.
Rivers joked, “I was 100 percent sure it was another great challenge.”
Added Embiid: “I think it was a good call (by Rivers). I never extended my arm and I never really put much pressure to hit it. And you could see right before the hit that he was already trying to flop and fall. I think they saw that.”
The call was reversed, Embiid was credited with a made basket, and the Sixers held on in Cleveland 118-109 on Wednesday night.
Things are going well for the Sixers right now. They have won six league games in a row. Going 46-22, they have established the number 3 seed in the competitive Eastern Conference. The Sixers now have a four-game lead over the No. 4 Cavaliers with 14 games left, plus the tiebreaker secured by Wednesday night’s victory.
If the Sixers aren’t the number 3 seed, it will probably be because they captured Boston or Milwaukee. The remaining schedule is tricky, but it has been for the past three weeks. This doesn’t look like a team that only seems to be annoyed by tough opponents. The Sixers might even enjoy the challenge a bit.
“We have one of the toughest remaining programs. It’s great for us,” said James Harden. “Every game is a playoff atmosphere, it’s about the intensity. The possessions that count.”
Speaking of asset counting, this wasn’t a perfect feat. Far from it, as the Sixers turned the ball 20 times for 23 Cleveland points.
With an improved Embiid and Harden at the controls, the Sixers are above average at handling the ball during the season. But Wednesday’s game, against a tall and active Cleveland defense, was reminiscent of an Embiid and Ben Simmons-led turnover party from 2018.
Some of those sales were of the casual, comedic kind.
“I just thought we were very sloppy,” said Rivers. “On the road you are really lucky to win races like that. They had 10 more shots than us at halftime.
But Cleveland is also one of the league’s elite defenses, and even without Jarrett Allen, their height poses problems. There were some draft picks from JB Bickerstaff’s team, most notably aggressive shifting against Harden-Embiid’s pick-and-roll, which left the Sixers in some trouble.
“We need to work on that because teams have done that before,” Rivers said.
One of the signs of a good team is the ability to win when things aren’t perfect. That was the case on Wednesday. Part of that was the work of the Sixers and part of it was an opponent’s game plan choices. Any ball-safety issues qualify as a learning experience, but those are much easier to swallow when they turn into wins.
So, how did the Sixers do?
For starters, they came from behind again. The Sixers were low on energy early in the second half and saw the Cavaliers’ lead stretch to 13 points. But by the end of the quarter, it was completely erased on a buzzer from Georges Niang.
As has been the case all season, double-digit lead doesn’t deter the Sixers.
“We get really angry and quiet during timeouts,” said PJ Tucker. “We don’t even make up a play or anything and we just come out and yeah. I’m always pretty confident when we go down. It’s like, ‘Are we all ready to play now? Okay, yes, great.’ ”
Tucker was a team-high plus-22 on the night. And while single-game plus-minus is far from everything – Tucker’s offense, particularly his gun-shy streaks out of the corner, still presents the Sixers with some problems – he tends to impress in the games out there matter. Each of his offensive rebounds (there were four against Cleveland) feels like a dagger to the opposing team. In big games last season, the Sixers were on the other side of those games.
It wasn’t a Paul Reed night. Rivers recognized that in the first half and went to Tucker in the middle early in the fourth quarter. Tucker played with Harden, Niang, Danuel House Jr. and Shake Milton. They traded buckets, but trading buckets is fine. Small-ball units with Tucker in the center score at high speed (119.8 points per 100 possessions) and turn the opponents into a similar type of offensive juggernaut (121.1 per 100). It worked against the Cavs.
Milton finished 4 of 5 on the field for 11 points, a big contribution from a player who is not always in the rotation. The fourth-year guard will always prefer to have the ball in his hands, but to get into the playoff rotation, he must play against Harden.
“You become more of a cutter, a spot-up shooter. You just play the game from a different perspective,” Milton said. “He’s always watching, always examining the floor. And he will make the right decision 99 percent of the time.”
Harden finished with 12 assists. And those defensive shifts? The Sixers put better shooters, like Milton, in the weak side corner as the game went on.
The Sixers’ defense was good enough. As always, it starts with Embiid. For a long time, the Sixers played Embiid as a “bum”, meaning he aggressively helps a non-shooter. That’s a powerful weapon for the Sixers’ defense. Watch Embiid ignore Isaac Okoro on this block from Donovan Mitchell:
Embiid finished with four blocks and 15 defensive rebounds. He makes a defensive impression every night just by presence, but it’s clear that he sometimes slows himself down. Embiid is the league’s top scorer, so there’s a reason for the trade-off. But he said after the game that he is starting to ramp up his defensive intensity to be sharp for the postseason.
“It’s time to go,” Embiid said.
But Embiid’s attack provided the great equalizer. Nowadays that is always the case. He finished with 36 points on 12 of 19 from the field and 10 of 10 from the line. And he took a not-so-subtle jab at another MVP favorite (Giannis Antetokounmpo) to explain that no-call.
“I didn’t think I extended anything,” he said. “I watch basketball every day. And based on the way those (plays) are run — especially, we’ve got some guys who basically play as running backs in this league who get that call all the time — I was pretty sure they didn’t do it the other way around would call. ”
It was certainly an important call, but the bigger picture is that the Sixers are finding ways to win close games.
(Photo by Joel Embiid: Jason Miller/Getty Images)