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April 06, 2018

Sixers win Ben Simmons-LeBron James duel to take No. 3 seed in Eastern Conference

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There was a moment hours before the Sixers went to battle with the Cleveland Cavaliers when the importance of the evening really came into focus. Moments after Brett Brown told reporters he had no idea when Joel Embiid would rejoin the team — the coach relayed that they'd been communicating through FaceTime every day — the big man sauntered through the locker room, gazing at a gift basket an anonymous party had sent to his stall. His bloodshot eye on full display, his mere presence would usually have been enough to dominate conversation before and after the game.

Not Friday night, not with so much at stake and with such a game to talk about. In the absence of their primary star, the Sixers emerged victorious in a head-to-head battle for possession of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and in 48 jaw-dropping, excruciating, and triumphant minutes, they showed just how far they have come with Ben Simmons at the controls. 

Who else could have been responsible for such a scene except for LeBron James? The man who Brett Brown called the greatest of all-time before the game — and the player many in Philadelphia hope to lure here this summer — turned in one of the best single-half performances you'll ever see in the third and fourth quarters of Friday's game. 44 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists later, James nearly dragged the Cavaliers out of a 30-point hole by himself.

That glimpse of greatness was inspired at least in part by his protege. In the biggest regular-season game the Sixers have played in damn near 15 years, Simmons turned in what will probably go down as the signature game of his rookie season, pouring in 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, and four steals of his own.

Brilliant though the numbers may be, they do not do any justice to the level of control and flair Simmons played with in helping Philadelphia jump out to a lead in the first place. If ever there was a time when the Magic Johnson comparisons he has received made sense, it was in the middle of that first-half performance. Simmons had the game in the palm of his hand, and the Cavs looked absolutely bewildered by what he was throwing at them in transition.

Simmons played with a purpose on Friday night, to a degree we have only seen in spurts throughout the season. He's not one to elaborate too much on his motivation for the way he plays — or about much of anything, really — but teammate JJ Redick summed things up almost perfectly when asked to discuss how much he thought a head-to-head battle with his mentor means to Simmons.

"I'm sure it meant a lot," said Redick. "Ben, although he doesn't always show it because he sits behind a glass wall and watches everyone else on the other side, he's very competitive. It seems like these type of games bring out his best, and tonight was an example of that."

But if there were a lot of emotions pent up inside, Simmons was not the guy to show them. When Redick knocked down a three-point shot to put the Sixers up by eight points with 1:34 left, it was the rookie who stood near mid-court with a stoic face, urging the rest of his teammates to calm down. Even in the middle of a raucous Wells Fargo Center, it was the youngest guy on the floor stressing the need to get the game over the line.

That goes a long way toward explaining how the Sixers, absent one of the most impactful players in basketball, have continued to ascend up the Eastern Conference standings. Yes, their schedule has a lot to do with that. But at their core, they have a lead ballhandler who refuses to lose focus in the moment, who understands time and place as well as anyone on the floor.

On Friday night, that meant attacking in spots when he would usually defer, allowing Embiid to wind down the game with post-ups and two-man plays with Redick. It was Simmons' turn to get things done on Friday, and he kept attacking, which resulted in good things for Philadelphia even when his shots didn't fall.

"I feel like every night I have to play my game and step up for the team," said Simmons after the game. "Missing [Embiid], he's a huge piece of this team, but we have the guys in the locker room to win games like this.

With the win, the Sixers are now in the driver's seat with three games to play. They can earn the East's No. 3 seed by simply winning their last three games, two of which come against Dallas and Atlanta squads who have packed it in for the year. And if they're able to do that...

Hold that thought, we'll discuss it in more detail later today.

A crowd with a sense of the moment

The Sixers sure came out ready to play, and the only people better prepared for the moment may have been the people cheering them on. Even for a town known for rabid fans it was an insane atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night.

It went far beyond simply being loud, too. There was a (really overdone) debate about how the Sixers should treat LeBron when he was introduced, and the fans responded simply: they booed the absolute hell of one of the game's greatest players ever.

And that was the right thing to do. They would eventually go on to ooh and aah at some of his best plays, like an insane poster dunk over Ersan Ilyasova late in the game, but you do not show reverence for any opponent walking into your building for a meaningful game. Anything less is a disservice to the idea of homecourt advantage and comes off as weak to athletes who are wired to respond to toughness and bravery.

The effort from the Philly faithful was not lost on LeBron. Speaking with reporters following the game's conclusion, he insisted that nothing has really changed about the fans here since he entered the league in 2003.

To be honest, I've been coming here to Philly for a while. Started off with A.I., the days in between after A.I. when they weren't that good, to now. Philly fans haven't changed. They love their team. They love their ball club. They come out and support. Obviously, riding the winning streak, and also you add in Villanova and you add in the Eagles, obviously that helps as well. But it's always been kind of rowdy coming in here.

Maybe he'll get a taste of that for 41 games plus the playoffs next year. But Friday night was something special — when a game is wild enough to have Sixers legend Allen Iverson pacing the sidelines in jolts of nervous energy, it's tough to top that.

Markelle Fultz doesn't shrink from the spotlight

Prior to Friday's game, Coach Brown fielded all sorts of questions about LeBron and Simmons and what the implications of the game were for the team as a whole. But there was an important subplot going on I had to know about: how much more does this game mean in terms of evaulating Markelle Fultz than those against the creampuffs they've played lately?

Brown did not hesitate:

"I would be lying if I said [they all mean the same]," said Brown. "I think you judge him differently when you play against the third-best team, right now, in the East. You can't say [every game is the same]. The body of work that he has shown, and the trending he has shown offensively and defensively, gives me confidence to feel he is going to play well tonight ... I think we're going to see good things from him tonight."

Boy did that prove to be prophetic. Fultz only played 12 minutes against Cleveland, but he was fearless during his time on the court, and he continues to look more comfortable attacking with each passing day. And while it may seem like a bit of hyperbole, this may be the most important thing we have seen Fultz do all season:

There has been almost zero catch-and-shoot elements to Fultz's game that we've seen this season, and yes, this situation was prompted by a shot clock that was ticking down near zero. But when that ball hit his hands, there was absolutely zero hesitation for him to let it fly, and the result is obviously not too shabby either.

Most of Fultz's problems have come when he has worked from stationary positions, either at the free-throw line or when receiving the ball beyond the arc. To see him rise up naturally as he did so many times as an amateur player was a flash of hope and not something I believe should be taken lightly.

What's more, some of the offense Fultz created for himself against Cleveland was birthed by his work on the defensive end, and his aptitude on that side of the ball has been one area aided by his time away from the game. His sense of timing and scheme have been superior to what we've seen previously, and when he's able to poke balls free he is dangerous as ever in transition.

We keep things objective around here, but on a human level it is wonderful to see Fultz taking these very real steps and resembling the kid many saw when he was tearing things up at the NCAA and high school levels. After being a punchline for a lot of this year, Fultz is back on the path.

Two sides of the wing coin

I'm not sure you could find two games more different than those played by Robert Covington and Marco Belinelli on Friday night. The former was an absolute menace on the defensive end, and was basically the only point of resistance between LeBron and an even more preposterous line. The latter was Philadelphia's only offensive hope during some of their worst stretches of the game, his exercise in shotmaking truly something to behold.

The additions of Belinelli and Ilyasova are not spectacular on their own, and most people said as much at the time. But what was probably discounted when they were brought in is the manner in which they would allow different Sixers players to focus on specific roles they're good at, instead of shoehorning people into spots that didn't suit them.

Early in the year, there was a gigantic responsibility on Covington's plate to take and make lots of threes. Before Saric's emergence and the addition of these bench threats, they were far too dependent on his ability to get going from three. Now, with some of that lifted from his shoulders, it's easier for both Covington and the fans who live and die by his play to focus on the defensive side of the ball.

And he was the genuine article on that side of the court. Covington made LeBron work for every inch he took when he had the matchup, forcing turnovers even out of transition opportunities.

Things went much differently for Belinelli. The Cavs' comeback was fueled by a second-half strategy of forcing switches on the player(s) guarding LeBron, and the veteran wing was picked on repeatedly with no backline help to stop LeBron once he beat the initial "defense" of Belinelli.

But dear lord, was he in a zone on the offensive end during the third quarter. Philadelphia struggled to deal with the haymakers being thrown by the Cavs out of the halftime break, outside of Belinelli, who was in borderline NBA Jam mode for a stretch.

I mean really, what are you supposed to do with this?

Maybe all these crazy attempts will come back to bite the Sixers eventually, and Belinelli will regress to the mean on shots where he's basically falling out of bounds. Until then, enjoy the heck out of this while it lasts.

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