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March 02, 2018

Sixers' win over Cleveland shows LeBron James preview of what they have to offer

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If we're all being honest, the focus coming into Philadelphia's clash with the Cleveland Cavaliers was months down the line, and not on the regular season game taking place in Ohio on Thursday night. Rumors continued to swirl about a possible visit to Philly from LeBron James over the All-Star break, which he had to go through the trouble of formally denying at shootaround before the game.

But when it came down to it, the young Sixers did not get lost in the quest to impress LeBron James, and they earned a critical 108-97 win over the Cavs on national television. After dropping games against fellow Eastern playoff teams earlier in the week, it was a major bounce-back win for Philadelphia, even if Cleveland is still trying to figure out the way forward with a new roster right now.

There was a lot to take in during the game, so let's get down to business.

Ben Simmons did not back down from his mentor

The relationship between Simmons and LeBron is not a secret to anybody in the NBA. Simmons is repped by Klutch Sports' Rich Paul, LeBron's childhood friend, and numerous photos have emerged of the pair working out together during the offseason. It's clear the all-time great sees a little bit of himself in his younger counterpart.

But Simmons was not really prepared to deal with James the first time they played last fall, falling victim to a number of veteran tricks that exploited his overzealousness. Class was in session, and Cleveland beat the Sixers fairly easily back then.

This game was much different. Simmons never chased the game, and instead focused on doing everything but scoring in the first half. He hit runners with outlet passes, snatched defensive rebounds, and took the challenge of switching onto LeBron on several defensive possessions.

When the second half started, it was a completely different ballgame. Simmons attacked and hunted his own shot, including when Cleveland's defense tried to give him shots they didn't think he'd take. He only made one of them, but when LeBron sagged off him near the foul line he pulled up and shot several jumpers within the span of a few minutes.

Just as importantly, dug in on the defensive end against one of the greatest to ever step on the hardwood. LeBron still caught him gambling and reaching on a few plays — Simmons didn't pick up five fouls on accident — but he did not get shown up to the degree he was in their initial meeting back in Philly. On one possession in the third quarter, Simmons even picked his mentor's pocket and sent the Sixers running the other way.

All of this earned Simmons a pretty noteworthy shout out post-game, with LeBron choosing to fuel the fire of a Philadelphia signing with a 1 a.m. Instagram post dapping up Simmons and Embiid.

How much does this stuff actually mean? Maybe nothing. But if you scroll through LeBron's IG timeline, there aren't a whole lot of salutes to non-Cavs players, especially after Cleveland losses. Perhaps there's something to the hooplah after all.

The buddy-buddy stuff between Embiid and LeBron was just as eyebrow-raising

Most NBA players with an ounce of sense have a healthy respect for Philadelphia's young center. He was an All-Star starter in just his second season, and teams all around the league are finally getting to see what he can do when he's a constant presence in the lineup.

Even still, it was a little surprising to see the degree of chumminess we did on court from Embiid and LeBron, who looked positively overjoyed every time they came together before, during, and after the game. After LeBron caught Embiid napping on an early defensive possession and jammed in his vicinity, the two laughed about it at mid-court, which isn't exactly customary in the heat of battle.

Cameras picked up the two guys exchanging pleasantries after the game as well, and it's hard to remember Embiid having a relationship with an opposing player this jovial. The only exception to that rule is DeMarcus Cousins, who engaged in a full-on game of grab ass with Embiid in the middle of his rookie season.

That the two appear to be on good terms is no small thing. A LeBron to Philly move would hinge on a lot of things, but you can't discount the test of egos all parties involved would go through for it to happen. Embiid would have to concede some control of what is currently his team, before we even begin to think about how Simmons and LeBron would coexist on the perimeter. Embiid and LeBron being friendly is not a huge deal in isolation, but it's a helpful piece in the eventual puzzle the Sixers are trying to put together.

Embiid had a very good game, despite the brutal offensive night

More pressing to the action at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night: Embiid had a rough night on the offensive end, making only seven of his 18 shots and looking flustered by Cleveland's double teams at times. He had an uncharacteristically bad night at the free-throw line (3/8), and his drop-off there since he suffered a hand injury at the end of 2017 has been a little undersold.

However, Embiid is capable of reminding you why he has a max extension kicking in soon, even when he's not at his best on the offensive end. It's really difficult to quantify how good he is on the defensive end of the floor, because his best work does not always translate into blocked shots or other trackable stats.

One possession, in particular, stood out for the big man, and it actually came on a play where he was briefly caught out of position. Cedi Osman turned the corner on Dario Saric late in the second quarter, and when Embiid stepped up to help it left Tristan Thompson wide open with the ball in his hands at the rim. Against most centers, Thompson is going straight up with the ball and either attempting a dunk/layup or getting fouled.

His mind never quite got there against Embiid. Thompson wanted no part of challenging Embiid, even if he was in the process of trying to recover on the play, and the Cavs had to reset their offense late in the clock. Embiid took on another challenge there, covering LeBron on the perimeter and contesting as he settled for a long jumper.

That moment of hesitation, that fear shown by Thompson, that is Embiid's true defensive value. There are moments in every game where opposing players see him lurking and just refuse to go at him. In a way it actually depresses his counting stats, because there are fewer opportunities for blocks as a result of his own intimidation.

Embiid also did an excellent job of containing Cavs players on switches that left him on an island, something that's not easy to do for anyone his size. He was tested several times by backup guard Jordan Clarkson, one of the more prolific bench scorers in the league, and Embiid used his length perfectly to force tough shots.

And though he didn't have it working for him on offense earlier in the night, Embiid pulled some tricks out of his bag with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. He hit a highlight-reel shot on the baseline, and he let some trash talkers on the sideline hear it after he buried it.

"I felt like Kobe," said Embiid after the game. "That was a double team, but Kobe's my favorite player. From watching him, he doesn't pass the ball, so double team or triple team, I feel like I have to shoot the ball."

I would advise Embiid against following Kobe's philosophy in lockstep, but big-time players make big-time plays when it counts, and Embiid has proven he is one of those guys.

The Sixers finally have a bench that makes sense

Fresh off signing a contract with the Sixers for the rest of this season, Ersan Ilyasova was thrust right into the lineup on Thursday night. You could tell it was his first night playing with a new, albeit familiar team, but having him on the floor made it feel like the Sixers have a real, sensible rotation for perhaps the first time all year.

With the amount of shooting and scoring punch the Sixers can bring off the bench these days, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to survive the minutes when Embiid is on the bench. Nobody is living in fear at the prospect of Marco Belinelli and Ilyasova coming off the bench, but the Sixers can now surround Simmons with guys who amplify his game.

Belinelli might have been brought in to shoot, but he has quickly figured out that Simmons will find him with the ball if he cuts with purpose. He beat the Cavs around the corner on multiple occasions, and Simmons is always happy to reward movement with a pass.

You can see from Belinelli's body language that this isn't necessarily designed for a layup. When Embiid screens Hood, Belinelli slows up at the top of the arc and looks for a pass, very obviously hunting a look from three. But as he feels Hood fight through and close the shooting window, he gets a move on and takes off toward the rim.

Ilyasova hasn't played with this iteration of the Sixers before, but he too learned quickly that his best move on offense is to run like hell and expect a pass from Simmons. Outside of that, he knows what he's in Philadelphia to do, and that's to provide floor-spacing (or at least the illusion of it, when he's not hitting) next to Embiid and Simmons.

Though some fans were mad about Amir Johnson's presence in the lineup last night, the main hole that remains is in the creative department. If not Markelle Fultz, the Sixers need some other ballhandling scorer in the lineup over the long-term so that they aren't relying so heavily on two players to create all their opportunities.

For now, this is a group that is plenty workable. The Sixers are going to be a tough out should they make the playoffs.

Philadelphia closed out the game with some swagger

For being as young as they are, the Sixers carry themselves with plenty of confidence. Embiid rightfully feels he's knocking on the door of that top tier of players, and the guys that fall in line behind him are competitors through and through. Saric never backs down from a challenge despite getting zero love from the refs, and Simmons just goes about his business no matter what people tell him he can't do.

So as someone who loves the trash talking and petty nature of sports, it brought great joy to my heart to see the Sixers play with absolutely zero fear while locked in an important game against a player they hope to lure in free agency.

I am very much of the belief that fans should be overjoyed if LeBron James decides to play for their favorite basketball team, but this group has to carry on regardless of whether the front office delivers or not. They do not fear that challenge, and that much is clear when you see them getting into scraps with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, and other big names around the NBA.

Keep in mind that this is how they carry themselves despite not having won anything yet, even prior to accomplishing their goal of making the playoffs. They certainly get tight in crunch time sometimes, a trait most young teams share, but they play with a high degree of belief and swagger no matter who the opponent is. It is a reflection of the knowledge that they put in a whole lot of work to get here today.

And as for Clarkson getting mad about Saric's dunk to close out the game: toughen up, my man. The Sixers earned a businesslike win against a major Eastern Conference threat, and if Cleveland's players have a problem with how they ended it, they should work on earning a better result next time.

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