CLEVELAND — The review and ensuing reversal will be front page news. It’s the type of game that’s trending on Twitter.
Here’s the situation: Joel Embiid committed five fouls when he isolated himself against Evan Mobley late in the fourth quarter. Like many opposing big men before him, sensing a potentially game-breaking game, Mobley looked for a disqualifying sixth foul on Embiid.
Mobley is one of the most promising young defensemen in the NBA, which means he’s GOOD to the sales contact. When Embiid got into his move, Mobley flew backwards like he was in “The Matrix.” It was a great sell, and the initial call was an offensive foul, Embiid’s sixth. The Sixers should hold a seven-point lead going into the final four minutes without their MVP candidate.
That is until Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers twirled his finger and the go-ahead came on.
Rivers joked, “I was 100% sure it was another big challenge.”
Embiid added: “I think it was a good call (from Rivers). I never reached out and never really put a lot of pressure to hit it. And you could tell right before the kick , he was already trying to flop and go down. I think that’s what they saw.
The call was overturned, Embiid was credited with a field goal, and the Sixers held off Cleveland Wednesday night 118-109.
Things are looking good for the Sixers right now. They have won six games in a row, a league high. At 46-22, they established the No. 3 seed in Eastern Conference competition. The Sixers now hold a four-game lead over the No. 4 Cavaliers with 14 games left, plus the tiebreaker that was secured with Wednesday night’s victory.
If the Sixers aren’t the No. 3 seed, it’ll probably be because they grabbed Boston or Milwaukee. The rest of the calendar is difficult, but it has been for three weeks. It doesn’t look like a team that seems bothered by tough opponents at all. The Sixers might even enjoy the challenge a bit.
“We have one of the toughest schedules left. It’s great for us,” said James Harden. “Every game is a playoff vibe, it’s the intensity. Goods matter.
Speaking of counting possessions, it wasn’t a perfect performance. Far from it, because the Sixers returned the ball more than 20 times for 23 points in Cleveland.
With an improved Embiid and Harden in charge, the Sixers are above average at taking care of the ball this season. But Wednesday’s game, against a long and active Cleveland defense, was reminiscent of a rotation fest led by Embiid and Ben Simmons from 2018.
Some of these reversals were of the unforced and comedic variety.
“I just thought we were really sloppy,” Rivers said. “On the road, you’re really lucky to win games like that. They had 10 shots more than us at halftime.
But Cleveland is also one of the league’s elite defenses, and even without Jarrett Allen, their length presents problems. There were a few sketchy picks from JB Bickerstaff’s side, including aggressive changes against the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, which gave the Sixers some problems.
“We have to work on that because teams have already done that,” Rivers said.
One of the signs of a good team is the ability to win when things aren’t perfect. This was the case on Wednesday. Some of that was Sixers doing and some of that was an opponent’s game plan choices. All ball safety issues are considered a learning experience, but these are much easier to swallow when won.
So how did the Sixers do it?
For starters, they came back again from behind. The Sixers had very little energy going into the second half and saw the Cavaliers’ lead stretch to 13 points. But at the end of the quarter, he was completely erased by a buzzer-beater from Georges Niang.
As has been the case all season, double-digit leads don’t bother the Sixers.
“We get really crazy and quiet in downtime,” said PJ Tucker. “We’re not even writing a play or anything and we’re just going to hang out and, yeah. I’m still pretty confident when we go downhill. It’s like, ‘Are we all ready to play now? OK, yeah, great.’ ”
Tucker was a team record plus-22 on the night. And while the single-game plus-minus is far from everything — Tucker’s offense, particularly his timid streaks from the corner, still pose some problems for the Sixers — he tends to make an impact in the plays that matter. . Each of his offensive rebounds (there were four against Cleveland) feels like a dagger to the opponent. In the big games last season, the Sixers were on the other end of those games.
It wasn’t a Paul Reed party. Rivers recognized it in the first half and went to Tucker at center early in the fourth quarter. Tucker has performed 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 a high rate (119.8 points per 100 possessions) and turn opponents into a similar type of offensive juggernaut (121.1 per 100). It worked against the Cavs.
Milton ended up going 4 of 5 from the field for 11 points, a major contribution from a player still not in the rotation. The fourth-year guard will always prefer to have the ball in his hands, but for him to be in the playoff rotation he needs to face 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 watching the ground. And he’s going to make the right decision 99% of the time.
Harden finished with 12 assists. And those defensive changes? The Sixers placed better shooters, like Milton, in the weakside corner as the game went on.
The Sixers defense was pretty good. As always, it starts with Embiid. The Sixers have played Embiid as a “roamer” for long stretches, which means he’s aggressively assisting a non-shooter. It’s a powerful weapon for the defense of the Sixers. Watch Embiid ignore Isaac Okoro on this Donovan Mitchell block:
Embiid finished with four blocks and 15 defensive rebounds. He makes a defensive impact every night just by his presence, but it’s clear that he calms down sometimes. Embiid is the league’s top scorer, so there’s a reason for that compromise. But he said after the game that he was starting to increase his defensive intensity to be playoff specific.
“It’s time to go,” Embiid said.
But Embiid’s attack was the great equaliser. These days, that’s still the case. He finished with 36 of 12 of 19 from the field and 10 of 10 from the line. And he took a not-so-subtle swipe at another MVP favorite (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in explaining the no-call.
“I didn’t think I extended anything,” he said. “I watch basketball every day. And based on the way these (games) are officiated – in particular, we have guys who basically play as running backs in this league who get that call all the time – I was pretty confident they wouldn’t call it the other way.”
It was a big call, sure, but the big picture is that the Sixers are finding ways to win close games.
(Photo by Joel Embiid: Jason Miller/Getty Images)