Here’s the situation: Joel Embiid had five fouls when he isolated against Evan Mobley late in the fourth quarter. Like many other big men before him who sensed a potentially game-changing play, Mobley chased Embiid for a sixth and disqualifying foul.
Mobley is one of the most promising young defenders in the NBA, which means he is well by selling contact. When Embiid got going, Mobley flew backwards like he was in “The Matrix.” It was an excellent sell and the first call was an offensive foul, Embiid’s sixth. The Sixers had to hold on to a seven-point lead over the final four minutes without their MVP candidate.
That was until Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers twisted his finger and the green light went.
Rivers joked, “I was 100 percent sure it was another big challenge.”
Added Embiid: “I think it was a good call (by Rivers). I never extended my arm and I never really put a lot of pressure on hitting him. And you could tell right before the hit that he was already trying to flop and fall. I think that’s what they saw.”
The call was overturned, Embiid was credited with a made basket and the Sixers held on in Cleveland on Wednesday night 118-109.
Things are going well for the Sixers right now. They have won a league-high six games in a row. At 46-22, they have established the No. 3 seed in the competitive Eastern Conference. The Sixers now hold a four-game lead over the No. 4 Cavaliers with 14 games remaining, plus the tiebreaker secured with Wednesday night’s win.
If the Sixers aren’t the No. 3 seed, it will likely be because they caught either Boston or Milwaukee. The remaining schedule is tough, but that’s how it’s been for the past three weeks. This doesn’t look like a team that seems overly bothered by tough opponents. The Sixers might even enjoy the challenge a little.
“We have one of the toughest schedules left. It’s great for us,” James Harden said. “Every game is a playoff atmosphere, it’s the intensity. The properties they count.”
Speaking of counting possessions, this was not a perfect performance. Far from it, because the Sixers turned the ball over 20 times for 23 Cleveland points.
With an improved Embiid and Harden at the controls, the Sixers are above average to take care of the ball on the season. But Wednesday’s game, against a long and active Cleveland defense, was reminiscent of an Embiid and Ben Simmons-led turnover fest from 2018.
Some of these turnovers were of the unforced, comedic variety.
“I just thought we were really sloppy,” Rivers said. “On the road, you’re really lucky to win those kinds of games. 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 length causes problems. There were some schematic choices from JB Bickerstaff’s team, especially aggressive shifts against the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, that gave the Sixers some trouble.
“We have to work on it because teams have done it 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. Some of it was the work of the Sixers, and some was the opponent’s choice of game plan. Any ball security issues qualify as a learning experience, but they’re much easier to swallow when they come in wins.
So how did the Sixers do?
To begin with, they came from behind again. The Sixers had very little energy at the beginning of the second half and saw the Cavaliers’ lead stretch to 13 points. But by the end of the quarter, it had been completely erased on a Georges Niang buzzer-beater.
As has been the case all season, double-digit leads don’t bother the Sixers.
“We get real mad and quiet in timeouts,” PJ Tucker said. “We don’t even do a play or anything and we just come out and yeah. I’m always pretty confident when we come down. It’s like, ‘We’re all ready to play now? OK, yeah, great.’ ”
Tucker was a team-high plus-22 on the evening. And while plus-minus in a single game is far from everything — Tucker’s offense, especially his gun-shy streak from the corner, still gives the Sixers some trouble — he tends to make an impact in the games that matter. Every single one of his offensive rebounds (there were four against Cleveland) feels like a dagger to the opponent. In big games last season, the Sixers were on the other end of those plays.
It wasn’t a Paul Reed night. Rivers recognized that in the first half and went to Tucker up 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 middle 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 big contribution from a player who is always out of the rotation. The fourth-year guard will always prefer to have the ball in his hands, but for him to be in the playoffs, he needs to play off 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 looking, always scanning the floor. And he’s going to make the right decision 99 percent of the time.”
Harden finished with 12 assists. And the defensive shifts? The Sixers put better shooters, like Milton, in the weak corner as the game wore on.
The Sixers defense was good enough. As always, it starts with Embiid. The Sixers played Embiid as a “roamer” for long stretches, meaning he aggressively assists a non-shooter. It’s a powerful weapon for the Sixers defense. Watch Embiid ignore Isaac Okoro on this block by Donovan Mitchell:
Embiid finished with four blocks and 15 defensive rebounds. He makes a defensive impact every night just by presence, but it’s clear he’s progressing at times. Embiid is the league’s leading scorer, so there’s a reason for the trade-off. But he said after the game that he has started to increase his defensive intensity to be sharp for the postseason.
“It’s time to go,” Embiid said.
But Embiid’s offense was the big equalizer. These days it always is. 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 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 run — especially, we have some guys who basically play running backs in this league who get that call all the time — I was pretty sure , that they wouldn’t call it the other way.”
It was an important call for sure, but the bigger picture is that the Sixers are finding ways to win close games.
(Photo of Joel Embiid: Jason Miller/Getty Images)