The stage and stakes were at their biggest, a pivotal match-up against an accomplished opponent providing the ultimate late-season test for a young team on a roll, and on the rise.
At the end of a dramatic battle with incredible twists and turns, the 76ers, in the midst of their best season in over a decade and a half, kept their remarkable run alive.
With their rookie phenom shining just as bright as the generational superstar lined up across from him, the Sixers persevered past the Cleveland Cavaliers, 132-130.
Ben Simmons was masterful, spinning a 27-point (12-17 fg), 15-rebound, 13-assist triple-double, his 12th of the year. His mentor, LeBron James, was a force as well, with 44 points, 11 boards, and 11 dimes himself, but it was Simmons and his squad that emerged with the upper hand.
“He was awful,” James joked when asked about Simmons, before adding more seriously, “He was great, of course.”
The Sixers’ victory marked their 13th in a row, representing the franchise’s longest winning streak since its last 13-game surge, which lasted from December 22nd, 1984 through January 16th, 1985.
More important, the Sixers’ triumph moved them into sole possession of third place in the Eastern Conference with three games to go in the regular season. Cleveland will play two more times.
“I think it was big,” Simmons said of the Sixers’ 49th win, their highest total since the club won 56 contests during its run to the Finals in 2000-2001. “Beating a team like [Cleveland] without a star [Joel Embiid], I think everyone is coming together as a team.”
After sending The Center into a delirious frenzy with a venue-record 78 points in the first half, the Sixers found themselves hanging on for dear life down the stretch. James went into overdrive, bursting for 35 points between the third and fourth periods.
With 1.9 seconds to play, he drew a foul in 3-point territory, and toed the line with an opportunity to tie the game.
James sunk his first free throw, but was off the mark on his second. He was then forced to miss his third attempt in an effort to create another scoring chance, but the Sixers secured the decisive rebound, and escaped.
JJ Redick turned in a big night for the Sixers, draining a team-best 28 points (9-19 fg, 4-11 3fg). Marco Belinelli came through with clutch shots off the bench for 23 points (7-15 fg, 6-12 3fg).
The Sixers led by as many as 30 points Friday, and held an astounding 78-55 margin at the break. James, whose efforts were aided by Jeff Green (33 pts, 5 3fgm) and Kevin Love (17 pts, 3 3fgm), willed the Cavs back into it to set the stage for the thrilling finish.
The capacity crowd of 20,769 was into Friday’s tilt throughout the entirety of the implications-laden match-up.
“I’ve said it many times, this is as good of a home crowd as I’ve ever played in front of in my NBA career,” said Redick, the 12-year vet. “It’s a huge advantage for us.”
Used in brief bursts Friday, Markelle Fultz supplied the Sixers with 11 quality minutes of back-up point guard play. The 2017 no. 1 pick converted 5 of his 8 shots, doing so via an arsenal of strong drives to the rim. He tallied 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“I think we believe in each other,” Fultz said. “We all know what each other can do, and we showcased it tonight.”
Ferocious First Half
Friday’s first half was something to behold.
After playing Cleveland to an early 11-11 tie, the Sixers started to seize control. First, they snapped off eight points in a row to roar ahead. Then, their reserve corps helped extend the lead (Richaun Holmes threw down a pair of nasty dunks on back-to-back possessions to push the margin to double-figures).
The Sixers held a 41-28 advantage through 12 minutes of action, and with James beginning the second quarter on the bench, they continued attack. A Markelle Fultz 11-footer nudged the gap to 20 points less than three and half minutes into the frame.
Representing one of the signature stretches from Friday’s contest, Ben Simmons came up with steals on back-to-back Cleveland possessions, which set up a driving lay-up from JJ Redick, followed by a 3-pointer from Robert Covington.
The swing put the Sixers up 65-37, and forced the Cavaliers to call timeout. To say The Center was going berserk at that stage of the game would be an understatement.
The astonishingly commanding 28-point lead was no fluke, either. The Sixers were in complete control – dictating pace, making shots, playing punishing defense, dominating the glass, and getting to just about every 50-50 ball.
In a word, the Sixers’ first-half performance was flawless. Ahead 78-55 when the second quarter horn sounded, the Sixers manufactured their highest-scoring first half since February 11th, 1992, when they were up 80-49 on the Miami Heat.
The 78 points the Sixers deposited in Friday’s opening stanza also marked a floor record for The Center, which opened in 1995. They shot 56.6 percent from the field, 10 for 20 from 3-point territory, were plus-8 in rebounds, and had outscored the Cavs off turnovers, 17-7.
Of everything great that Ben Simmons did exceedingly well against Cleveland, his ability to rise to the occasion and deliver perhaps the top showing of his historic rookie season in a game of Friday’s magnitude stood out the most.
With a chance to move the Sixers into third place in a match-up against the person he admires as much as anyone in the sport, Simmons appeared to be calm, composed, and motivated. He was relentless on the interior, unleashing an array of lay-ups, dunks, and hook shots at the rim.
In all, Simmons cranked out each one of his 12 field goals in the paint.
Brett Brown believes the implications surrounding Friday’s outing weren’t unrelated to Simmons’ dominance.
“I know Ben really embraces the challenge of playing against LeBron [James],” said Brown. “It didn’t surprise me he had a big game, when you look at the stat line, and you see a triple-double, a significant triple double. It really didn’t surprise me. He’s been doing a lot lately that doesn’t catch me as much off guard as it used too.”
Simmons had his 12th triple-double in the making by the close of Friday’ first quarter (7 pts, 6 reb, 5 ast).
According to basketball-reference.com, Simmons is the first Sixers since Charles Barkley in 1990 to generate at least 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists in the same game.
“I feel like every night, I’ve got to play my game and step up for the team,” Simmons said.
He certain did Friday, in a big spot.
Belinelli Delivers Big
Not to be lost in Friday’s important win was the timeliness of Marco Belinelli’s contributions, which were especially clutch in the second half.
Three times in the third quarter, after Cleveland trimmed its deficit to single-digits, the Italian responded with a basket that reestablished a double-figure Sixers lead.
The buckets had a steadying effect.
“There was a stage that he came in and was just lethal,” said Brett Brown. “We were sputtering, and he came in and gave us an injection of offense.”
Signed off the free agent buyout market in February, Belinelli has now reached double-figures in scoring in 10 games in a row. His six 3-pointers Friday set a season-high.
“We all talk about those lightning in a bottle type players,” said Brown. “Most good teams have somebody like that, and [Belinelli] certainly is ours.”