The Philadelphia 76ers are attempting to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season, and they demonstrated Thursday they can make noise if they get there.
Philadelphia went on the road and beat the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena 108-97, snapping a two-game losing streak in the process. It also climbed within 2.5 games of the Cavaliers in the scrum for Eastern Conference playoff positioning.
LeBron James did what he could with a near triple-double (30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists), but that wasn’t enough to counter a balanced Philadelphia attack. All five starters scored in double figures, as Joel Embiid (17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists) and Ben Simmons (18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) challenged for triple-doubles as well.
There was plenty of star power on the floor between James, Embiid and Simmons, but the primary storyline with these two franchises leading up to the showdown was the eventual pursuit of James.
The four-time MVP has a player option on his contract and can become a free agent following the season, and Darren Rovell of ESPN noted Philadelphia has not been shy about its desire to sign him:
Darren Rovell @darrenrovell
A Philadelphia-based company put up three billboards on highway to downtown Cleveland this morning saying that city wanted LeBron. Here they are in order. https://t.co/vntsa8h3mE
For his part, James dismissed rumors that he flew to Philadelphia during All-Star Weekend to take school tours, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com.
He showed flashes of why he will be so sought after by carrying the Cleveland offense for the majority of Thursday’s contest and was the only Cavalier to score more than 13 points. He is also fresh off averaging a triple-double in February and has found himself in ball-handling and facilitating roles, but he had no issue splitting a double-team in style:
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James spearheaded a comeback effort as Cleveland pulled within one with less than three minutes remaining despite trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, but a Dario Saric three and back-to-back mid-range jumpers from Embiid and JJ Redick put the contest away for the visitors.
Redick led all Philadelphia scorers with 22 points and went 4-of-7 from deep, while Saric (16 points and nine rebounds) and Robert Covington (10 points and 10 rebounds) provided critical secondary support.
James didn’t have that type of backup, especially after the Cavaliers announced JR Smith was suspended for Thursday’s game because of “detrimental conduct.”
Larry Nance Jr. was the team’s second-leading scorer with 13 points, and nights like this underscore how lost the Cavaliers may be if James leaves, which explains the city’s billboard:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Cleveland responds to Philly by placing a billboard of their own up in downtown Cleveland 👀 https://t.co/x3zk75lSEf
(h/t @pompeyonsixers) https://t.co/6QLdmuPBks
Cleveland again struggled on the defensive side, which was no surprise considering it is a mere 28th in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
Philadelphia presents nightmare matchups for any defense, let alone one that just gave up 123 points to the 20-42 Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.
Simmons smoothly operated on the outside, blowing past perimeter defenders multiple times to create looks for himself and others at the rim. Embiid was too much to handle for Cleveland’s frontcourt for extended stretches, working in pick-and-pops from mid-range and then finding Redick, Saric and Covington if doubles came on the blocks.
Even when the much-maligned Cavaliers defense played well in the third quarter and allowed just 18 points, their offense answered with 15 and failed to take advantage of an opportunity to pull ahead.
The frustration was clear by game’s end, and Jordan Clarkson was ejected when he threw the ball at Saric following a dunk in the final seconds.
The 76ers will look to build sustained momentum with a win Friday against the Charlotte Hornets, while Cleveland will strive to bounce back Saturday against the Denver Nuggets.