The playoffs came early this year in an epic Eastern Conference thriller between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a tale of two halves as both teams fought tooth and nail for the third seed in the East. With Joel Embiid recovering from an orbital fracture and concussion, rookie Ben Simmons proved himself as a veritable leader, as he led his team to victory against the seasoned, three-time Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers. Postseason LeBron came to South Philly in order to give 76ers fans a preview of what every other Eastern Conference playoff team has felt for the last seven years.
However, it wasn’t that way early on. In the first quarter, LeBron only shot 1-8 in twelve minutes, which landed him on the bench in the second quarter. Heading into the half, the 76ers were up by 23 points. They scored 78 points in one half, the most ever scored in that amount of time at Wells Fargo Center. Ben Simmons was just two assists away from a triple-double, and even Markelle Fultz hit eight points and three assists and rebounds off the bench.
The 76ers focused on ball movement and high-intensity passing, which allowed them to exploit the giant holes the Cavaliers had in their defensive sets. When they focused too hard on Simmons, he passed out to a shooter. When the Cavs choked the shooters on the perimeter, they swung it back to an open Simmons, who shot it from the lane or took it to the rim for explosive finishes. In other words, the 76ers LeBroned the Cavaliers.
But then, the Cavaliers reminded the city of Philadelphia who the real king is. In five minutes, Cleveland shaved the lead from 23 to 10. The third quarter Cavaliers flipped a defensive switch that ignited their perimeter D, while they suffocated Ben Simmons in the paint and midrange. On offense, LeBron killed them on the transition, finding holes in the scoring lane or flipping it back out for outside shots. He forced switches onto the far lighter guard-forward Belinelli for easy inside buckets and went supernova from three during big moments. All in all, the 76ers were outscored 33-28 by LeBron alone early in the second half. Philadelphia was feeling the competitive heat that they hadn’t felt in years of processing.
Luckily for them, the Sixers finally caught up on offense. Though they couldn’t defend the LeBron pick and roll worth a lick, Marco Belinelli’s shooting lead them out of their complete scoring slump. With six minutes left in the final quarter, Simmons’ passing and finishing forced a 6-0 run to bring them back into the game. Redick hit key free throws to put the 76ers up by three and, with the game clock winding down, Simmons shocked the King by intentionally fouling him. LeBron hit both free throws, and after a full timeout, the Cavs sent Ersan Ilyasova to the line with three seconds remaining.
In those final three seconds, the Cavaliers inbounded the ball to LeBron, who was fouled at the three-point line by Robert Covington. Down three, LeBron could tie the game up by making all three, but made one and missed the second. In an attempt to allow for an offensive rebound and game tie by the frontcourt, LeBron intentionally missed his third and final free throw. Larry Nance Jr. tipped the miss, but it did not go in. Richaun Holmes caught the rebound and the clock expired, leaving the 76ers with a win, 132-130.
Philadelphia left that game with the third seed in the East, a huge accomplishment. The Cavaliers still have a chance to win it back, but with the Sixers’ easy schedule finish, it may be difficult for Cleveland to clinch the third seed.
The final box score shows how intense a matchup it was between the King and the proclaimed Prince, Ben Simmons. LeBron scored 44 points to go along with 11 total rebounds and assists each. He shot 58 percent, including an impressive 4-8 from deep. Simmons also had a triple-double, scoring 27 points on an incredible 70 percent, with 15 rebounds and 13 assists. For the 76ers, J.J. Redick scored 28 points and Marco Belinelli got 23 in 30 minutes off the bench. Jeff Green of the Cavaliers scored 33, and a rejuvenated Kevin Love scored 17 points (3-6 from three) and grabbed nine boards.