CLEVELAND — The review, and the subsequent overturn, will get the headlines. It is the type of play that trends on Twitter.
Here’s the situation: Joel Embiid had five fouls when he isolated against Evan Mobley late in the fourth quarter. Like many opposing big men before him, sensing a potentially game-changing play, Mobley hunted for a sixth and disqualifying foul on Embiid.
Mobley is one of the most promising young defenders in the NBA, which means he’s good at selling contact. When Embiid went into his move, Mobley went flying backward like he was in “The Matrix.” It was an excellent sell, and the initial call was an offensive foul, Embiid’s sixth. The Sixers would have to hold on to a seven-point lead over the last four minutes without their MVP candidate.
That is until Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers twirled his finger and the green light went on.
Rivers joked, “I was 100 percent sure it was another great 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 into hitting him. And you could tell right before the hit, 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 consecutive games. 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 to go, plus the tiebreaker that was 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 difficult, but that has been the case for the past three weeks. This does not look like a team that seems all that bothered by difficult opponents. The Sixers might even relish the challenge a bit.
“We got one of the hardest schedules remaining. It’s great for us,” James Harden said. “Every game is a playoff atmosphere, it’s the intensity. The possessions, 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 at taking 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 those turnovers were of the unforced, comical variety.
“I just thought we were really sloppy,” Rivers said. “On the road, you’re really fortunate to win games like that. They had 10 more shots than us at halftime.”
But Cleveland also is one of the league’s elite defenses, and even without Jarrett Allen, their length presents issues. There were some schematic choices from J.B. Bickerstaff’s team, particularly aggressive shifting against the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, that gave the Sixers some issues.
“We got to work on that because teams have done that 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 that was the Sixers’ doing and some was an opponent’s game-plan choices. All the ball-security issues qualify as a learning experience, but those are much easier to swallow when they come in victories.
So, how did the Sixers do it?
To start, they came from behind yet 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 faze the Sixers.
“We get really mad and quiet in timeouts,” P.J. Tucker said. “We don’t even draw up a play or anything and we’ll just come out and, yeah. I’m always pretty confident when we get down. It’s like, ‘We all ready to play now? OK, yeah, great.’ ”
Tucker was a team-high plus-22 on the evening. And while single-game plus-minus is far from everything — Tucker’s offense, particularly his gun-shy streaks from the corner, still presents the Sixers with some issues — he tends to make an impact in the games that matter. Every one of his offensive rebounds (there were four against Cleveland) feels like a dagger for 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 at center at the beginning of 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 at center score at a high rate (119.8 points per-100 possessions) and turn the 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 who always isn’t in the rotation. The fourth-year guard is always going to prefer having the ball in his hands, but for him to be in the playoff rotation, he has 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 surveying the floor. And he’s going to make the right decision 99 percent of the time.”
Harden finished with 12 assists. And those defensive shifts? The Sixers put better shooters, like Milton, in the weak-side corner as the game went on.
The Sixers defense was good enough. As always, that starts with Embiid. The Sixers played Embiid as a “roamer” for long stretches, which means he aggressively helps off a non-shooter. That is a powerful weapon for the Sixers defense. Look at Embiid ignore Isaac Okoro on this block of 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 that he paces himself at times. Embiid is the league’s leading scorer, so there is a reason for the tradeoff. But he said after the game that he’s starting to ramp up his defensive intensity to be sharp for the postseason.
“It’s time to go,” Embiid said.
But Embiid’s offense was the great 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) in explaining that no-call.
“I didn’t think I extended anything,” he said. “I watch basketball every day. And based on the way those (plays) are officiated — especially, we got some guys that basically play like running backs in this league that get that call all the time — I was pretty confident 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)