PHILADELPHIA — Though the sample size is just under one season’s worth of professional basketball, there is more than enough on tape to no longer be surprised at anything Philadelphia 76ers guard and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ben Simmons does on the basketball court, including his LeBron James-like domination of The King’s team on Friday night.
After 15 seasons of being the world’s best basketball player, nothing James does surprises us anymore, but, on Friday, he was thisclose to engineering one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.
Both Simmons and James produced jaw-dropping triple-doubles as Simmons’ 76ers opened up a 30-point first-half lead before hanging on by the skin of their teeth to defeat the Cavaliers 132-130 in one of the games of the season in the NBA. The win vaults Philadelphia over Cleveland and into the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with just three games remaining. Also, the victory extends the Sixers’ win streak to 13 games, the longest winning streak the franchise has had since the 2000-2001 season, when Allen Iverson spearheaded that team all the way to the NBA Finals.
Iverson, one of the most beloved figures in the history of Philadelphia sports, was in attendance tonight to see Simmons almost drop a triple-double in the first half alone, going for 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the game’s first 24 minutes. Philadelphia shot 57 percent from the field in the first half and made 10 of its 20 three-pointers. The Sixers last three-point make of the first half, from J.J. Redick, gave them a 78-48 lead with 1:20 remaining in the second quarter.
Cleveland’s defense, like it has been all season, was alarmingly porous in the first half, but the Cavs ended it on a 7-0 run and started the second half on a 6-0 run to quickly make the game competitive. James scored 35 of his 44 points in the second half as he led Cleveland to a 43-point third-quarter outburst to cut the Sixers lead down seven at 105-98 at the end of three.
Cleveland cut the lead down to a single possession on multiple occasions before Marco Belinelli hit a couple of clutch jumpers to give the Sixers some more breathing room. Redick also hit a massive three-pointer with 1:34 remaining to give Philadelphia an eight-point lead at 128-120, which appeared to put away Cleveland for good.
Cleveland promptly went on a 7-0 run afterward, capped off by a Jeff Green three-pointer with 12.4 second remaining to pull the Cavaliers within one at 128-127. Green had 33 points, his highest point total since becoming a Cavalier.
Redick made two free throws with 3.3 seconds left to extend the lead to three, but, in attempting to foul Cleveland before a possible game-tying three-point attempt, Sixers forward Robert Covington fouled James on the right wing and the officials, believing James was going into his shooting motion as he was fouled, was awarded three free throws.
After making the first free throw, James missed the second, forcing him to have to miss the third on purpose and hope for a tip-in. That almost was what happened, as James’ missed free throw eventually came to the right hand of teammate Larry Nance Jr., who missed his tip-in attempt just before the final buzzer sounded.
Simmons ended the game with 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists, while James had 44 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. After the game, James had this assessment of the rookie Simmons, who produced his 12th triple-double of the season.
“He was awful…he was great, of course,” James said, clearly with a hint of sarcasm at the beginning.
Philadelphia’s win evened the season series against the Cavaliers (2-2), but Cleveland, most likely, will hold the tiebreaker if the teams finish tied for the No. 3 seed because it will win its division. Wins in each of the team’s final three games, assuming Cleveland wins its remaining two games (both against the New York Knicks), will clinch the third seed for Philadelphia, who will take the court next on Sunday at home against the Dallas Mavericks.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline and story is the photo gallery from Friday evening’s game, with all photos taken by our senior photographer, Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 28 pictures in total.