The Philadelphia 76ers held on Wednesday night, on the road, to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers. It would be an impressive win against a playoff-bound team, except the Cavs were without their all-star center, Jarrett Allen, and the 76ers fouled Caris Levert on a layup with eight seconds left which put them in danger of blowing a four-point lead.
Recently, they’ve had two matchups against the best competition in the NBA since trading for James Harden, and it hasn’t gone well for them. The Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets don’t have the records of top NBA teams, but do have the type of superstars who are capable of leading them to victory against any team in the league. The 76ers found that out the hard way.
They played against Brooklyn Nets last Thursday, at home, and got throttled in front of a feisty Wells Fargo Center crowd, frothing at the mouth to jeer Ben Simmons not while he was on the court in a Nets’ uniform, but sitting on the bench in street clothes. Dr. J even came out to ring the bell before tip off. After the game began, it was Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving that were keeping heads ringing all night long in Philly. It only took 25 and 24 points respectively from the Nets stars to coast to a 129-120 victory.
On Monday, the 76ers played much better at home against the Nuggets. They even held the Nuggets’ MVP candidate, Nikola Jokić, to only 16 field-goal attempts and 22 points. However, he was great in many other ways, and made every big play down the stretch. The 76ers also gave up 21 points to backup Nuggets guard Bones Hyland, including 4-9 from the 3-point line, in a 114-110 loss.
The 76ers have mostly been on roll post-Harden trade, but those wins include two against the New York Knicks, one against the injury ravaged Chicago Bulls, and another against the Orlando Magic. The good teams that the 76ers have beaten are the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cavs. Against the other good teams, they lost by 17 on the road against the Miami Heat — a game Harden did not play in — earlier in March. rior to the all-star break — sans Harden — they lost by nearly 50 points, 135-87, at home to the Boston Celtics.
Watching Embiid and Harden play together right after the break, it really looked like the process had been completed. They stomped the Timberwolves and the Knicks, and the offense looked ready to shift into another gear while Embiid and Matisse Thybulle stretch out those long arms to try and cover the entire court on defense. Nine games into this new team with Harden, it’s clear they are good and will probably finish the season with a top-five seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
But while Harden provides an offensive threat that Ben Simmons did not, the 76ers have other deficiencies that they didn’t have last season, Their best shooter, Seth Curry, was included in the deal to get Harden, and their defense, while still very good, is ranked 10th in defense rating far lower than when it was No. 2 last season..
Also, with all of the changes they have made to the roster, the bringing in of Doc Rivers to coach the team, their biggest problem remains the same — can they be trusted in the playoffs?
Last season they were the No. 1 overall seed in the East and lost a Game 7 to the Atlanta Hawks who had not been in the postseason in four years, and hadn’t won a series in five. Rivers, even with his 2008 NBA Championship as coach of the Boston Celtics, carries the reputation of the coach that consistently blows commanding playoff leads. Embiid, is he going to be panting and bent over, grabbing his shorts in the fourth quarter of important playoff games when his team needs him to be the best player in the league? What about Harden? In his biggest game of this season against his former team, the Nets, he was again the anti-Big Game James, going 3-17 from the field and scoring only 11 points.
The NBA Championship field is wide open this season, and the 76ers are in the thick of it. But when a 10-year veteran like Tobias Harris, who is making over $37 million this season, fouls an opponent when his team has a four-point lead with eight seconds remaining, causes a three-point play opportunity, and is bailed out because the player missed the free throw, that’s another reason not to trust Philly.
The title is there in front of the 76ers in the best season of Embiid’s career. They got through the distraction of having their second-best player refuse to do his job. However, there is still no reason to have confidence that they will be able to do theirs to the best of their ability when it’s time to win for real.
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