PHILADELPHIA — In the minutes after his Philadelphia 76ers pulled off a 132-130 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, the latest impressive triumph in what has been a season that has exceeded the wildest expectations of basketball fans in the City of Brotherly Love, Coach Brett Brown stood at the podium inside Wells Fargo Center trying to recount exactly what the past few hours had been like.
“You’re going through highs and lows and trying to figure it out and trying to stay sane,” Brown said with a smile, summing up not only his feelings but those of the announced crowd of 20,769, plus dozens more media members that shoved themselves into every nook and cranny of this place to watch one of the wildest games of the season.
What once was a 30-point 76ers lead late in the first half was whittled down to one in the game’s final moments. LeBron James had 44 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, while Ben Simmons had 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. Jeff Green had 33 points for Cleveland, and J.J. Redick had 28 for Philadelphia.
There were massive dunks, crowd-pleasing passes, shots being made all over the place and — particularly in the case of the Cavaliers — very little defense. And in the end, there was a victory for Philadelphia that not only became the signature moment of this young team’s rapid ascent this season, but may have made the 76ers favorites to make it to the Eastern Conference finals.
“Not many people would have expected us to be in this position with three games to go,” Redick said.
Then he smiled.
“I don’t know that many people on our team would expect to be here.”
He is right, of course. How could anyone have expected the Sixers to be here? Sure, observers thought the playoffs were a possibility, assuming Joel Embiid could stay moderately healthy and Simmons could actually get on the court after missing all of last season with a broken foot.
But 49 wins? To be the third seed in the Eastern Conference? To have a team that’s won 13 games in a row, and will now be favored to end the season with a 16-game winning streak, which would lead to victories in 27 of its final 32 games?
No one could have expected it. Yet that’s exactly where the 76ers find themselves.
Somehow, everything is falling into place. The 76ers were supposed to be growing into a playoff team, and taking the gradual steps teams typically do up the NBA ladder — from cellar dweller to playoff team to, hopefully eventually, a championship contender.
Instead, it may be happening all at once.
With the second-seeded Boston Celtics without their two best players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — for the rest of the season, it isn’t hyperbolic to have this fledgling team as not only the favorite to emerge from their first round series with what likely will be the Miami Heat, but the favorites to face either the Toronto Raptors or these Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
That isn’t how this is supposed to go. Teams aren’t supposed to skip steps like this. Not only could the 76ers do so — at this point, they should.
“I don’t think we should put a ceiling on our team right now,” Redick said. “Whether that’s home court or second round or conference finals, whatever. Just kind of ride this wave and enjoy it.
“There really shouldn’t be any expectations, because we’re way ahead of whatever timeline was placed on us. We should be proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, and hopefully there’s more to come in the playoffs.”
If there are seven more games between these two teams in the playoffs, no basketball fan will be disappointed. There have been better games this season than the one that took place here Friday night — but few have been crazier.
Philadelphia flew out to a 41-point first quarter and a 23-point halftime lead, getting a near-triple-double from Simmons in the opening 24 minutes as the Cavaliers looked stuck in cement in the wake of Thursday night’s comeback victory over the Wizards back in Cleveland.
But then James woke up. And after scoring nine points in the first half, he poured in 35 in the second, leading the Cavaliers back and turning the sellout crowd from euphoric to apprehensive.
When James was fouled on a three-point attempt with 1.8 seconds to go and Cleveland down three, it looked like the comeback would be complete.
Fate, however, intervened. James made the first, but saw his second free throw land softly on the rim, spin all the way around and then out. James’s intentional miss on the final free throw gave Cleveland one more chance, but Larry Nance, Jr.’s attempted tip-in also rolled off the rim — with relief replacing elation among the 76ers and their fans.
That Philadelphia pulled it off with Embiid in street clothes with an orbital bone fracture makes it all the more remarkable.
“There’s just a very spirited group [in the locker room] of some old, some young players that are sharing in each other’s success,” Brown said. “It’s just a very tight room. It’s a very tight group and that part of it excites me as much as what do we learn about the pick-and-rolls … That side of it interests me the most.”
It is that side of it — the mental side, the emotional side — that will likely determine just how far these Sixers can go. The talent, after all, is undeniable. Simmons, the likely rookie of the year (no disrespect to Donovan Mitchell, the sensational Utah Jazz guard), managed to match James play-for-play Friday night. Assuming Embiid has no lingering setbacks, he could be back sometime during the opening round of the playoffs.
Redick has been a major influence on a young team, and buyout pickups Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have slotted into Brown’s rotation over the past six weeks like they have been with the team since training camp.
Still, Friday’s win doesn’t make Philadelphia the favorite to beat Cleveland in a best-of-seven series. The Cavaliers were playing on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against a rested opponent, and were able to erase the vast majority of a 30-point deficit in about 15 minutes. James abused one Philadelphia pick-and-roll coverage after another as the second half wore on — lending credence to Brown’s blunt pregame assessment that James is, in his opinion, “the best player to ever play this sport.”
(This felt to some like an attempt to recruit James, who will be a free agent this summer. If it was, can you blame him? Either way, it’s far from a crazy thing to say).
There is a reason, after all, James hasn’t lost four out of seven to an Eastern Conference foe in seven years. He remains favored to make it eight consecutive years this spring.
But the fact Philadelphia is even in the conversation is a victory for everyone here. All of the days spent in circular debates about the merits of “The Process,” as former general manager Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding plan was dubbed (which, by the way, looks rather smart at the moment, doesn’t it?) feel like a distant memory now.
Now, the focus is on a different kind of process: that of moving through the traditional steps of becoming a championship contender.
The Sixers have already skipped a few steps this season. There’s no telling how many more they’ll fly over before it’s through.