We learned a couple of things on Friday night.
1) The Sixers might be better than was suspected by even those of us who knew they were a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.
2) The most deluded among us are those who think the favorite in the Eastern Conference is anybody other than LeBron James.
Actually, there were a lot more than two things that we learned, but the biggest takeaway from the Sixers' 48-minute thrill ride against the Cavaliers is that if it had been a 49-minute thrill ride they would not have won. That's no knock on them, and everybody seemed to understand it as they let their pulses settle back to their normal resting rates after a 132-130 win that nearly ended a tenth of a second too late. Though Brett Brown acknowledged afterwards that, "I'm never feeling that great about giving up a 30-point lead," he also knew that the rally his team endured was the kind of thing that, for the last 15 seasons, most coaches in the NBA have been powerless to stop.
Before the game, Brown foreshadowed the events that were about to unfold when he unequivocally declared James to be the greatest player in the history of the sport of basketball. While that's always a statement that will induce cringes those of us who spent our formative years with Michael Jordan posters hanging on our walls, it's an argument that can feel impossible to counter after displays such as the one The King put on in the second half against the Sixers. Aside from maybe Shaquille O'Neal with the ball deep in the post in his prime, the last generation has not seen a player come close to the raw physical dominance that James unleashes on opponents, and he does it on the drive. The reality is, there is no way to stop the man. At times, it looked like Marco Belinelli understood this and did not even try: you could almost see James' tail wagging every time the overmatched swingman picked him up on the perimeter off a screen. That's not necessarily a knock on Belinelli: that's just how James can make you look.
How big of a lead is safe against a team led by LeBron? On Friday, the answer was 30, but did anyone come out of it thinking it wouldn't have needed to be higher if this was playoff time? The night before, the Wizards were up 16 with six minutes remaining and ended up losing by four. A few weeks earlier, the Raptors were up 15 midway through the third quarter and ended up losing by three.
At halftime against the Sixers, James had nine points on 4-of-12 shooting and was a -13. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-29 shooting and a +7.
"He is amazing," Brown said. "In my opinion, he is the best player to have ever played our sport. And he just keeps getting better."
The good news is, by beating LeBron, the Sixers took a huge step toward ensuring that they would not have to face him in the postseason until the conference finals. The Sixers need to win just one of their remaining three games (vs. Dallas, at Atlanta, vs. Milwaukee) to guarantee themselves either the No. 3 or the No. 4 seed. All the Cavs need to do is win one of their final two games, which are both against the Knicks. Assuming both of those things happen, the Sixers and Cavs would be set up to face either the Raptors or Celtics in the second round (assuming those two teams advance out of the first round, where they will hold the conference's top two seeds).
The Sixers haven't exactly dominated against either one of those teams. But it's more palpable a matchup than tangling with LeBron.
That's not to say that they should be scared. A win is a win, and the win the Sixers registered against the Cavs on Friday was remarkable on a number of different levels. Not only were they missing the one guy on the roster in Joel Embiid who can protect the rim against the LeBron, but starting four-man Dario Saric played just 25 minutes and shot 1-of-9 from the field in his return from an elbow infection.
More than anything, though, Friday's victory strengthened the case that the Sixers will be able to make it through the first round without Embiid if that's what it comes to. The Sixers have been tight-lipped on Embiid's progress other than to guess at a two-to-four week recovery. But the the return-to-action timelines of previous NBA players who have undergone surgery for orbital fractures would put Embiid in danger of missing all but the last two or three games of a first-round series. That's further incentive for the Sixers to win out and avoid a first-round match-up with the Pacers, who have given them fits this year and who feature versatile big man Myles Turner. Even then, though, the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo loom as another potential first-round opponent.
While the best case scenario is probably the Heat, anything is better than LeBron.
"I mean, if we have to deal with him, we have to deal with him," Robert. Covington said as he sat at his locker after the win. "If that's the one we've gotta face to get through, then we gotta make the adjustment on 'em."