The 76ers avoided falling victim to LeBron James. As a result, they have ascended to third place in the Eastern Conference.
Philly managed to overcome James’ domination in a Cleveland Cavaliers comeback effort for a 132-130 victory Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
The game was decided with the megastar at the foul line attempting three foul shots with 1.9 seconds left. He made the first one to close the gap to two points. After missing the second, James purposely missed the third. Larry Nance Jr. missed the tip-in right before the buzzer, as the Sixers held on for their biggest victory in five seasons.
“I thought it had a shot, but I lost my view of it,” Nance said. “Did the best I could with the split second I had and unfortunately it didn’t work.”
That was great for the Sixers, whose 132 points established a team floor record. They improved to 49-30 while extending their winning streak to 13 games for the first time since doing it from Dec. 22, 1984, to Jan. 16, 1985. This one elevated them to third place in the conference with three games remaining. The Cavaliers (49-31) are a half-game back with two games left.
“This was big, beating a team like that without an all-star,” Ben Simmons said, referring to Joel Embiid. “I think everyone is coming together as a team. We are playing well.”
Controlling their own destiny, the Sixers would keep the third spot by winning out or with a Cavaliers loss in their remaining two games. Cleveland’s final two games are both against the New York Knicks — on Monday at home and Wednesday on the road.
James scored 35 of his 44 points after intermission. He also finished with 11 rebounds, 11 assists, and eight turnovers for his 18th triple-double.
Simmons, who has the same agent as James, had his 12th triple-double of the season. The rookie point guard had 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals, three turnovers, and a block.
“I think the best teacher in life is experience. Every game he’s experiencing more and more,” James said of Simmons, his mentee. “[Simmons is] learning the right way.”
The four-time MVP added that the Sixers are coaching Simmons right way and coaching to his strength.
“He’s a student of the game,” James said. “Obviously I know that probably more than you guys have been around him. He’s a student of the game, he wants to be great.”
JJ Redick had a team-high 28 points for the Sixers. Marco Belinelli added 23 off the bench.
Dario Saric returned after missing three games with cellulitis in his right elbow. The power forward had just three points on 1-for-9 shooting. This also marked the fifth straight game that Embiid missed after fracturing the orbital bone near his left eye.
“They’re talented, either or,” James said of the Sixers’ playing with or without Embiid. “With Embiid on the floor, they cause other problems. When he’s not on the floor, they cause different problems. So they’re a pretty good team.”
The Sixers had 35 assists on 50 made baskets, and had six double-digits scorers. However, this game perhaps had too much excitement down the stretch for Sixers coach Brett Brown.
His team had a commanding 75-45 lead after Ersan Ilyasova made a pair of foul shots with 2 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
They went into the locker room with a 78-55 advantage. Their point total set a Well Fargo Center record for the most points in the half.
This was going to be an easy victory, or so it seemed. James wouldn’t have any of that.
The Cavs superstar scored 19 third-quarter points to pull his team within seven points (105-98) heading into the fourth quarter. James kept scoring and Cleveland kept cutting into the lead.
The small forward pulled the Cavs within two points (111-109) on a layup with 8:22 left.
The Sixers clung to a 128-127 lead with 12.4 seconds left after Jeff Green’s fifth three-pointer. Green fouled Redick with 9.0 seconds left. The Sixers shooting guard made a pair of foul shots to give his squad a three-point cushion.
The Sixers fouled James on the ensuing possession. He made a pair of foul shots with 4.6 seconds remaining to make it 130-129.
Then Ilyasova hit a pair of foul shots to put the Sixers back up three. However, Robert Covington fouled James while he was attempting a three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left.
“That’s how playoff games work,” Redick said of the inconsistent halves. “There’s going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be extra crowd noise. How we responded tonight to their run and was able to close-out that game was really impressive.”
Green finished with 33 points.