It was a wasted night for the Sixers. Maybe it doesn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, it probably won’t. But of all the things that might be said about a down-to-the-wire win against one of the NBA’s worst teams, the one that matters most is this: They did not get better. And with 14 games left before the start of the postseason, the only way to react to that is as a lost opportunity.
There are teams that can afford to do what the Sixers did in their 106-99 win over the Cavs. They can establish their dominance early — the Sixers were up 24-8 before I-95 even emptied — and then they can drift off into that tranquilized dreamscape so often inhabited by teams of a certain caliber when confronted with a foe at the opposite end of the competitiveness spectrum. There are teams that can afford to, for lack of a better term, take a night off. Teams that have established themselves, teams that have long known each other, teams that have little to accomplish besides preserving their health before the postseason begins. The Warriors can afford it. The Spurs of a few years ago could too.
The Sixers? They aren’t there yet. Not by even the most charitable of estimations. Forget the fact that they are locked in a three-way dogfight for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and the right to play one of the East’s lesser teams. From that perspective, the bottom line is the only thing that matters, and when the final horn sounded the result was there. Yeah, it was closer that anybody would have preferred. After Cedi Osman’s runner gave the Cavs a 97-96 lead with just under three minutes remaining, there were a few precarious moments when you thought that maybe all wouldn’t be well in the end.
But it was. And so it was.
The problem, rather, is that the Sixers are still at a point where process matters. The recent two-week absence of The Process himself only served to compound an issue that was going to exist regardless. This team is not fully formed, and this was one more game that they had at their disposable to further their attempt to figure it out. Instead, they turned the ball over 21 times, and forced just seven of their own. Thanks to brutal second and third quarters, they needed all hands on deck for crunch time. Tobias Harris logged 39 minutes. Ben Simmons pushed 38. Joel Embiid finished at 34.
“We’ve lost a couple games like this game this year, so in that sense, it wasn’t frustrating, because we got the win,” said J.J. Redick, who hit four of his seven three-point attempts and scored 17 points. “But the mood in the locker room was definitely one where we feel like we can play better.”
Embiid, in particular, seemed to sleep walk through the first three quarters. A number of the Sixers’ turnovers came on sloppy dribble handoffs between him and Redick, with both players growing increasingly exasperated with their body language. Embiid had his moments down the stretch — a one-handed tomahawk dunk of his own miss and a sprawling alley-oop layup off a nifty pass from Ben Simmons — but this was one of those rare nights where the “M-V-P” chants weren’t close to deserved.
“I was trash,” the big man admitted afterward.
All of it made for a game that was nothing more than a mulligan for anybody looking to bolster their faith in the Sixers’ capabilities come playoff time. The one actionable piece of intelligence that the ordeal managed to yield was that James Ennis appears to have all but locked down a role in the rotation from here on out. The former Rockets wing man, acquired at the trade deadline, got the start in place of Jimmy Butler with the latter getting the night off for what the team termed as “rest.” In addition to playing decent defense on the perimeter, Ennis hit six of his seven shots, again flashing an impressive athleticism at the rim.
Prior to the game, head coach Brett Brown cautioned against naming Ennis the winner of what Brown has described as a “tournament” for the last remaining spot in the rotation. But Jonathon Simmons only hampered his case against the Cavaliers, missing an open dunk in transition midway through the fourth quarter that then fouling a three-point shooter at the opposite end of the court.
Brown revealed after the game that Ennis had been selected as the team’s ceremonial bell-ringer in the postgame locker room. One might find a bit of encouragement in that development, given the Sixers’ pressing need to solidify that role. Then again, there weren’t many options.