Joel Embiid, Sixers win sixth straight after knocking down key call against Cavaliers

CLEVELAND — The review and subsequent overthrow will make headlines. It’s the type of game that’s trending on Twitter.

Here’s the situation: Joel Embiid had five fouls while isolating from Evan Mobley late in the fourth quarter. Like many opposing big men before him, Mobley sensed a sixth and disqualifying foul on Embiid that foreshadowed a potentially game-changing game.

Mobley is one of the most promising young defensemen in the NBA, which means he is Good at sales contact. When Embiid got on his train, Mobley flew backwards like he was in The Matrix. It was an excellent sale, and the first call was an offensive foul, Embiid’s sixth. Without their MVP nominee, the Sixers would have to hold a seven-point lead in the last four minutes.

That was until Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers flicked his finger and the green light went on.

Rivers joked, “I was 100 percent sure it was another big challenge.”

Embiid added: “I think it was a good call (from Rivers). I never stretched out my arm and I never really applied much pressure to hit it. And you could tell right before the hit that he was already trying to flop and fall. I think they saw that.”

The call was canceled, Embiid was credited with a basket and the Sixers held out 118-109 in Cleveland on Wednesday night.

Things are going well for the Sixers at the moment. They’ve won a league-high six games in a row. With 46-22 they have established the No. 3 in the hard-fought Eastern Conference. The Sixers now have a four-game lead over the No. 4 Cavaliers with 14 games to go, plus the tiebreak secured with Wednesday night’s win.

If the Sixers aren’t No. 3, it’s probably because they caught either Boston or Milwaukee. The rest of the schedule is tough, but that’s been the case for the past three weeks. It doesn’t look like a team that bothers too much against difficult opponents. The Sixers might even enjoy the challenge a little.

“We have one of the most difficult remaining schedules. It’s great for us,” said James Harden. “Every game is a playoff atmosphere, it’s the intensity. Possessions count.”

Speaking of possession counting, that wasn’t a perfect feat. Far from it, as the Sixers turned the ball over 20 times for 23 Cleveland points.

With an improved Embiid and Harden at controls, the Sixers are above average at ball care this season. But Wednesday’s game against a long and active Cleveland defense was reminiscent of a 2018 turnover fest led by Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Some of these transactions were of the casual, comical variety.

“I just thought we were being really sloppy,” Rivers said. “On the street you are really lucky to win games like that. They had ten more shots than us at half-time.”

But Cleveland is also one of the league’s elite defenses, and even without Jarrett Allen, their length poses problems. There were some schematic decisions by JB Bickerstaff’s team, particularly aggressive shifting against the Harden Embiid pick and roll, that gave the Sixers some trouble.

“We have to work on that because teams have done it before,” Rivers said.

One of the signs of a good team is the ability to win when things aren’t perfect. That was the case on Wednesday. Some of that was the work of the Sixers and some of it was an opponent’s game plan decisions. All ball security issues are a learning experience, but these are much easier to swallow when they lead to wins.

So how did the Sixers do it?

At the start they came from behind again. The Sixers had very little energy early in the second half and saw the Cavaliers’ lead extend to 13 points. But by the end of the quarter it had been completely erased on a Georges Niang buzzer beater.

As has been the case all season, a double-digit lead doesn’t deter the Sixers.

“We get really angry and calm on downtime,” said PJ Tucker. “We don’t even design a play or anything, and we just come out and, yeah. I’m always pretty confident when we come down. It’s like, ‘Are we all ready to play now? OK, yes, great.’ ”

Tucker was a team-high plus 22 that night. And while plus-minus single games are far from everything — Tucker’s offense, particularly his shot-shy streaks from the corner, still pose some problems for the Sixers — he tends to influence in the games that matter. Each of his offensive rebounds (four against Cleveland) feels like a dagger to the opponent. In last season’s big games, the Sixers were at the other end of those games.

It wasn’t a Paul Reed night. Rivers recognized this in the first half and went to Tucker at the center early in the fourth quarter. Tucker starred with Harden, Niang, Daniel House Jr. and Shake Milton. You traded buckets, but trading buckets is okay. Small ball sessions centered on Tucker score high (119.8 points per 100 possessions) and turn the opposition into a similar type of offensive juggernaut (121.1 per 100). It worked against the Cavs.

Milton left the field 4 out of 5 and scored 11 points, an important contribution from a player who is always off rotation. The fourth-year guard will always prefer to have the ball in his hands, but for him to be in the playoff rotation he needs to outplay Harden.

“You’re becoming more of an editor, a spot-up shooter. You just play the game from a different perspective,” said Milton. “He’s always looking, always watching the ground. And he will make the right decision 99 percent of the time.”

Harden finished with 12 assists. And those defensive shifts? The Sixers brought better shooters like Milton into the corner of the weak side as the game progressed.

The Sixers’ defense was good enough. As always, it starts with Embiid. The Sixers played Embiid much of the time as a “roamer,” meaning he aggressively helps out a non-shooter. This is a powerful weapon for Sixers defense. Check out Embiid, ignore Isaac Okoro in this block by Donovan Mitchell:

Embiid finished the game with four blocks and 15 defensive rebounds. He seems defensive every night just by presence, but it’s clear he’s pacing at times. Embiid is the league’s top scorer, so there’s a reason for the compromise. But he said after the game he’s starting to ramp up his defensive intensity to be sharp for the postseason.

“It’s time to go,” Embiid said.

But Embiid’s offense was the big equalizer. It’s always like that these days. He finished with 36 points on 12 of 19 from the field and 10 of 10 from the line. And he delivered a not-so-subtle punch to another MVP favorite (Giannis Antetokounmpo) when he declared that no-call.

“I didn’t think I extended anything,” he said. “I watch basketball every day. And based on the way those[plays]are managed — specifically, we have some guys who basically play like running backs in this league who get that call all the time — I was pretty confident they didn’t would call otherwise. ”

It was certainly an important call, but the bigger picture is that the Sixers are finding ways to win tight games.

(Photo by Joel Embiid: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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