It may be ahead of the schedule, but the Philadelphia 76ers have already arrived as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
The hottest team in the league right now, the 76ers have reeled off 13 consecutive wins and their most recent victory, a 132-30 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, vaulted them into the third seed and continued to prove they’re very much for real.
Even without Joel Embiid, who is recovering from a concussion and orbital fracture, Philadelphia managed to fend off a furious Cavaliers comeback after holding a 30-point lead in the first half.
LeBron James ended up with the glossier stat line as he racked up 44 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, but it was Ben Simmons who got the last laugh as he produced a triple-double of his own with 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists.
“This was big, beating a team like that without an All-Star,” said Simmons, referring to Embiid. “I think everyone is coming together as a team. We are playing well.”
James, who has been a mentor to Simmons and whose agent also represents the rookie, was complimentary about the 21-year-old phenom.
“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.”
Before beating the Cavaliers, the 76ers’ win streak included victories against mostly bad competition and only team currently in position to reach the playoffs.
But by defeating Cleveland, Philadelphia showed their hot finish to the season is no fluke and that they’re primed for the playoffs, especially if they meet the Cavaliers again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“The confidence in this team and how we’re playing overall as a unit, we haven’t had that around here in a long time,” 76ers forward Robert Covington said. “And it’s only going to get better from here.”
Even though Embiid is expected to return early in the playoffs, Philadelphia have incentive to keep hold of the three seed to set themselves up for the best path in the postseason.
They’re currently slated to play scrappy Miami in the first round, but round two is where seeding would prove useful as they could potentially face injury-ravaged Boston instead of East-leading Toronto.
The 76ers have a relatively easy close to the season with games remaining against Dallas, Atlanta and Milwaukee. If they win out, they would secure the third season. If they end with the same record as the Cavaliers, Cleveland would win the tiebreaker based on winning the Central division, while the 76ers are third in the Atlantic.
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