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Sixers Can’t Hold Early Lead in Loss to LeBron, Cavs

That was about as good as bad losses get. The Philadelphia 76ers jumped out to a 14-point first quarter lead against the sleepwalking Cleveland Cavaliers in this one; Nik hitting open threes, Nerlens picking up uncontested dunks, Jahlil posting and toasting, the Sixers running their “NBA” offense for the first time this season. With Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas adding playmaking and shooting to our starting five, we actually looked like a credible NBA outfit — even getting compared to the Spurs for at least one play. It was beautiful, it was validating, it was everything we ever dreamed it would be.

Then LeBron James woke up, waltzed his way to a near triple-double (and his 25,000th career point), and the Cavs won easily, 107-100.

So it is. Even on their best day (which this was for about 15 glorious minutes of game action), the Sixers aren’t anywhere in the same league as the Cavs, and they’re not nearly experienced enough to fake it for a full 48. When LeBron — still the best player in the world pretty much whenever he chooses to be, lest you forget among all the Anthony Davis and Steph Curry brouhaha — decided it was time for his team to turn it up in the third quarter, the Sixers’ lead, confidence, and ability to make basketball plays of base-level competence started to slip away like their name was Clarence Carter. Disappointing, maybe, but hardly surprising.

Nonetheless, you have to leave this one with a pretty good feeling. Jahlil was downright unstoppable down low on this one, serving notice to Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and (especially) Timofey Mozgov with delectable aplomb. He finished with 24 points on 11-21 shooting, albeit with not a ton else to recommend his box score — just three rebounds and no blocks or assists, though also only one turnover, which is a big step for Jah. Why the Cavs rarely doubled him remains somewhat unclear, but a short three games into his NBA career, our 19-year-old center is already at a place where leaving him in single coverage — even with a decently beefy, legit seven-footer like Mozgov — is practical half-court suicide. Impressive.

Nerlens was a little spastic by comparison but he was still dominant for at least a quarter, sneaking in for easy baskets, grabbing every board in sight, blowing up plays on defense, even hitting his first jumper of the regular season. His final line of 14-8-3-2 on 7-13 shooting is still easily his best of the season, though from his first quarter, you’d think he was headed for career numbers. Soon enough.

And as the final member of our new Big Three — yeah, yeah, I know, but let’s just try it out and see how it goes, OK? — Stauskas was also nice in this one: 15 points on 4-10 shooting, which soon enough will hopefully be a pretty pedestrian Sauce outing, but for now ties a career high for our new starting SG. The outside shooting is awesome, but what’s really impressed me with Nik so far is his aggressiveness attacking from the top of the key. He’s not Russell Westbrook, certainly, but he’s fast enough that if his defender is leaning or on his heels a little, he can get a step and force help defense — and then, he’s smart and crafty enough to either make the proper drop-off pass, draw contact, or get the ball on the rim himself. Two games into his Philly run, and it is officially unbelievable that the Sixers were gifted him — with additional assets! — for a year’s worth of cap-space rental.

All you need to know about this game: The Sixers, who for two games could barely manage to complete a dribble hand-off, ran the vaunted, with Nerlens and Jahlil converging to free up Stauskas. And it worked! This team is gonna be the best.

Some other notes:

  • Unfortunately, the Sixers were forced to play more than three players for the game, and just about everyone else on the team was brutal. Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan combined to shoot 3-17 in this one — Covington seems understandably rusty after having missed the last few weeks with a knee sprain, and Canaan maybe just kinda sucks in general. When Young Cov gets back in game shape and Canaan is replaced by an actual point guard, this starting five will be very, very exciting.
  • That “actual point guard” might (temporarily) be T.J. McConnell. Timothy John had easily his best game as a Sixer tonight, handing out a stunning 12 dimes and zero turnovers — much of it in garbage time as the Sixers scrambled to make the final score respectable, but a handful also at the end of the first quarter, as he got Nerlens going on three straight field goals. His lack of outside shooting remains a problem, as the Cavs played about five feet off him past the free-throw line and dared him to fire (he didn’t), but considering Canaan ain’t exactly lighting it up from deep either, that might not be a good-enough reason to keep McConnell on the bench.
  • That garbage-time comeback was really something, by the way. The Sixers cut the deficit from 21 with about five minutes to play to just six with 37 seconds left. Richuan Holmes and Christian Wood both made threes, the latter banking it in. The Cavs were never truly in danger, but the fact that they had to sweat the final minute of this at all was pretty hilarious. (In general, the Cavs — particularly LeBron — seemed annoyed at actually having to try in order to secure this win, which as a fan of a basement-dweller is really all you can ask for.)

Bucks up next in Milwaukee. Sixers will probably lose, because they’ll probably lose every game for a while still. But at least now, for a middling opponent like Milwaukee, victory isn’t guaranteed.

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