Game Night Observations: The Reversed Call And A Bad Third Quarter Stretch

Game Night Observations: The reversed call and a bad third quarter stretch

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 Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham

The Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Philadelphia 76ers 118-109 on Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

The last two times the Cavaliers faced off against a full-strength Eastern Conference power, the team found itself in a large deficit, climbing out of it just enough to make things interesting in the final minutes of the game. That happened once in Boston against the Celtics and once in Philadelphia against these same 76ers. Wednesday night was a different story.

On Wednesday the Cavs came to play, even if they didn’t have their best game, the effort and tenacity was at the level it needed to be at, as evidenced by the five-point lead at halftime and a 13-point third quarter advantage.

It still wasn’t enough, though. The Sixers went on an 18-1 run in the third quarter that turned a 13-point Cavs lead into a 4-point Philadelphia lead in just under six minutes. The offense stalled out for the Cavs while the Sixers were able to create plenty of open looks from beyond the arc.

Right now, the Sixers are a team that has a ‘championship or bust’ mentality. If they come up short this year in the playoffs, there could be serious changes in the organization and to the roster there. The Cavaliers aren’t in that place right now. Sure, there are expectations for the Cavs once the playoffs begin, and getting to the second round should be part of that, but failing to reach the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals isn’t considered a disaster for the Cavs. It would be for Philadelphia.

They’re a team that’s in a different place than the Cavs. There were times on Wednesday night where the Sixers can force themselves to play at a higher level than the Cavs consistently can. That’s what comes with being a team filled with playoff experience, even if most of that experience isn’t success on the highest level.

“There is an intensity that comes with playing in these types of games. And when you see guys, whether it's James or Embiid or Harris, Tucker, these guys that have been through what it looks like, they know how to call upon it when necessary,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before the game on Wednesday. “And those are the things that our young guys are learning and trying to figure out because they haven't been in those moments, those game sevens or on the road in a playoff series, like those types of things. So it's great experience for us to get that feeling. And again, it's practice for what's ahead of you because you don't just flip those switches unless you get those experiences.”

While Bickerstaff said that obviously without the knowledge of how the night would go, the Sixers did have the ability to pull from those experiences when things got difficult Wednesday night. The Cavs don’t quite have that ability locked down yet.  

One day, that will be the expectation and the goal for the Cavs. It’s not yet. This isn’t to say the Cavs can’t get hot at the right time and make a deeper than expected run in the postseason. That’s entirely possible. But it’s hard to skip steps in the NBA, especially with a team as young as the Cavs. Wednesday, even in a loss, was a preview of what the postseason will be like and the steps the Cavs need to take in order to get to where they want to go.

The foul that wasn’t

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is one of the NBA’s leading candidates for this season’s Most Valuable Player award. He’s been nothing short of spectacular this season and put together another stellar performance on Wednesday night against the Cavs with 36 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks. He did it on 12-of-19 shooting and made all 10 free throw attempts he earned.

He also found himself in foul trouble and, at least temporarily, removed from the game.

In the fourth quarter, Embiid was called for his fifth foul while fighting for a rebound with Evan Mobley. At that time, the Sixers held a 108-99 lead over the Cavs with 4:53 left in regulation. The next possession was a dunk by Donovan Mitchell after he was able to penetrate the lane, partially due to the fact that Embiid needed to be careful to not pick up his sixth foul which would disqualify him. With such a lead for the Sixers, the juice of contesting that drive by Mitchell isn’t worth the squeeze.

On the next offensive possession for the Sixers, Embiid was defended by Mobley at the top of the key while he crossed the ball over into his left hand before barrelling his right shoulder into Mobley’s chest and extending his forearm. Mobley went sliding back approximately 15 feet while Embiid splashed the midrange jumper.

Umprie Derek Richardson whistled the play dead, signaled an offensive foul, the sixth personal on Embiid, thus disqualifying him from the rest of the game.
Without thinking twice, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers called a timeout and asked for the play to be reviewed and it was eventually overturned to a loud chorus of boos inside the arena after a lengthy delay.

It's not to say the Cavaliers would have won the game had that call been upheld. They still would have been down by seven with just over four minutes left against one of the best teams in the NBA. But it also sucked away any momentum that they had built to potentially come back. It felt as if all the positive energy had been sucked out of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and replaced with a chant from fans of “ref you suck.”

“(Evan) drew a hell of a charge to get him six (fouls). He did a hell of a job,” Bickerstaff said after the game. “It’s clear as day that’s a charge. There’s no doubt about it. The call was made on the floor. He stands in between him and the basket, he lowers the shoulder. I thought Evan competed. You know what I mean? Evan laid it all out the line. Guys ought to be rewarded for that. You’re willing to stick your nose in there and sacrifice your body, you ought to be rewarded for the correct play.

“They said there wasn’t enough contact to be a charge. Which, I mean, there’s a 300-pound man that bowls through your chest, it’s a charge. And it’s that simple.”

In fewer words, Mobley felt similarly to how Bickerstaff explained his positioning on the matter.

“He hit me straight in my chest, I fell. I felt like it was a charge,” Mobley said. “I guess they thought different. That was a big turning point in the game.”

If Embiid is kept out of the game, as originally called, there’s no promising the Cavs come back to win. Chances are, against a Philadelphia team that his seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter it wouldn’t have mattered, but that moment as a whole felt deflating for the team.

The way that play was called was clearly a frustrating thing for Mobley, Bickerstaff, and the Cavs. Especially against a team like Philadelphia that has Embiid and James Harden who can seemingly find their way to the free throw line whenever they like. Was there a bit of embellishing on Mobley’s part when Embiid did push off him? Sure. Just as there is an over exaggeration of contact by Embiid and Harden on their attempts to get to the free throw line.

The Cavs felt as if because of that, they couldn’t be physical defensively in the same manner they usually are.

“I don’t think we were able to. I think (Philly was) able to be more physical at times, but I don’t think we were able to be more physical,” Bickerstaff said. “It was not what-for-what, and it’s that simple. There’s a play—a guy spins away from the basket, and not even looking at the basket, and gets a foul called for him. It’s not what-for-what tonight.”

“You can't play as physical, you can't necessarily stop them from where they want to go as much as you want to because you know there's probably gonna be a foul, so that's the main difference,” Mobley said.

There were times when it did seem to be called normally, mostly in the middle of the game. The Sixers attempted 27 free throws on Wednesday, which is 10 more than Cavs opponents average per game and six more than Philadelphia’s average of 21.3 attempts per game. Of the 27 attempts at the line, 20 of them came in the first and fourth quarter.

It’s rare for Bickerstaff to be as outspoken about officiating as he was on Wednesday night, and he certainly didn’t do so unintentionally. That type of moment can be of benefit for teams in the way that they’re officiated in the future. Only time will tell if it has any impact for the Cavs.

Standings update

The Cavs now have just 10 games remaining on the season and just three of them are against teams that are currently over .500. Had they beaten Philadelphia on Wednesday night, there was a slight chance that they could have jumped up into the third seed, but this loss, which handed the Sixers the tiebreaker, seemingly shuts the door on that dream.

Now, the focus for the Cavs shifts to hanging on to fourth in the Eastern Conference and the home court advantage that comes with it in the first round of the playoffs. As of Thursday morning, the Cavs have a 2.5-game lead over the New York Knicks for that fourth spot in the conference. The two teams play once more, in Cleveland on March 31.

Aside from that game, the Knicks have the more difficult schedule, with a game against Denver remaining and two games with the Miami Heat. Also to Cleveland’s benefit is the fact that it has four games remaining with teams in the bottom five of the NBA in winning percentage, hosting Houston and Charlotte for one game each while traveling to Orlando for a pair of games in the last week of the season.