For the second time in a little more than a week, the 76ers found themselves in a game that was a measure of not just 48 minutes of basketball, but of the seasons and years that have dripped slowly past during their deliberate building plan.
The first game was against the defending champion Golden State Warriors and, on Monday, against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the best player of his, or possibly any, generation.
Two pretty good tests, one would have to say. The Warriors and Cavs have met in each of the last three NBA Finals, and LeBron James has taken part in seven straight championship rounds. For teams that believe themselves good enough to play late into the postseason, here are two handy measuring sticks.
"This is like NBA royalty," coach Brett Brown said before Monday's game. "You don't back away from it. You're not intimidated by it. You embrace it. [Our] group isn't coming looking for autographs. We're looking to win a game. We respect that they…have rings and MVP's and all-stars and gold medals. We get who we're playing against."
Well, if they didn't before the game, they sure did afterward. Sure, James scored 30 points in 31 minutes, but he was almost the least of it. The Sixers couldn't handle him, which isn't a surprise, but they also couldn't stay with the Cleveland bench, which scored 57 points in the 113-91 Cavaliers win. By the end, the Sixers were getting whipped soundly by this measuring stick.
"We'll learn from this game," Brown said. "They have been the NBA champs for a reason. We didn't play well on either side of the ball."
What has been an uplifting stretch of basketball has been put in some perspective. Although they have won five of the last seven games, the two pock marks came against Golden State and Cleveland. That's not a coincidence, and it's far from shocking. The Sixers are a good team. If they keep playing as consistently as they have been recently, they have a real chance to finish around .500 or a little above and make the postseason. Given where they were, that's an accomplishment. But games like Monday's indicate how far they still have to travel.
On a smaller scale, there was a fascinating game within the game as Sixers rookie point guard Ben Simmons, a player with unique skill for his size, was on the court for the first time with James, whose ability to move around the court also isn't limited by his frame.
Simmons and James have developed a relationship off the court. They share the same management, Klutch Sports Group, of which James is a partner. They are texting buddies and hang out together in the summer and all that. But if James wanted to make a statement concerning who might be "the next LeBron James," he did so by reminding everyone that the current one hasn't gone anywhere yet.
The reminding didn't take long. James scored the first nine points of the game for Cleveland, had 15 in the first quarter and 22 by halftime, including a three-pointer at the buzzer as he chased down his own miss and buried the shot from the corner.
James and Simmons weren't really matched up against one another. Jae Crowder guarded Simmons most of the time. James took Dario Saric or another guard. But the similarities on what they can do – put the ball on the floor and get to the rim quickly – were on display from the start.
"We see glimpses of what Ben can do in early offense – his first few steps, and the ground that he's able to cover, and the miles per hour," Brown said. "We play the fastest in the NBA and Ben covers a lot of ground."
Not last night. The Cavs limited the Sixers to just four fastbreak points and they did so by staying in front of Simmons and then not giving him space to maneuver in the half court. Simmons finished with just 10 points, didn't get to the line, and had twice as many turnovers (4) as assists.
James operates on a different plane, which isn't breaking news. His ability to shoot from the outside as well as get to the basket makes him ridiculously difficult to guard. Unlike Simmons, who doesn't yet have a reliable jump shot, James can make a defense pay for taking away one thing or the other. The comparisons are obvious in some ways, but still premature.
"Any time names [come up] like LeBron or Magic [Johnson], it's so reckless. I understand it, but Ben hasn't done it and we haven't done it. You say, 'Compare him to LeBron.' Ask me later…a few years from now."
He'll be asked again before that. Even if the first game with the two on the court together turned out to be lop-sided, the one player has more of a past and the other has more of a future.