The Sixers (47-30) visited the Cleveland Cavaliers (43-35) on Sunday night. Philadelphia looked to build on a throttling of the Hornets on Saturday afternoon. Cleveland hoped to build on a win over the Knicks on Saturday. Joel Embiid delivered 44 points and 17 rebounds to power the Sixers to victory, 112-108.
Before we get to what I liked and dislikes, some notes.
Philadelphia was without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, Myles Powell (Two-Way), and Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Cleveland was without Jarrett Allen (fractured 3rd left finger) and Evan Mobley (sprained left ankle).
Collin Sexton, who has missed most of the season with a torn left meniscus, was unavailable. Dean Wade is recovering from surgery on his right knee and was out.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert, Lauri Markkanen, and Moses Brown.
The Sixers went with the same cross-screen play to open the game that they did on their first possession against Charlotte on Saturday. Tyrese Maxey sets a flex screen for Joel Embiid to open on the left block for a post-up on the strong side of the floor. If the opposition is switching early, it’s a great way to get a size mismatch for Embiid and ostensibly an easy score down low to start his night.
That’s a play I’d like to see much more of throughout games, especially if defenses are switching on screens involving Maxey or Harden. Just an easy action to exploit switching outside of a regular pick-and-roll. Teams are intelligent enough to figure out how to beat a flex offense (zone will help), but that action is an automatic way to get good looks while the defense is guarding in a way that favors you.
It took the Sixers a little while for shots to fall to start the second half, but their first actions to get into offense were much better than they were in the first half. Philadelphia ran a handful of Chicago action, staggering an off-ball screen into a dribble handoff with Embiid to get the ball-handler going downhill. They even ran a Split action for Maxey to get a touch at the top of the key.
Even if the shots aren’t falling, those types of basic sets result in a ball-handler getting downhill into dribble penetration. Anything resulting in dribble penetration is going to create an opportunity for a swing pass to the weak side of the floor. If that’s there, you’re going to get the defense into rotation. So those base actions, by principle, are far more productive than isolations and vanilla pick-and-roll play. It should be an immediate part of Philadelphia’s offense every time down, not reserved for the “get out of a funk” playbook.
Everything changed for Philadelphia with Maxey back in the game to start the second half. He didn’t blow away the box score. But, his pace really opened the floor for a Sixers team that refused to make Cleveland work in the first half. His full-speed style of play pressures defenses to lift out of the lane and commit to stopping the ball. That opens a pocket for a teammate to catch the ball unabated in the lane, and that collapses the interior. When the offense is hard to come by in the throes of a playoff series, those downhill plays for Maxey to slice the interior need to be a focal part of the game plan.
Harden struggled with his shooting all night long, and has for most of his Sixers tenure. But when it came to putting the game away, he was as effective as you could’ve asked for. He and Embiid inundated the Cavaliers with pick-and-rolls in crunch time, manufacturing offense when the other Sixers were mostly too drained to be trusted with creating anything as the game hung in the balance.
Even when Harden is struggling to shoot the ball, he plays with poise that makes you feel comfortable with his ball-handling as the stakes rise with each passing play. He’s great at yo-yoing the defense into missteps as they dance between stopping the ball and staying home on the rim. And when they confront him in space, he drops the pass off to his plunging partner for a comfortable shot at the rim.
Whether Harden is 4-for-13 or 13-for-13, his timing and judgment are very consistent. The Sixers don’t need him to be an ace as a scorer. His Houston days are over. If he can create space with footwork and machine-gun dribbling, manipulate defenses to crack down on the interior, and toggle through his options before making the right play more often than not, I don’t really care about his shooting percentage. And even with the shooting struggles, by the way, Harden put together a 21-point, 10-rebound, and 10-assist triple-double. On those nights, you ignore the number of shots he missed. The impact is undeniable.
Embiid was the only reason the Sixers had any chance of winning this game at all. After a relatively cold start, Embiid painted a masterpiece. He hit shots from the outside, but mostly did his work on the inside and at the free throw line. It was something of a throwback to the bigs of previous eras. Embiid set screens, caught the ball on the move, and powered his way to the rim for quality looks. He also followed his teammates’ misses, putting himself in the right position to redeem their misses for scores. Cleveland had no way of keeping Embiid out of the paint without fouling him. Each and every one of his 44 points punched Cleveland in the mouth.
On the other end of the floor, he was nearly as dominant. Embiid recovered to the rim for 5 volleyball-spike rejections, sending weak layups at the rim into the immediate audience surrounding the court. And when he didn’t maul shot attempts at the rim, he locked down 13 defensive rebounds to prevent Cleveland from getting additional possessions.
It was perhaps Embiid’s most dominant two-way showing of the season, and it did not go in vain.
There was very little pick-and-roll work between Embiid and James Harden in the first quarter. That’s partially explainable by what Cleveland did on defense. After Embiid got some great looks out of the post early on, Cleveland went to a zone. It’s hard to pick-and-roll a defense when they take away dribble penetration and passing windows. But, the Sixers were just standing around and deferring to Embiid in the post when Cleveland wasn’t zoning up. Those are the moments when you have to intuitively flow into a set offense. Perhaps it is coaching, or perhaps the players were lethargized by their own awful output. But, there was no offensive adjustment to get anything going once Cleveland went away from their zone in the first quarter.
On the topic of Embiid post-ups, you could tell he was tired within the first few minutes of the game. He put the ball on the floor far too much early on, dribbling it off his face, losing control, and aiding Cleveland in getting out in transition. It will pay dividends if the Sixers can minimize his dribbling in the lane. Not only is it always good to reduce dribbling in congestion, but it also likely means that Embiid is getting easier buckets off of passes from his teammates. There will be times when Embiid will have to create for himself. But, reducing that will preserve his energy. You need every last drop of juice you can get before the playoffs start.
Tyrese Maxey picked up 3 fouls in the first quarter. Of course, he didn’t play in the second quarter. Luckily for Philadelphia, it didn’t cost them in the end. But, Rivers gambled on trusting his guard to not pick up another foul, and it was a bad bet this time. Still, there’s no reason Maxey should remain in the game after picking up his second foul of the first quarter. If he picks up his third in the first quarter, it’s malpractice.
The Sixers shot 5-for-19 and committed 6 turnovers in the first quarter. That’s half their season average in one frame. Being down 2 points after the first quarter, given that adversity, always projects nicely on your chances of winning the game.
The only thing that really worries me about the Embiid-Harden dynamic is that lineups featuring Harden without Embiid just aren’t cutting it. The Sixers are surviving the Embiid minutes without Harden. But, they’re getting outscored by more than 5 points per 100 possessions in the 154 minutes that Harden has played without Embiid. There needs to be some context, of course. Harden is usually playing next to DeAndre Jordan or a small-ball big. The offensive output is fine — 117.6 points scored per 100 possessions in those minutes. But, the defensive side just isn’t cutting it.
Harden’s defensive capacity is better than reputed. But, he has a limit to which he’ll go as a defender. The Sixers’ non-Embiid units don’t necessarily lose leads because of the bigs. Rather, they have no one capable of stopping dribble penetration, and that puts it all on the big to be perfect.
But that doesn’t excuse the uninspiring efforts put forth by DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap. The latter at least goes all out when he’s on the floor. He’s just painfully slow and under-sized. But, Jordan is a different story. He incorrectly walks the line in the pick-and-roll and doesn’t always do his best to make contests at the basket. He inexplicably played 2 arm lengths off of a Kevin Love catch-and-shoot triple on the left wing. And he didn’t even care enough to get back into the picture and make Love sweat on the shot. The Sixers were -11 with Jordan on the court in the first half. They were +5 with Embiid on the court. They trailed by 6 at halftime. I don’t think it’s fair to blame all of that on Jordan, but the math adds up. The non-Embiid minutes were the difference before halftime.
It also didn’t help that Moses Brown was a human pogo stick in his first half stint. He has some discipline to work on — he was a -12 because he couldn’t do anything against Embiid. But, 9 points and 12 rebounds, and he’s got really good hands. He was on the plunge throughout the first half, getting shots right above the restricted area on dump-offs throughout. I would’ve played him much more than 20 minutes, especially given that he only committed 4 fouls in his time. But, that kid is going to be really good. At worst, he’s a competent backup center. At best, you could convince me he’s a starter in this league.
Speaking of an ugly first half, there were some kids screaming into the Sixers’ broadcast microphone in the first half. The parents owe all of us some Advil for having to listen to that. Shoutout to whomever fixed it, though.
The Sixers (48-30) will visit the Indiana Pacers (25-54) on Tuesday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.