The Sixers (41-26) visited the Cleveland Cavaliers (39-29) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday. Cleveland wanted to build on its victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. Joel Embiid dominated to the tune of 35 points and 17 rebounds to power the Sixers to a 118-114 victory on his 28th birthday.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (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.
The Cavaliers were without Jarrett Allen, who is recovering from a fractured left third finger.
Rajon Rondo missed the game with a sprained right ankle. Collin Sexton was out as he recovers from a torn left meniscus.
Dean Wade was nursing a sore right knee and did not play.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, Lauri Markkanen, and Evan Mobley.
There are 2 different versions of a dominant Joel Embiid. One is methodical, plays inside-out, takes advantage of post positioning, and is simply unguardable. That version is a pleasure to watch. The other takes a ton of shots, misses just short of a ton of shots, but physically imposes himself to get to the free throw line. That version is still productive, but junks it up a bit so you’re left thinking you just watched a man sloppily devour a bunch of other men as if they were a rack of ribs. The former version of Embiid played on Wednesday, and he got whatever he wanted early on.
Embiid started out with a helping of jumpers by the nail, creating separation by backing down smaller defenders before pivoting and squaring his shoulders, or utilizing jab-steps out of face-ups to push defenders away ever so slightly. He then worked his way outside, knocking in a triple in the second frame. When he wasn’t going to his footwork to get off silky jumpers, Embiid was wrestling his way into favorable positioning in the post for finishes at the basket. He scored 13 points in the first quarter en route to a 35-point night on 19 field goal attempts.
When Embiid wasn’t pouring it on, Maxey shouldered the offensive load. He was phenomenal in the first quarter, contributing 9 points of his own. His aggression was across three levels, stepping into a triple on the right wing in transition. Besides the three, Maxey refused to be intimidated into midrange jumpers or inefficient shots. He put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim, leveraging his speed and craftiness to produce favorable shots.
Maxey got back to that aggression in the third quarter while the Sixers were struggling to do anything productive. On ball-swings his way, Maxey attacked close-outs with power, blowing by heavy-footed defenders to glide to the cup for baskets. In an ecosystem in which Maxey is sharing ball-handling duties with James Harden, it is critical that he refine his off-ball play to stepping into threes with confidence and attacking close-outs with speed and tenacity. The key is not forcing either of those two options. If the defender is granting you space, let it fly. If they’re respecting his jumper, use it against them and attack the cup off swings. Maxey has both the skill and physical tools. The crippling danger will be when he starts to make the right play every single time he catches the ball on the perimeter.
Maxey also deserves credit for what he’s doing on the defensive end of the floor. He’s still often overmatched by taller and stronger offensive players. But, Maxey is beginning to use his low center of gravity to advantage in one-on-one scenarios. He struggles to get around screens right now because of his size and mass. But, he’s becoming quite adept at tip-toeing towards unaware opponents and delivering help from the back side so as to trap whomever has the ball.
However, the defensive effort goes beyond that. He’s starting to pick up the opposing point guard in the back-court. There were numerous Cleveland possessions in which Darius Garland was met with Maxey’s pressure in the back-court and had to eat some shot clock crossing over as he brought the ball up. Maxey granted Garland a bit of space, so he can still work on his stance and engine. But, playing off ever so slightly also gives you insurance that the ball-handler can’t just blow past you unabated if they get even the slightest advantage. Whatever the case, Maxey is clearly taking notice of his label as a defensive sore spot. And it seems he cares enough to start working on it.
Philadelphia built its lead up to 17 points in the second quarter in large part due to fabulous three-point shooting. The Sixers hit 7 of their 11 three-point attempts in the second quarter after a 1-of-7 showing in the first quarter. To no one’s surprise, it came off fabulous ball movement. The Sixers calmly allowed the Cavs to chase them off the three-point line because the lane was was vacant. Even the likes of Danny Green was comfortable driving to the cup and drawing defenders back to the interior because he knew vacuuming in the defender would leave a teammate open elsewhere.
He and his teammates took the driving lanes when met with close-outs throughout the second quarter. That body and ball movement generated some great looks from deep. Some nights the Sixers just don’t cash in on good looks. But when they move the ball and pull defenses out of position, their three-point shooting usually picks up. The key, of course, is being consistent in that movement and not allowing the ball to stick under bad habits.
It had been a struggle for Tobias Harris in the early stages of the Harden era. But, he’s slowly starting to figure it out. Wednesday marked his second game in the last three in which he took at least 13 shots. He’s slowly starting to get comfortable, too. His three-point volume has picked up — he’s attempted at least 5 triples in 2 of the last 3 games. But, he’s also cutting right to the chase. Instead of slowing everything down with over-dribbling into nothingness, Harris is getting to his sweet spots if he’s not lining up a three. He’s getting into the lane and finding ways to the rim, or Harris is using his size to overpower smaller mismatches in the post. He scored 19 points on 13 shots on Wednesday, and also pulled down 6 boards. Most encouraging of all — he made 3 of his 6 three-point attempts.
Harris has been better lately on the defensive side of the ball, as well. On Wednesday, he did a superb job of staying in front of the elusive Darius Garland. Harris kept his body down instead of standing upright or biting fakes. Beyond that, he moved his feet instead of defending with his hands. Garland really struggled to shake Harris at times, and the forward was able to at least keep Garland on the perimeter. Sometimes, tightening your defense is the best thing you can do when you’re struggling as a scorer. That way, you at least feel confident you’re contributing something positive to the team.
As discouraging as this game was for Philadelphia and James Harden, in particular, Harden and Embiid closed out a victory by calmly getting back to their bread-and-butter — the pick-and-roll. As much as the Embiid carried the Sixers at times on Wednesday, the birthday boy didn’t run out of gas late. He buckled down and found Harden for screens before rolling hard to the basket.
Just as Harden has proven to have perfected, he waited until both his and Embiid’s men keyed on him before delivering crisp bounce-passes to his big. Harden set Embiid up for a number of scores in the fourth quarter, from both the field and free throw line. If nothing else, the Sixers have at least something resembling a modern two-man offense to depend on in crunch time against a playoff teams — a star shot-creator navigating pick-and-rolls with a superstar big man.
Look, if Matisse Thybulle is going to be in the starting lineup, he cannot be smoking layups the way he has recently. He missed 4 of bunnies in the first quarter. At least two of them were wide-open chokes. The other two at least featured defenders in the vicinity. If he’s going to shoot below 30% from deep and constantly botch layups, is the defense going to help the team more than the offense is going to hurt them? I’m leaning towards the negative on that one.
As much as Embiid has put the entire Cavaliers team in hell this season, Kevin Love has returned the favor against Georges Niang. Whether it’s striking triples over Niang’s outstretched arms or taking him down to the weight room for short hooks over his shoulder in the post, Love has absolutely had his way with the smaller stretch forward in 2 of the teams’ 3 matchups thus far. Fortunately for Niang, there’s only 1 regular-season game against the Cavs remaining. The bad news is that the Sixers could very well see them in the first round of the playoffs. Thoughts and prayers.
James Harden continued his trend of first-quarter passivity. After the Nuggets loss, Rivers said that he wanted Harden to be more aggressive as a scorer and pointed accountability at himself to do a better job of putting the former MVP in better spots to score. Even with those words of encouragement, Harden continued to defer to teammates and didn’t register a field goal in the first quarter. He did get to the free throw line, though. Rivers even took Maxey out for Danny Green as one of the first substitutions of the game, ostensibly to encourage Harden to be more aggressive, and it didn’t change Harden’s style at all.
After the game, Harden mentioned that he’s getting some sort of treatment on his hamstring. It very well may be just a regular program to manage the injury so that it doesn’t flare up. Or, it could be that he’s playing through something that is more serious than anyone is letting on. He’s not playing badly, by the way. Harden just looks a step slow, which is normal when you progress through your 30s. My concern is that his jumper has looked very short over the last few games. That’s typically indicative of fatigue or a leg injury.
As good as the Sixers’ offense was in the first quarter, count me out for the “Maxey and 4 bench guys” lineup that Rivers deployed with 45 seconds left in the first quarter. 45 seconds feels like a minimal-risk window, but Cleveland promptly scored 2 buckets in the paint to close the quarter and ended the first frame with a smidge of momentum. What happened to staggering Embiid, Harden, Maxey, and Harris so that 2 of them area always on the floor together?
Even when DeAndre Jordan accrues a couple rebounds and the occasional block in short spurts, it’s not difficult to see why he still registers a negative or slightly-positive plus/minus in the box score. Layups are a mystery box for the veteran center, and he’s not a lock to slam home lobs left high enough to evade the outstretched arms of defenders.
It’s bad enough that Jordan leaves points up on the board, but he can’t hold off dribble penetration either. He’s not going to be the presence that Embiid is, where merely being on the court causes the opposing offense to rush a bit around the rim out of fear of the lurking defensive anchor. But, Jordan cannot keep his hips in front of any driver. You’re not going to win many foot races against Darius Garland, but it’s way too easy for most drivers to find the edge against him and turn on the jets. He’s wiry enough to make decent contests, but Jordan isn’t taking away the driving angle, which is what you need from him.
Having observed Doc Rivers’ tendencies for nearly 2 full seasons, it may take being down 3-2 in a series for him to wave the flag and move away from Jordan. But you’re not going to get much worse by playing Paul Millsap, as slow as he looks. I simply do not believe that you’re going to be worse off playing Paul Reed or Charles Bassey behind Embiid. The most unfortunate part is that it may take an incredibly high-leverage situation for any of the young guys to get a chance. You have to be ready when your name is called. That cliche is fine in the regular season. But, it’s not exactly fair if that’s the move Rivers makes in a tight playoff series.
Harden has been this way his whole career and, as such, his tendency to pull the kill switch key as soon as he senses contact is not going to go away. But, that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Sure, you have to dip into your inner Juilliard student to get the call sometimes. But, Harden lives and dies on the whistle. If he gets the call, it’s not a problem. But when the officials don’t give him the benefit of the doubt, Harden is left in the dust while everyone scrambles to get back in transition, incensed that he didn’t get the call. It’s not as if they’re blatantly obvious shooting fouls, either. Harden is asking for favorable calls every time he loses control on a reach-in. Those are not easy calls to make, and you’re not going to get the beneficial whistle every time.
You couldn’t help but look at the 4 non-Embiid centers occupying roster spots as the Sixers took a 31-13 beating at the hands of the Cavaliers in the third quarter. I can understand carrying 2 centers beyond Embiid in case you need a different look or he gets injured. But, this team is so sorely lacking at the wing and guard spots that it feels criminal to have 4 centers behind Embiid. And that weakness shone bright as the Cavaliers bludgeoned the Sixers with three-point shooting and slashes to the rim.
Depth is the downfall of this team. Prior to the Denver game, Rivers opined that he can go 11 players deep. That just isn’t feasible. Philadelphia plays the lottery on a nightly basis with any player on the bench not named Georges Niang. They have zero shot-creation behind Harden and Maxey, and the only credible wing defender on the team is in the starting lineup right now.
The part that is hard to comprehend is that you don’t need to go digging for treasure to find competent bench play on a season-to-season basis. You either need to have capable athletes or less athletic mercenaries with specialized skills. If you have the athletes that aren’t all that skilled, they can at least put forth the effort to defend while you stagger one of your core four with the second unit. If you have unathletic specialists — like they found in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in 2018 — they can supply the offensive production so that you at least have a means to keep pace with the opposing offense if the defense can’t get it done.
Daryl Morey did a great job with the Simmons trade, and even a slumping Harden is a big upgrade in star power over what the 25-year-old disgruntled former Sixer provided. But, there was no other move made at the deadline and he went with another big on the buyout market. Morey has pivoted the Sixers out of difficult situations in each of the two seasons he’s been in Philadelphia. But, it certainly seems like a wasted opportunity and a misallocation of resources to give Rivers 4 backup centers and no wing or guard depth with which to work.
The most logical move to remedy at least some of that problem is to bring Maxey off the bench. It may seem like a demotion, but it’s more of a “we need you to take up a bigger role doing this” situation. Bringing Maxey off the bench both forces Harden to be less deferential as a scorer and adds some sorely-needed spark off the bench. It’s not like Maxey wouldn’t be playing starter’s minutes, either. He’d just be coming off the bench. Given that the Sixers’ bench has been outscored 140-46 over the last 3 games, it’s at least worth considering such a re-shuffling. You’re not going to win anything if your plan is to expect Embiid, Harden, Maxey, and Harris to combine for 85% of the team’s points, which they did on Wednesday.
The Sixers certainly tried to keep the Cavaliers alive down the stretch of this one, committing bone-headed foul after bone-headed foul to send Cleveland to the charity stripe. Just a word to the wise — when you’re up by 4 points within the final 30 seconds of the game, keep your arms straight up or at your side. There’s no reason to give contact and risk silly fouls on shots. Let the opposition make their own mistakes. Don’t bail them out.
The Sixers (42-26) will host the Dallas Mavericks (43-26) on Friday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.