The Sixers (45-22) visited the Cleveland Cavaliers (44-27) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to win the season series against the Cavaliers and ostensibly guarantee a floor of the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland wanted to win the tiebreaker against the Sixers and inch closer to the 3-seed in the East. Joel Embiid went for 36 points, 18 rebounds, and four blocks to power the Sixers to victory, 118-109.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Jalen McDaniels, who has a right hip contusion.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The Cavaliers were without the services of Jarrett Allen, who has a right eye contusion.
Isaiah Mobley is on a Two-Way assignment with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, and Evan Mobley.
Let’s start out with three truths. The Cavaliers didn’t have a very good interior defender in Allen available in this game. Virtually all Sixers except for one seemingly didn’t make the team bus from the hotel for the first half of this game. Embiid played maybe the most thorough half of his career.
That’s not hyperbole, as much as people like to loosely toss around grandiose statements to paint extremes. It very well might’ve been the best half of Embiid’s career. That is how purely dominant he was. Add up the scoring totals for Harden and Maxey, still less than Embiid scored. Take the second highest rebounder on the team through 24 minutes, still only a bit more than half of the total Embiid amassed. Surely Embiid couldn’t have passed the ball very much if he’s scoring all those points, right? Not quite, he had the second most assists on the team at halftime.
But, when you average more than 33 points per game, scoring is usually going to be the big story. Status quo on Wednesday. But, it wasn’t aligned to Embiid’s recent trend of just imposing his will or knocking down easy jumpers at the nail. He saved his very best stuff for a national television game on the night after Nikola Jokic, the favorite to take another MVP award from Embiid’s grasp, and the Denver Nuggets suffered their fourth consecutive loss.
There were a couple power moves inside for buckets, Embiid using strength and clean footwork to clear traffic and get to the basket. But, most of the work for him in this game was smooth jazz from around the nail and closer. It wasn’t the best night of making plays out of the double-teams or attacking into traffic, a handful of his six turnovers in this game occurred with two Cavaliers eating at his space. But, the shotmaking was simply incredible all night.
There were two jumpers that let you know Embiid was on one. First, he tried to pivot and reverse pivot away from a double-team and find an open teammate. When nothing materialized, he simply lifted into a jumper at the right block over the double contest and cashed in two more points. The other jumper came in the fourth quarter under the duress of the shot clock and a tight contest from Mobley. Embiid created space with a step backwards before banking in a fadeaway three to expand Philadelphia’s lead in crunch time.
But, there was one score that let the Cavaliers know what they were dealing with on Wednesday night and the Sixers know that they were well on their way to being carried by another special performance. Doubled by the left baseline, Embiid stepped through the trap towards the paint before reverse-pivoting back towards the basket for a layup as he fell to the floor. He picked the Cavaliers apart with an array of ad-libbed scores all night long.
But, he certainly didn’t neglect the other end of the floor for the sake of carrying the load on offense. Embiid met the likes of Mobley, Okoro, and other Cavaliers at the rim throughout the game. It wasn’t just swats from one spot, either. Embiid made rotations when the strong side shifted on the pass, stepping up to block a would-be dunk. He found himself in the air too early on a rotation, but used a quick second jump to deny a dunk off a dump-off pass. Embiid dialed up the effort in transition as well, following Garland to the rim and erasing a layup. The big guy even stepped away from the restricted area, tracking Mitchell as he danced his way around Harris and getting a finger tip on the star guard’s floater.
But, this game was a great example of the lack of publicly available data for tracking defense. There is no way, at least that I know of, to quantify how interior defenders deter drivers. But, Embiid’s lurking presence was enough to scare off a couple of drives. Most notable was Mitchell, who looked poised for a highlight-reel score at the rim before Embiid stepped over. Mitchell immediately passed out of the drive, taking away the ball’s progress towards the basket.
The problem of publicly available data is a story for another day. There are limitations to how much providers want people to know, so they only give access to the most prestigious publications. But, this game had a handful of examples of how Embiid impacts defense without necessarily recording a box score statistic. No barriers to entry for rebounding numbers, though. 18 boards for the big guy in this game, and he’s subtly mastering the tip rebound. If Embiid can’t secure the ball himself, he’ll poke it towards Harden or a teammate to end the possession for the opponent.
As the big fella picked up fouls in the second half, the two-way impact went away. But, his scoring — and on high efficiency, no less — did all of the talking.
The Sixers don’t win this game without Harden and Maxey picking it up in the second half. Maxey made some poor decision in the first half, but he canned a bunch of big threes for the Sixers in this one. He sprinkled in a pair of his bread-and-butter layups, taking advantage of unset Cleveland defenses to get downhill in transition. He also took advantage of contact on the hip while driving to the basket to get to the line for a pair of free throws as the game tightened up in the second half.
You can tell he’s starting to feel more like he did last season now that Maxey is back in the starting lineup. He’s spacing the floor, making himself available for catch-and-shoot threes when Embiid draws extra attention or in transition when Harden has an open floor to read. The two-man game between Maxey and Harden drives defenses crazy. Maxey likes to slip the screen and open wide for Harden to hit him for threes as the defense scrambles. The first one capped a big run that erased a 13-point deficit and gave the Sixers the lead. The second put Philadelphia up six points with less than three minutes to go in the game.
It’s not always how you start, but how you finish. Just ask Harden. He scored nearly half of his 28 points in the game’s decisive quarter, knocking in a pair of triples to push momentum into Philadelphia’s favor with Embiid resting. Harden didn’t fall in love with the deep ball though, fighting his way to the line for six free throw attempts in the final frame. No. 1 also dished five assists against only one turnover. A bang-up job for the bearded guy to play the entire fourth quarter and close this one out strong.
A couple standout role-player efforts that must be noted. If you don’t see what Tucker brings to the floor, I don’t know what to tell you. He was amongst the trees fighting for rebounds all night long. Three rebounds and three steals, too. Some big three-point makes from Georges Niang and Shake Milton in this one.
Niang hit one to beat the third-quarter buzzer and give the Sixers the lead, and another to give Philadelphia a six-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Milton canned two from the left side of the floor in the fourth quarter, one to give the Sixers a four-point lead early in the frame and another to push Philadelphia’s cushion to five points towards the middle of the final act. Those two combined to shoot 5-of-6 from downtown in this game.
Not the best night for Paul Reed. Philadelphia was outscored by seven points in the four minutes he played in this one. But, he continues to look good switching on defense. That’s going to come in handy in the playoffs.
Good call by Rivers to go with Tucker as the small-ball five to open the fourth quarter instead of going back to Reed. Could’ve made a case to stay with Reed, although you wouldn’t have been confident after a minus-7 showing in the first half. The small-ball lineup was plus-1, weathering the storm with Embiid resting. Rivers, of course, only coaches the losses, though.
The only reason this game was even remotely competitive was that the Sixers were obscenely sloppy with the basketball. Leading the way there was Embiid, who committed six of the team’s 18. Can’t really crush him much in this one because he was the only reason the Sixers had a chance. But, he was one of a few Sixers to commit record-scratching errors. He let a pass slip and sent over the backboard and out of bounds. He threw another out of bounds trying to make a pass from the middle of the floor to the corner, missing his target by a good bit. Embiid wasn’t careful driving into traffic, either, losing the rock on the attack.
You could tell there was disconnect early in this one, Harden going too high with a rare missed pass to a cutter in Harris. It felt like the Sixers lost their dribbles in traffic all night. In the second half, the big problem for both teams was moving screens. Some of it was just having to fight through ugliness at times. Other miscues were simply ugliness. It’s a miracle the Sixers got the win despite 18 possessions worth of zeros.
It was the first time the Harden-plus-bench lineup struggled in quite a bit. Those groups have been dynamite for Philadelphia as of late. But, the advantage the Sixers held through the first quarter was promptly erased and turned over to the Cavaliers with Embiid recharging. Part of the issue was clunkiness on offense, Reed trying to make decisions out of the short roll when Harden sent the ball his way on pick-and-rolls. The other problem was rebounding, the Sixers giving the Cavaliers a bunch of extra chances while no. 21 rested.
One of the sneaky subplots building up is Harris’ struggles on offense. He’s really struggled to shoot the ball both off the catch and off the dribble and finish at the rim over the last several weeks. For a starter playing at least 30 minutes per game, Harris’ effectiveness could really swing a playoff series either way. There’s no end to the struggle in sight, either. Concerning.
A great game was slightly tainted by what appeared to be Embiid’s sixth foul late in the fourth quarter. Embiid gave Mobley a bit of a shove to create space for a jumper, which he drained. The initial ruling was an offensive foul, which would’ve eliminated him from the game with more than four minutes to go and negated the two points on the basket. I’ll let Crew Chief John Goble explain why the foul was retracted:
Tonight's Crew Chief John Goble after the game on Joel Embiid's sixth foul being overturned after a video review: "The contact by Embiid was determined to be marginal as he did not go through the space of Mobley." pic.twitter.com/6zwOt7y8eW— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) March 16, 2023
I think Cleveland has every right to be furious. It was a by-the-books foul, regardless of flopping or the degree of force Embiid used. On the other hand, that’s a foul that Giannis Antetokounmpo often gets away with. If he gets superstar favors from officials, so should Embiid. Either get rid of the star bump and call the foul regardless of context, or don’t blow the whistle on stars in crunch time unless it’s blatantly obvious. The problem becomes that “star” is an ambiguous standard with no clear line in the sand. Embiid and the Sixers got lucky, it was a foul and should’ve been confirmed as one. At the same time, Embiid deserves whatever beneficial officiating treatment other stars get. Just because something is fair doesn’t make it right.
The other discussion point is that it might not have even mattered to the game’s outcome anyway. Sure, the foul being upheld would’ve kept two points off the board for Philadelphia and taken Embiid out of the game. But, the Sixers still would’ve held a seven-point lead with four minutes to go. Perhaps they would’ve won, perhaps they would’ve lost. Who knows? One thing is for sure, Embiid fouling out would’ve been a minuscule, insignificant footnote if the Sixers won anyway. He still had a great night. Still, a shame that this has to be a discussion point in what was a huge win for the Sixers and a monumental performance by the big guy, who, by the way, is now the betting favorite to win MVP this season.
The Sixers (46-22) will visit the Charlotte Hornets (22-49) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.