The Sixers (33-22) hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers (35-21) on Saturday night. Philadelphia intended to build upon its victory over the Thunder on Friday. Cleveland, also on the second night of a back-to-back, hoped to extend its winning streak to five games. Joel Embiid notched a 40-point triple-double to power the Sixers to victory, 103-93

Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Cavaliers were without the services of Lauri Markkanen, who missed the game with a sprained right ankle. Collin Sexton, who is recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, was unavailable. 

RJ Nembhard Jr was on a Two-Way assignment with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen.

The Sixers were without James Harden and Paul Millsap, who are not yet with the team following Thursday’s trade.

Myles Powell (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer were transferred to the Delaware Blue Coats for Saturday’s game against the Raptors 905 and were not with the team.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

James Harden touched down in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, according to President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey’s Twitter:

Harden is expected to undergo his physical and complete other measures to finalize the trade in the coming days. His introductory press conference and debut have yet to be announced.

First Quarter

Matisse Thybulle was everywhere early in this game. In the first 3 minutes of play, Thybulle registered 2 deflections on loose passes by the Cavaliers. One got the Sixers out in transition. The other was tipped out of bounds just to prevent the Cavs from getting a baseline drive.

When he wasn’t sniffing out opportunities to foil Cleveland’s passes like a free safety, Thybulle stalked star guard Darius Garland everywhere he went. Garland tried to shake free with some cuts to the cup and back out to the perimeter after peeling from off-ball screens. Thybulle was to the task, chasing him through the blockades and meeting him at his destination before Garland could get shots off.

The icing on the cake was Thybulle taking advantage of some sleeping help-side defenders for back-cuts to the rim. As Embiid has shown to do all season, he sensed his teammate lurking in the right spot at the right time.

Speaking of Embiid’s playmaking, I’m very interested to see how defenses game plan for him and Harden.

Both command double the attention. That has implications for games in which they’re both cooking at the same time. If they move the ball around well enough, defenses are going to have to double two different guys and figure out those help rotations on a millisecond basis. That feels impossible. But, perhaps a matchup zone is in play.

The more I think about how Embiid’s prowess as a driver this season became part of his game only when Ben Simmons was gone, the more it seems like something of a subconscious jab at Simmons’ lack of a jumper. Without Simmons there to push Embiid down low or lurking in the paint when the ball wasn’t in his hands, the big fella has had something of a runway to crack the interior all season long.

I think Embiid probably just identifies that there’s no helper blocking his avenue to the basket. So, he weaponizes his own agility and first step to take advantage of the space. But to viewers, it’s quite simple. Simmons isn’t there, and the four other guys on the court are perimeter threats in some regard. Helpers are forced to take one step towards the perimeter, and that changes Embiid’s life.

Second Quarter

Every time Georges Niang gets the ball in the post, an angel loses its wings.

Niang’s post-up early in the second quarter was really a microcosm of how he fared in a lineup featuring Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Paul Reed. Defensively, it was a horrific showing for Niang. First, Cedi Osman converted a HORSE-shot-like and-1 over Niang, whose slow feet forced a blocking foul. Then, Kevin Love picked on him in the post a few times to help Cleveland make some headway against a 15-point deficit in the first quarter.

That’s something that is going to plague the Sixers when it comes to reinforcing the forward spot behind Tobias Harris. Niang is neither big enough nor quick enough to jockey with bigger defenders or keep pace with defenders in a switch scheme. And lately, his shooting just hasn’t been good enough to make up for the defensive shortcomings.

Third Quarter

Joel Embiid has never won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Perhaps one day, he will. But one of his best qualities as a defender is his versatility. He can cycle through effectively switching, to dropping, to hedging, to blitzing, all in rapid succession. But the best thing he does is tailor his defensive instinct to impede what the opponent is trying to do at any given moment.

Early in the third quarter, Cleveland tried to get behind Embiid with lob threats. He diagnosed the strategy, and wisely committed more to recovering when he sensed the pass coming over the top. The Cavaliers made their run, eventually taking the lead midway through the frame. But, Embiid catalyzed stops on defense by intercepting lob passes to force turnovers.

Embiid wasn’t the only Sixer to make big defensive plays in the minutes following intermission. Furkan Korkmaz was in the right place at the right time, catching Caris LeVert off guard for a help-side rejection. Niang even got revenge on his second-quarter bully late in the third frame when he denied Love’s attempt to push him down to the basket for a finish out of the post, forcing a shot-clock violation.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers produced something of an inspiring, coming-of-age movie in the final frame. As is the case in most coming-of-age movies, the Sixers’ underwhelming characters had moments to shift the event. First, Tobias Harris glided to the rim with athleticism that he previously didn’t seem to have for a finish, plus the foul. A few moments later, Furkan Korkmaz, mired in a horrendous shooting slump, knocked in a corner triple to electrify the crowd.

There were some not-so-coming-of-age, but rather expected, moments, too. Embiid pumping life into The Center with a barrage of shots and Thybulle crippling the Cavaliers’ attempts to keep pace with all-world defensive plays. Embiid knocked in a triple. He followed that with a fading jumper. Then, Embiid powered through a foul to finish a layup down the stretch. 

Meanwhile, Thybulle recorded a patented rear-side tip-away steal in the open floor to give the Sixers a transition play against the Cavaliers. He then impeded a Garland corner three enough to force a miss off the side of the backboard. 

The Sixers (34-22) will host the Boston Celtics (32-25) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.