The Sixers (37-19) hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers (38-22) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to take a four-game winning streak into the All-Star break. Cleveland wanted to push its winning streak to eight games. James Harden carved the Cavaliers up in the first half as the Sixers built a lead too big to relinquish in a 118-112 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Cleveland was without the services of Cedi Osman, who has neck spasms. Ricky Rubio has an illness and was unavailable.
Dylan Windler is on an assignment with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and was out. Isaiah Mobley and Mamadi Diakite are on Two-Way assignments with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen.
Philadelphia was without Furkan Korkmaz, who is away from the team due to personal reasons.
The Sixers signed Mac McClung to a Two-Way G-League deal on Tuesday. Julian Champagnie was waived from his Two-Way deal to make space. McClung is on assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King is on a Two-Way assignment with the Blue Coats and was out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Staring vacation for the All-Star weekend to which he wasn’t invited right in the face, Harden made sure everyone departed for the break with the memory that he wasn’t selected to represent the Sixers in Utah. No. 1 was exceptionally aggressive from the opening jump ball, making a point to find and exploit every angle he created by getting his defender off balance in isolation. He didn’t just make average or bad defenders dance on the perimeter. Harden had the likes of the young and spry Mobley struggling to match his speed. And when Harden found saw the seas parting, he burst forward before the angle went away.
The point guard had Cleveland, the second best defense in the league, reeling in rotations in all 19 minutes he played in the first half. When he wasn’t sticking one of his three triples in the first half, Harden got right to the rim for contested finishes over multiple Cavalier defenders. Harden knocking down threes isn’t anything to write home about beyond the obvious. But, him striking gold on a catch-and-shoot three courtesy of Melton is a perfect bowtie on his season up to this point.
A catch-and-shoot three, in all of its simplicity, is symbolic of the sacrifices Harden has made to fit next to the ball-dominant Embiid. No longer are the days of Harden commandeering an offense with self-provisioned scores. He’s embraced that he has to take shots more out of the function of spacing the floor for Embiid because the big guy is the unimpeachable top dog.
Harden has made legitimate sacrifices to make his partnership with Embiid work. Beyond that, he has totally bought into being a true point guard. Prime Harden was a scorer first, using his gravity as a one-man show to set the table for a bevy of shooters in his Houston days. The version of Harden that joined Philadelphia in the middle of last season has accepted that his job is to be aggressive without taking the lion’s share of shots on a night-to-night basis.
You saw that on full display in the first half of this game. Harden hunted his shot, putting up 15 points on eight field goal attempts. But, he was also very aware of every marginal advantage his aggressive play and attacks to the paint created. Philadelphia started the game shooting 6-for-6 from deep, jumping out to a 21-point lead early almost entirely on the pressure he exerted on the rim by getting downhill and the passes he made out of that pressure.
Whether it was the drive-and-kick game, floating passes across the court to shooters, or delivering bounce passes out of the pick-and-roll, Harden picked apart Cleveland’s defense all first half. The bearded guy pushed Philadelphia’s lead to 28 points with less than a minute to play before halftime.
Cleveland threatened to fight back into the game at the start of the second quarter before the Sixers pounced, creating the separation that ultimately proved too significant for the Cavaliers to overcome. Philadelphia’s all-bench unit made an appearance during that stretch. But, unlike in recent weeks, the lineup made its move on the backs of Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels. There was some shotmaking from the likes of Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang. But, Philadelphia expanded the lead purely on the athleticism that Reed and McDaniels present.
They made some mistakes along the way, committing unnecessary fouls. That will happen as they gain experience. But, they junked up Cleveland’s offense by guarding in space and being tall and long at the rim. They’ll score from time to time, as well. But, it was a great example of how athleticism can be more valuable than polished skill sometimes. There will be occasions in which those lineups yield positive outcomes because the duo of Reed and McDaniels simply happens upon good sequences because of intangible physical traits. All-bench units or not, Rivers and the Sixers have something interesting to look at with that duo.
Another really good night off the bench for Maxey, who is starting to find some consistency in that role. He played with a lot of poise down the stretch in a lineup that featured three guards. He served as a spacer, but didn’t solely settle for threes. When the ball swung Maxey’s way, he made good decisions, attacking the basket to see what he could create from getting Cleveland in rotation. He converted a huge floater late in the game to add to Philadelphia’s lead with the Cavaliers in the midst of a run, pumping oxygen back into a nervous Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid was mostly an afterthought through the first three quarters, cruising his way to 19 points. But, he answered the bell when the Sixers otherwise drew dead. The big guy put on a display of shotmaking, most memorable of which was a baseline midrange jumper over a contest. Embiid was also extremely aggressive, making powerful moves to the basket and forcing the Cavaliers to foul to stop him from scoring. Embiid scored a third of his points in the game’s decisive quarter to guarantee the victory.
Can’t complete the ‘Likes’ column without a quick spotlight on Harris. I thought he did a very good job of staying in a defensive stance and maintaining balance and position on Mitchell as the guard laid out dribble move after dribble move to try to break him down. There were numerous possessions in which Mitchell got into the paint, but Harris hung on as the guard tried to crack him in his initial moves.
Even in a 20-plus-point turnaround for the opponent, I didn’t think Rivers did anything memorable wrong. If you want to make a case that Melton shouldn’t have been in in crunch time because his defense didn’t help stop the Cavaliers at all, I can buy that. Perhaps McDaniels would’ve been a better option against Cleveland’s length, or Tucker against Cleveland’s speedy ball-handlers. But, there wasn’t much notable.
Cleveland got back into the game because Harden inexplicably slowed the ball down. Turnovers and transition defense were problematic, but Philadelphia got away from everything that worked in the first half. With the tempo slowed, the Sixers seemed more interested in simply counting down the seconds until the All-Star break than they were in executing anything. The Sixers took far too long to get into actions, Harden initiating the play with 10 seconds or fewer left on the shot clock. You could see some communication issues, too. Harden would try to call screeners into the action and even something as basic as directing the traffic took too long.
Those possessions often resulted in Embiid catching the ball away from the basket against good interior defenders with too little time on the clock to get creative. As much as I didn’t love the positions his teammates put him in to bail out the offense, I didn’t think he was blame-free in the game getting closer. Embiid’s decision-making was jarring at times. He actively invited turnovers, driving into three defenders or turning his head away from potential help defenders on moves toward the baseline.
Rivers can call timeouts and reset things on a possession here and there. But, you can’t actively coach your players out of making terrible decisions during an active game. As such, this was an example of the guys on the court just checking out and hoping that a 28-point lead was too much for Cleveland to overcome.
On the topic of defense, it would’ve helped a bit if the Niang-McDaniels-Reed lineup didn’t put the closing unit in a pickle by fouling the Cavaliers into the bonus with more than half the fourth quarter to play.
Getting back to Melton’s defense, he had no chance of staying in front of the likes of Garland and Mitchell in this game. He’s an excellent team defender, but, man, does he lose a number of individual battles. Melton’s struggle with denying penetration and staying in front is just one reason why the Sixers have to play zone often. They simply aren’t very good at containing teams in man coverage right now.
Maybe that’ll change for the better after they get off their feet for a couple days over the All-Star break.
The Sixes (38-19) will host the Memphis Grizzlies (35-22) next Thursday in their first game after the break. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.