The Sixers (38-23) hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers (36-26) on Friday night. Philadelphia wanted to expand its winning streak to 5 games. Cleveland had plans to snap a two-game losing streak. Tyrese Maxey scored 33 points to lead the Sixers to a comeback victory over the Cavaliers, 125-119.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Cavaliers were without the services of Caris LeVert, who is recovering from a sprained right foot. Rajon Rondo was out with a sprained right great toe.
Collin Sexton is recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee and was out.
Dylan Windler was on assignment with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen.
The Sixers were without recently signed big man DeAndre Jordan, who was not with the team.
Jaden Springer, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Defense was quite optional early on, with the Cavaliers scoring 14 of their first 17 points in the paint. Some of that is back-line helpers not being in the right places to curtail drives. But, Embiid was just a little late in getting a hand up on numerous layups early on. His rim protection usually has much better timing than to be just a few milliseconds late numerous times in a short stint. So, you wonder if the attention was there on the first night of a back-to-back with a date in Miami looming. Nonetheless, Cleveland converted 12 shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor in the first frame en route to a 21-point lead.
It was yet another passive start for James Harden, who seems to methodically choose to get his teammates involved early and then assert himself as a scorer as he sees fit. Still, the Sixers had nothing going in the first few minutes. Instead of continuing the passivity, that context is a good time to dial up the scores. That isn’t to say that you should methodically plan your style of play. Rather, being such a willing passer actively hurts your team when you continue to try to milk something that just isn’t there. Harden did eventually pick it up, scoring 6 quick points to end the first quarter. That’s really the only part of his game that has frustrated a bit early on. You know he’s capable of scoring far more than he chooses to, and that passivity has helped opponents build big leads on the slow-starting Sixers in back-to-back games.
Doc Rivers continued to go to Paul Millsap as Embiid’s reliever in this game. He actually gave 6 decent minutes in the first half and perhaps would’ve played longer had James Harden not picked up a third foul (first one was nonsense, by the way) early in the second quarter, forcing Embiid back to the game for an extended run to cover for Harden’s absence. Millsap foiled the Cavs in the lane, creating a loose ball and igniting a transition opportunity for Philadelphia. He also appeared a bit more spry, attacking the baseline for a would-be dunk (he botched it) and settling for a put-back layup of his own miss. The Sixers were +2 with Millsap on the floor in his brief stretch spanning the end of the first quarter and start of the second quarter. We’ll know Rivers’ preference for Embiid’s backup when DeAndre Jordan arrives. I’m inclined to think that he’ll lean heavily into Jordan, seeing as he was instrumental in helping him develop into an All-Star big man back in his prime.
Embiid’s rim protection continued to be uninspiring for most of the second quarter. He was just late contesting on drives and struggled fending off Cleveland’s attempts at offense rebounds on tips. His teammates can help with that just by being in the vicinity of the rebounder and sneaking up from behind to corral the ball. But, Embiid’s frame is obviously massive. There’s really no excuse for him to surrender offensive boards multiple times in a half.
Shake Milton was critical in keeping the Sixers in the game after Harden committed his third foul. He notched a couple of midrange jumpers and a triple, and was instrumental in the Sixers recording stops in the second quarter. The Sixers were +8 in the 8 minutes Milton was on the court. More than anything, his play was at least believable enough to build trust that the Sixers have a secondary ball-handler whenever he’s on the floor. It’s been an up and down year for Milton, who has struggled with injuries and consistent play even when he was available. But, one thing that has always been there is his credibility as a secondary ball-handler. The Sixers have gone to the likes of Furkan Korkmaz and Tobias Harris to conduct the offense at various times this season. Those duties should belong strictly to Harden, Maxey, and Milton.
Cleveland deserves credit for its shot chart in the first half. The Cavaliers took just 1 shot that was both outside the paint and within the three-point arc. They hit 7 triples and converted 20 shots in the paint in the first half. That is something of an analytical masterpiece. It’s not that difficult to see how the Cavs built up their lead, talk about shot value.
Aside from Maxey generally taking over the game with his spark as a quick scorer, his ability to shift gears on one particular possession late in the second quarter impressed me quite a bit. Maxey usually likes to go full speed ahead in transition. Or, he’ll attack gaps within a half-court offense. But on this particular possession, he drove the ball down the court, pulled back, and directed his teammates to different spots on the floor. When he finally liked what he saw, Maxey went to work on a baseline drive for a bucket in the paint. That’s a point guard progression. Much of Maxey’s growth this season has been as a shooter, defender, and crafty finisher. But the ability to change pace — not just his own, but that of the entire offense is something we’ve rarely seen this season. If he can use that change of speed to manipulate defenses, that’s an entirely different weapon.
Maxey’s knack for gut-punch threes sparked extra momentum and further demoralized the Cavaliers as Philadelphia mounted its comeback. His growth as a distance shooter, in general, has been nothing short of remarkable in his second season. Now, he’s hitting a high percentage of his attempts on significant volume. But when the guy that the defense would theoretically like to live with shooting actually connects on threes after they’ve deterred the primary options, it feels like those shots are worth additional points.
Harden continued to pick and choose his spots to be aggressive as a scorer. But him actually scoring is maybe as dangerous as the threat of him scoring. Part of Harden’s magic is his ability to leverage gravity as a scorer to derive space for his teammates. All it takes is a willing shooter, like Georges Niang, to set a screen for Harden and the Sixers have a two-man game going. Harden’s scoring prowess draws 2 defenders on the screen, and that creates a wide-open shot for someone else. Harden doesn’t even have to take shots in order to be effective. He took 10 shots all night, and yet he made his star-level imprint on the game.
Rivers opened the final frame with an ultra-small lineup of Harden, Milton, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Georges Niang. It was quite the deviation from Rivers’ normal rotations, but the intention was clearly to pick-and-pop Cleveland to death in the minutes that Embiid was recharging on the bench.
It worked early on, with Harden throwing precise behind-the-back bounce-passes to Niang out of the pick. Niang, by the way, made a killing on Friday night. Everything he touched was going up, and he certainly had the hot hand from deep. It’s an easy guess to conclude that Niang probably loves playing next to Harden. And Harden seems to be quite comfortable next to Niang. The two have excellent passer-to-shooter chemistry.
In the end, Maxey was just too much for Cleveland. With their new Big Three — a real Big Three, at that — the Sixers have a security blanket that they’ve never had before. Even if teams feel like they can go to bed at night knowing that they did a perfectly adequate job against Embiid and Harden, Maxey is right there to tie up the loose ends for them. He did that and more on Friday, knocking in a variety of triples and shots at the rim. He scored 33 points to lead all scores on the night.
These double-digit comebacks are nice for character, but there’s a lesson to be learned. They can’t be comfortable with falling far behind early in games. Eventually, it’s going to come back to bite them one of these nights. But, they should take solace in knowing that they’re potent enough to recover against sizable holes.
The Sixers (39-23) will visit the East-leading Miami Heat (42-22) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 PM, EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.