The Sixers (12-9) started a three-game road trip in Cleveland against the Cavaliers (13-8). Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to four games. Cleveland wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Raptors on Monday. The Sixers’ three-point fortune leaned to the unfavorable side of the spectrum, with the Cavaliers burying them with triples in a 113-85 blowout defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is ramping up for a return from a strained tendon in his right foot. Tyrese Maxey has a small fracture in his left foot and was unavailable.
Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was out. Julian Champagnie and Saben Lee are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Cavaliers were without Jarrett Allen, who has a back contusion. Kevin Love has a fractured right thumb and was out.
Ricky Rubio is recovering from ACL surgery on his left knee and was unavailable. Dylan Windler has a sprained right ankle and was out. Lamar Stevens has a non-Covid-related illness and was unavailable.
Isaiah Mobley is on a Two-Way assignment with Cleveland’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Dean Wade, Mamadi Diakite, and Evan Mobley.
Embiid rifling a pass from the lane to an open Tucker in the weak-side corner was as much about a Sixer finally seeing Tucker open and leveraging gravity to make a play as it was about Cleveland totally selling out on Tucker amid his struggles to get an extra helper on the Sixers’ best offensive player. Nonetheless, a much needed three-point make for Tucker.
Danuel House Jr. continues to lead the NBA in “What in the — oh wow, he made it” shots. A twirling layup that looked like it was heading for nothingness was the latest addition to that reel.
Some good two-man chemistry between Melton and Paul Reed in the first quarter, the guard making some quick decisions to keep his big man engaged when Cleveland’s defense allowed just enough space over the top to deliver an oop pass or in pockets on the floor to thread the needle at the rim. Reed has done a very good job of staying engaged on defense regardless of where he is in the pecking order on offense, but the two typically go hand-in-hand. Cleveland has guards that can get into the paint and bigs that feast at the rim, so the Sixers — Melton and Harris, who later got in on the act — were smart to leave some meat on the bone for Reed, controlling his offensive ecosystem with setups right at the rim.
It’s not easy to make every play when the Sixers, as a team, were as atrocious as they were defending in transition. But, he was active when Philadelphia kept Cleveland in a half-court environment, pressuring his assignment to force turnovers and affecting shots at the rim.
The only thing I picked up from the six minutes Saben Lee played in his Sixers debut was that I like his pace. He didn’t look overwhelmed, and he didn’t let anyone speed him up. He played with poise, which was surprising to see from a young guard who has already bounced around the league a few times.
I think there’s something to having a very good first game back from injury and then the second game is rough because the body is recovering from the toll of the first game. But, that doesn’t excuse effort. Embiid’s spirit early in this game was questionable at best. Cleveland got a handful of layups and dunks with him in the middle early. There was also a possession in which he missed a layup, took too long to get up, and wasn’t there to help his teammates defend in transition. Not a hallmark first few minutes for the big guy’s campaign to anchor the league’s top defense this season, not that anyone will remember the first quarter against the Cavs on November 30 if the Sixers end up being the top defense or Embiid wins Defensive Player of the Year.
The Sixers could’ve applied more pressure on the ball when Mitchell was navigating screens as the handler instead of giving him space to pull up beyond the arc. But, there was also just a ton of shotmaking from Cleveland in the first half. Opponent three-point percentage is almost always luck-based. I would argue that jump-shooting, as a whole, is luck-based. But, the luck that the Sixers have experienced for a large majority of their season really regressed to the mean in the first half. Every time Philadelphia made a run, the Cavaliers answered with a back-breaking triple or a barrage of threes to recover their lead or extend it to new heights. Of course, it didn’t help the Sixers that their effort towards defending in transition was horrendous.
The Sixers even won the turnover battle in the first half, and didn’t shoot the ball that horrendously on their end. But, they had nothing to stop Cleveland, who shot 76 percent on twos in the first half. Cleveland scored 34 points in the paint before halftime, so nearly every two the Cavaliers took came at the rim. The Sixers had moments in which they weren’t aggressive defending at the basket, but I thought the issue came more in rotations. It felt like most of their rotations to the rim were late, the Cavaliers already at the top as the Sixers pivoted to the shooter to contest.
Really just a bad half for Embiid, who failed to set a tone on either end early on. He wasn’t as quick to move the ball as he was on Monday, and his shots weren’t falling to render that ball movement a non-issue. Only when he got called for a technical foul did the big guy finally wake up, but the Sixers were already underwater.
Philadelphia recorded three defensive stops to open the third quarter, a good sign for their level of inspiration coming out of halftime mixed in with some Cleveland sloppiness. But that they couldn’t make good on their end in any of those possessions was demoralizing, the Cavaliers not losing any ground despite their only engine troubles. The Cavaliers then responded by dropping three triples in less than a minute to push the 21-point lead they had at halftime to 30 points. You could put the game on ice from there.
Some bad moments from Matisse Thybulle and Montrezl Harrell in garbage time, the former letting a couple basic passes slip right through his hands and out of bounds. The latter gave up a pair of offensive rebounds to Wade on one possession, and then stood idly as Garland dropped a floater deep in the paint without much resistance in his way. Reed is outplaying Harrell in pretty much every way, and I don’t think the effort the veteran big gave on defense in a blowout loss warrants equity when Rivers is deciding who belongs in the rotation when the team is at full health.
The Sixers (12-10) will visit the Memphis Grizzlies (12-8) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.