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November 27, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Cavs

If you watched Monday night's Sixers game hoping to get a read on how the team compares to the Eastern Conference's elite, you're probably still waiting to figure that out. Philadelphia was woeful from three and out of sorts on defense, and the reigning East champs beat them soundly, leaving the Wells Fargo Center with a comfortable 113-91 victory.

If you can't hit shots, you can't win games

The most overused cliche in the NBA lexicon, "It's a make or miss league," is overused for a reason. We can sit here and talk about blown defensive assignments, matchups, Brett Brown's rotation and a laundry list of other things, but it all starts with the team's performance from deep. You aren't going to win many games if you go 3/28 from beyond the arc.

What's frustrating as an observer is not that the shots were missed — these sort of nights can happen — but that they are shots you would expect Sixers shooters to make. Even on this play, where Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ends up cleaning up the Jerryd Bayless miss, you couldn't have asked for a better look in transition.

Redick probably had a case for a foul call on this miss from the first half, but again, this is a shot that is completely in his wheelhouse. Joel Embiid sets a great screen to eliminate Kyle Korver on the play, and Redick just can't cash in.

If you go back and look at every miss from the game tape — and I did it so you don't have to — there were a lot more misses like these than there were forced shots. When that's the case, you don't need to throw a fit over the offensive philosophy, because the team is getting shots they want and are capable of making. With a few notable exceptions in Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers live at the three-point line. That is both the reality of the modern NBA and a reflection of the skill sets available to Brett Brown. You'd much rather have Redick and Robert Covington missing lightly-contested threes than have them barreling into traffic.

To Brown's credit, that's what he felt immediately after the game, and he said as much during his post-game availability.

"I think it's just one of those nights. We're the ninth-best team shooting threes in the NBA. I don't think there were many shots you would look at that you'd say, that's a terrible shot," said Brown. "I want our guys shooting the ball, I thought we had a good balance of getting Joel touches and still looking at perimeter opportunities. It just wasn't meant to be tonight."

There were some other factors at play that go beyond basketball, too. It was revealed after the game that Covington found out just before tip about the death of a childhood friend, and it puts into perspective how insignificant a regular season basketball game can be sometimes. The Sixers will continue to keep making a living from beyond the three-point line, and they will be correct to do so.

Pulling Embiid away from the rim hurts the Sixers in a big way

One of the big things to watch heading into Monday's game was the chess match Embiid was involved in on both ends of the court. Exploiting Cleveland's lack of size in the frontcourt was a major priority for the Sixers' offense, and by the same token, dragging Embiid out to the perimeter was part of Cleveland's offensive blueprint.

The success of Philadelphia's defense rests almost entirely on Embiid's shoulders, particularly when Covington is on the bench. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because he is basically an elite defense by himself, and the Sixers can shepherd their guys toward the man in the middle with the knowledge he can clean things up. His size in the paint also makes it really difficult to hit cutters, because his length increases the degree of difficulty on entry passes.

It's a different story when he has to shade toward a shooter on the perimeter. Once Jeff Green gets by Simmons following a Korver screen, the basket has already been scored. With Embiid's eyes on Channing Frye, he never has a chance to use his long arms and recovery speed to alter an attempt at the rim.

Kevin Love is a dangerous enough offensive player that he didn't necessarily have to be at the three-point line to draw the bulk of Embiid's attention. When Embiid spent time hugging up on Love at the elbow, it was open season for Cleveland to hit the Sixers perimeter players with cuts and backscreens. J.R. Smith didn't end up shooting the look he had at the rim on this play, but it's emblematic of the stress they put on the Sixers without Embiid around to play traffic cop.

Embiid acknowledged the difficulty of the arrangement after the game, citing his lack of involvement in the paint as a big piece of their struggle.

"Defensively, it was just weird. They kind of took me out of the paint the whole night," said Embiid.  "I was basically at the three-point line because that’s what their bigs do and LeBron just attacked, attacked, attacked and kept attacking...I didn't do my job which I usually do, protecting the rim."

But this can't be a catch-all excuse for the Sixers to perform poorly on the defensive end. As the league continues to evolve, more and more bigs will be capable of stretching the floor and drawing Embiid away from the hoop. The Sixers need to be able to survive on defense when this is the case.

Establishing deep position should be Embiid's top priority

Once again, this isn't exactly caclulus-level basketball analysis. I am more tolerant than most are when it comes to Embiid hanging out on the perimeter and shooting jumpers, but when he does go to work against opposing big men, he needs to focus on doing the early work to park his butt near the rim.

I thought this was actually one of his better games on that front, even if he did settle for too many tough shots against smaller defenders against Cleveland. There were a number of occasions when Embiid got down the floor quickly, set up shop in the painted area, and either got a good shot or forced Cleveland to foul him. The getting up the floor quickly part of that equation is likely the key here; as Embiid's conditioning continues to improve, he will have an easier time of beating his man to a spot.

Embiid will never have the explosion of someone like Richaun Holmes — he's just too big for that — but you can see him moving better on both ends of the floor compared to mid-October. He moved with purpose on this cut, for example, and once again found himself near the rim when the ball hit his hands. It's light work from there on out.

At the end of the day, it also has to be part of Embiid's mindset to get into the paint and mix it up, regardless of who the opponent is. It would be a waste to just have him down there bulldozing every possession when he can offer you so much more on offense, but teams have absolutely no chance against him when he gets close to the hoop. He never strayed far from the paint out of this timeout, and the Sixers have no choice but to feed him the ball once he gets Love on his backside.

The Sixers should revel in Embiid's diversity, and use him to put pressure on defenses all over the floor. But at the end of the day, he's 7'2" tall and a nightmare to grapple with in close. He turned the ball over just one time against Cleveland despite shooting the ball 24 times, and a big part of that is because the game is simplified for him the closer he catches the ball to the hoop. When dribbling isn't necessary, life becomes much easier.

T.J. McConnell is a joy to watch on defense

If you can't get excited over how much of a pain-in-the-ass McConnell is as a defender, we just do not see eye-to-eye on basketball. McConnell is absolutely relentless when he's on the court, not letting something as simple as an inbounds pass go by without trying to turn it into a turnover going the other way.

Cleveland is not a team he necessarily matches up great with. The Cavs use a lot of larger players to initiate their offense, including but not limited to their recent use of Dwyane Wade as something of a backup point guard. That necessitated McConnell spending some time on Wade throughout the game, and he did everything in his power to put the screws to Wade.

Minutes later, we saw a bit of the same, with McConnell bouncing off LeBron James and pinballing around Cleveland's backcourt, almost causing a turnover in the process.

The matchup didn't always go Philadelphia's way on Monday, but on a night where the Wells Fargo Center was pretty lifeless for most of the evening, McConnell did his best to spark something both on the court and in the stands. He will stick in the league for a long time the way he defends.

The Sixers starters can't afford to get outplayed by bench units

When the Sixers starters hit the bench, the Sixers have been getting outplayed on a fairly regular basis this season. They can live with that right now, both because their starters have been dominant and there's the built-in excuse of injuries messing up their best-laid plans.

What can't happen is losing to an opponent's bench unit when you have your best guys out on the floor. LeBron James didn't take his first rest of the game until just over two minutes were left in the first quarter, and the Sixers responded with four of their five starters hopping on the floor. They were thoroughly outplayed in the stretch that followed, allowing the Cavs to build a decent-sized lead they would never relinquish the rest of the way.

It's a lot of pressure to put on a unit led by a rookie and a big man who is still fairly inexperienced, but it is completely reasonable to expect that group to punish teams when the other starters hit the bench. If Simmons and Embiid are to be considered star-level talents—and they absolutely are—they need to do what star players do and impose their will when other stars are off the court.

They have earned the benefit of the doubt for at least one night because the starting group remains one of the best five-man units in the league. But if you can't make headway against the other team's backups, even one with future Hall of Famers on it, you're making life more difficult on yourself than it should be.