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February 15, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers squeak out win over Cavs heading into All-Star break

The Sixers squandered most of a 30-point lead against the Cavaliers but held on for a 118-112 victory, heading into the All-Star break with a fourth-straight win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The stretch before the All-Star break is always thorny, with some guys going into vacation mode a bit too early and costing their team wins in the process. Give the Sixers credit for this much — they were aware they couldn't give this game away, and they came out ready to rip.

While James Harden was good to start this season, I think it's fair to say he has found another gear over the last few weeks. The quality of the defender he's able to beat off-the-dribble is much, much higher than it was last season, and it's certainly a step or two above where he was to begin the year. Against Brooklyn last Saturday, Harden had his way with defenders as good as Nic Claxton and Dorian Finney-Smith. And he looked awesome against the Cavs, going to work against promising Cavs big man Evan Mobley.

Mobley is sort of a model for the new NBA, an ultra-long athlete who works across tons of matchups and excels both on-ball and as a help defender. Harden getting by him is a reasonably big deal — early in the game on Wednesday, Harden hit him with a crossover to leave Mobley in the dust, finishing at the rim to polish off the possession.

When Harden has it going as a scorer, the Sixers become close to impossible to defend. Letting him go one-on-one with Cavs defenders was not a recipe for success for Cleveland, as Harden would force late help and then throw a rocket pass to the perimeter. The Cavs made attempts to throw multiple guys at him on-ball, but those didn't work well either and haven't at basically any point during Harden's tenure here.

Frankly, they probably could and should have played through him more, as I had more confidence in Harden attacking guys one-on-one than anything else they did in the second half. There were unnecessary ball screens sent toward Harden when he already had a favorable matchup, and on a night like this, they probably should have just let him cook.

In any case, Harden's playoff history will be on the minds of many coming down the stretch. But it is undeniable that he looks better physically right now, and that their ceiling shifts if they get quicker, better-finishing Harden following the All-Star break. They have been able to count on him for big scoring runs and all-around production for most of this season, and on the rare nights when Embiid is off the pace, Harden has been the difference between winning and losing. 

• One of Philadelphia's worst losses of the season came at the hands of these Cavs in late November, and it sure seemed like the Sixers remembered the sting of that massive defeat. There haven't been a ton of nights where you could say this group simply outworked the opponent, and...well, I guess you wouldn't say that in this one, either. But at least we got one good half of effort!

All the dirty work was being done. P.J. Tucker had a tip-in basket, Tobias Harris dug out a loose ball or two, and the Sixers generally flew around the floor, playing some of their most inspired basketball of the season. There is a noticeable difference between when the average defensive effort and what they showed in the first half of this game, which is about as dialed in as they have been all year. 

Having Harden as the leader of the break helped turn all the effort and energy into points the other way. Flanked by runners and shooters, Harden had an easy time picking guys out as they ran up the floor, and the Sixers were able to score or draw fouls in early offense, Cleveland struggling to get back in the picture.

• Early in Wednesday night's game, Joel Embiid crossed the 10,000-point threshold for his career, becoming the fastest player in Sixers history to hit that mark, surpassing the great Allen Iverson for the honor. I know Embiid scoring 30+ has become a normal night at the office, but if you've been with Embiid and/or the team throughout this journey, it's still wild to think about his rise. He went from the second-biggest recruit on his own college team to one of the single best players in the world, and now he's surpassing all-time Sixers greats in the team record book.

It was a weird night for him to hit that mark, though, given how rough of a time he had trying to score the basketball. When he played bully ball and forced Jarrett Allen to meet him in a strength battle, Allen had basically no chance, with Embiid forcing him back 10-15 feet on some possessions. Too much of the game was spent doing other stuff, with Embiid languishing closer to the perimeter and failing to connect on a series of midrange jumpers.

And then crunch time came, with the Cavs crawling closer and a whole lot of people grumbling at Wells Fargo Center. Mercifully, Embiid finally settled into somewhat of a groove again, scoring some huge buckets in the final five minutes to keep Cleveland an arm's length away. There were more plays in the category of "big man stuff" — on one possession around the three-minute mark, he hauled in an offensive rebound, re-sealed Jarrett Allen after kicking the ball out to Harden, and then drew a foul with both of Cleveland's bigs hanging all over him at the rim.

• It wasn't clear who was going to get the nod at backup center for this game, with Dewayne Dedmon officially signed and the Cavs boasting an ultra-big frontcourt. Doc Rivers ultimately decided to stick with Paul Reed, and his youthful energy fit perfectly in this game, with Reed's activity ultimately outweighing his mistakes.

A second unit that features Reed and Jalen McDaniels suddenly has a whole lot of length, and those two have certainly been empowered to switch across matchups when they're on the floor together. Darius Garland is a talented playmaker, but the Sixers were able to come up high on ball screens while preventing him from finding entry passes, with Reed and McDaniels flashing their wingspans and making Garland think better of trying to throw a pass by them.

All Reed needs to do is keep it simple, and while he has learned that on offense, there are still a few kinks to sort through defensively. On one possession in the first half, he did everything right in space against Evan Mobley, forcing him into a runner out of a Euro step, and then made the mistake of swinging at him. If not for the dumb foul, it was basically a perfect defensive possession. He could be closer to a breakthrough than it has seemed at times this season. I'd like to see him keep playing and for the Sixers to try to develop him, because we know the other two guys competing for minutes have plateaued.

• P.J. Tucker putting the clamps on Donovan Mitchell in space might deserve its own 250-word article. Can't believe that happened.

In other news, Tucker had a pretty good night on offense, too. He dropped in a pair of corner threes and made some push shots around the paint, which qualifies as a massive success. Tucker was used as more of a connective player in the flow of the offense, serving as a short-roll passer on multiple occasions. Starting to look like the guy they thought they were getting when they signed him last summer.

• Good shooting from Tobias Harris in this game, and that hasn't been common lately. Harden got him looks that felt impossibly open at times, making the decision-making process as simple as can be. Just seeing him take open threes is a good sign, because that has been a problem for Harris over the last month or two.

The Bad

• It was inevitable that the Sixers would let the Cavs back into this game a little bit, but the manner in which they did so was pretty frustrating to watch. Philadelphia's first half was filled with decisive, team-first basketball, the ball flying around the floor as the Sixers flew through their sets. That stopped in quarter three, as the game devolved into the team standing around with one guy going to work on a lot of possessions.

Part of that stemmed from a poor offensive game for Embiid. When Philadelphia ran pick-and-rolls and Embiid ate off of Harden setting him up, the Sixers were borderline unstoppable, the Cavs either conceding open shots or fouling Embiid on his way to the rim. But trying to play through Embiid on the block was much trickier, and there were too many possessions were Embiid just sort of dawdled by the elbows, eating up shot clock before launching contested jumpers.

He certainly has the touch to justify doing that on an average night, but this was a poor game by his standards, and rather than rolling with what was working, the Sixers did too much force-feeding to Embiid. The big man shot poorly for a lot of the night, was not secure enough with the ball, and couldn't seem to get out of his own way for most of the second half. 

As the offense bogged down, the Sixers empowered the Cavs to get out and run, or at the very least, get favorable matchups in early offense. It allowed their guys to break out of slow starts to the game, and once the snowball got rolling, Philadelphia struggled to stop the avalanche.

• Jalen McDaniels has defensive tricks and tools, but he is not guarding the same types of players as Matisse Thybulle, and that probably should have been obvious the moment they acquired him. Donovan Mitchell ate him up when McDaniels guarded him in the second half, forcing him to take a ton of bad fouls and scoring on him at will when he wasn't reaching in.

The Ugly

• Ron Brooks singing the national anthem? You knew this one was a big game.

• They really managed to turn a 30-point lead into a semi-dicey game down the stretch. Never fails. 

Take the win and be happy, obviously, as this is a pretty big victory for the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

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