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February 12, 2022

Instant observations: Embiid triple-double leads Sixers to win over Cavs

Sixers NBA

Joel Embiid turned in another dominant performance on Saturday night, earning his fourth career triple-double in a 103-93 win over the Cavs. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• After the performance we saw against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night, you would have been forgiven for expecting another clunker out of Philadelphia in the follow-up on Saturday. But as they continued waiting on James Harden, the Sixers came out and punched a good, young Cavs team in the mouth early, letting them know they were in for it from the opening tip onward.

Embiid was at the center of that tremendous start, absolutely dominating Cavs center Jarrett Allen, who is in the midst of a great season in Cleveland. No matter what the Cavs tried, they couldn't seem to figure out what to do with Embiid. He picked them apart when they overhelped in the early stages of the game, finding Matisse Thybulle in the dunker spot for a couple of quick buckets in the first quarter. When they single-covered him, Embiid drew fouls or hit shots right over Allen's outstretched arms. He even made a couple of threes, including one at the top of an early 2-3 zone attempt, discouraging Cleveland from trying that again.

There have been a lot of moments this season where you think, "Did he really just do that?" for Joel Embiid, and the latest came in the first half of the Cleveland win. Bringing the ball up in transition, Embiid waved Tyrese Maxey forward so he could get a head of steam going, then hit Maxey in stride with a pass that allowed him to coast in for a layup in transition. Rarely would he even have a chance to try something like that in the past — now he's seeing it and preparing to execute it before his perimeter-based teammates are.

And that wasn't even the moment of the first half for Embiid. Moments after grabbing at his back due to a collision with Allen under the basket, Embiid missed the second of a pair of free-throws and waited until the ball came loose. Without thinking too much about it, Embiid unleashed one of the most vicious poster dunks he has had in his career, rivaled only by his playoff dunk over Aron Baynes in 2018:

This guy is just on a completely different planet right now. Allen is having the best year of his career and helping to lead a good Cavs team, and Embiid spent the entire game making him look like he should simply give up and go home. When the Cavs sent extra bodies to stop him, Embiid simply made them pay by finding the open man, picking up his fourth career triple-double and perhaps the best one he has had yet.

If the Sixers get a motivated Harden, as most are expecting right now, they are going to be an absolute nightmare. They know for sure they have one of the best current players walking the planet, and he is handing out fades to everybody this year. A 40-14-10 line is just ridiculous. 

• Maxey is going to have a steep learning curve playing off of Harden, who will take touches and time away from him the moment he suits up for Philadelphia. But the second-year guard might end up right at home in that role, with a simplified role allowing him to do what he does best — attack. He's more than capable as an off-the-dribble scorer, even if those opportunities come as a guy attacking closeouts rather than a lead playmaker.

The play of the game for Maxey, though, is one that won't make the highlight reel because of a missed shot. Maxey came down the lane after a screen from Embiid and absolutely whipped a pass to the corner to find Georges Niang, hitting him right in his shooting pocket for an open three with the defense collapsing to the paint. Niang's miss doesn't take away from the fact that Maxey is making the read and delivering a pass exactly where it needs to go is a huge deal, one sign of the progress he has made as a playmaker.

Will he get many chances to create for others in the new-look Sixers? That's still to be determined. But the more guys you have who can get a bucket, create for others, and space the floor for your stars, the better, and Maxey is checking all the boxes on offense this season.

• Paul Reed's insane Friday night dunk attempt aside, I think he has done an excellent job auditioning for the job of backup center over the last two games. He's a constant threat to pull down an offensive rebound, he's got a high motor on defense, and he fits in with the sort of bigs that fill second units these days: long, lean, and capable of jumping into passing lanes and protecting the rim.

Will Reed be able to hold up in high-intensity situations on the road? Only time will tell. But he feels like a guy tailormade to thrive in the home environment for Philadelphia, a player who will make a second, third, and sometimes even a fourth effort to keep a play alive, turning mundane possessions into a huge lift from the crowd when the Sixers are eventually able to cash in. It's the sort of thing that's impossible to put a statistical value in, but Reed makes a lot of those plays in a short amount of time. 

There are going to be some matchups where Reed's probably going to be pushed around a little bit, but frankly, the Cavs were a good test of his abilities. Evan Mobley has almost undoubtedly been the most impactful rookie in the league this season, and though he got Reed a time or two in this game, Reed did a nice job of staying in front of him and making him work. 

• Helping Reed settle in with that second unit was Shake Milton, who had a much better time on the floor in his second game back after a tough debut. This is exactly why our write-up after the Thunder game focused on his burst and ability to get to the rim rather than his poor finishing — the ability to create separation was much more relevant than Milton missing a few bunnies, and the process turned into results against Cleveland.

Milton's best performances over the years have mostly been about hot shooting nights, games where he torched the other team's second unit all by himself. This was a slow, steady performance of a different sort, with Milton beating his man, sucking in help defenders and then dropping off passes for easy scores, helping his teammates during his own low-volume night.

He is likely going to have to do a lot of his damage in the Harden era as a floor spacer, but it always pays to have secondary creation even with a perimeter alpha leading the way. Milton's contributions might end up looming large for this group.

The Bad

• I can't say I'm terribly sure of the "why" behind some of Philadelphia's problems against the Cavs. There were a lot of wasted possessions being run through guys who didn't deserve to have the offense flowing through them, particularly on a night with Embiid looking sharp and Maxey scoring effectively, albeit not always in half-court sets. When you have two guys who are not just rolling, but making good decisions with the basketball, you don't need to do anything other than get out of the way and let them work.

(Frankly, that's half of the justification for making the trade they did to get Harden. They'll now have two elite players to give the ball to, and the offensive structure sort of designs itself.)

Though Doc Rivers has promised to stagger in the future and has even started moving in that direction somewhat over the last couple of games, you still have to stagger lineups in a way that actually helps your team. With Tobias Harris once again being asked to serve as the anchor for the second unit on Saturday, Philadelphia's offense devolved into a lot of slow, meandering post-ups for Harris that went nowhere.

Maybe that's more of a complaint about Harris, who has been bad in the two games following the trade deadline. Soon enough, he'll have fewer offensive responsibilities, and perhaps that will get him back into the zone he was in for a while to start 2022.

• For most of this game, it did not matter who or what the Sixers put in front of Darius Garland on Saturday night, but it should be noted that Matisse Thybulle spent most of the night guarding him. Rarely do we see an opposing player absolutely light up Thybulle, but Garland gave him fits for a lot of this game, hitting pull-up jumpers, late-clock threes, and some layups around the rim where Embiid never even had a chance to get into the picture and contest.

On the other hand, the Sixers and Thybulle made sure Garland didn't do basically any damage as a playmaker, with Embiid sitting in drop and letting Garland have his in order to prevent Cleveland's big frontcourt from getting free lobs around the rim. It turned out to be an effective strategy, and Garland would eventually wear down, with the Sixers easily pulling away at the end of this one. Hard to argue with the approach.

The Ugly

• The officials were pretty bad in this one, in this writer's opinion. A lot of weirdly soft touch fouls called for seemingly no reason. 

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