November 30, 2022
The Cavs doused themselves in gasoline and jumped into an active volcano, triggering a shower of fireballs so big and so blinding that they should have canceled the Sixers' game on Wednesday night and aired a re-run of In Depth with Graham Bensinger instead. Cleveland won the game 113-85 and that margin honestly might be too kind to Philadelphia.
Here's what I saw.
• Paul Reed had a nice run on offense in the first half, scoring a series of buckets on pick-and-roll possessions before depositing a couple more on drop-offs from Tobias Harris on the baseline. I like what he has shown in terms of offensive growth over the last few weeks, both in terms of patience and finishing craft.
That's about as nice as I can be following that game. Congratulations to Reed for getting the token good bullet point.
• I had chicken wings tonight, so that was a big win for me personally.
(There is a Sixers writer who covers the team regularly that has never eaten a chicken wing in their life, and they're not a vegetarian. It's a shock I'm able to work in such hostile conditions.)
• Philadelphia's problems in the first half came down to two main points of concern:
I tend to believe there was little the Sixers could do about the first bullet point. Sure, there were some good looks conceded to Cleveland at times, but they mostly did a fine enough job of rotating and offering a closeout on the guy letting a shot go. You're going to run into teams on hot shooting nights from time to time, and you just have to hope they cool off before 48 minutes are up. Credit to the Cavs for their role in an absolute beatdown — they made pulling 30-foot jumpers look very easy on Wednesday night, throwing a series of haymakers the Sixers never recovered from.
The second part was where the game truly came undone for the Sixers. You might have been able to weather the storm and survive a Cavs barrage from three. You're not going to get away with losing the three-point battle handily while also getting pasted whenever the opponent gets a stop and runs the other way. It's a recipe for the exact sort of game we got on Wednesday night, a fairly boring affair Cleveland had wrapped up by halftime.
Some of this starts with dreadful offense. I think the Sixers erred too far on the side of sharing the basketball, passing out of clean looks after working hard to create them. This was a teamwide issue rather than an individual effort — Embiid opted to throw a lob for a contested Milton layup instead of taking an open jumper from the free-throw line, corner shooters swung passes instead of letting shots fly, Melton drove into the teeth of the defense instead of taking a relatively open three, and so on. You can lean toward passing and benefit from it, but only if you find the right balance. Philadelphia never did, turning the game into hot potato instead of basketball.
(I think Embiid's recent lean toward playmaking is ultimately a good thing for the team short and long term, but he has to recognize when there are real opportunities to playmake and when he's doing it just to check a box and say he did so. There were some plays against Cleveland where it felt closer to the latter, and that's not going to get the job done.)
With the Sixers unable or unwilling to get good looks, it gave the Cavs opportunities to turn loose on the break, their perimeter defenders leaking out for outlet passes to catch Philly napping. Between Darius Garland (a terrific passer) and Donovan Mitchell, the Cavs had a steady stream of hit-ahead passes, creating a gaggle of two-on-one opportunities (or one-on-none, occasionally) that turned into easy buckets. When those plays weren't converted, they at least forced the Sixers to take a foul to stop them.
It was a poor job all around from this group. They started to clean up their act in transition as the first half wore on, but it was basically already too late at that point. You give up a 44-point quarter and go into halftime down 21, and you can't really expect to play a close game against a good team.
• We could pile on Embiid for not playing an A-1 game and all the ramifications of the big man struggling, but we must note how dramatic Cleveland's coverage of Philadelphia was. The Cavs offered one of the more extreme paint-protecting defenses I can remember seeing a team play, ignoring multiple Philadelphia players to clog the painted area. This made it hard to simply get Embiid the ball in the first place, with Cleveland even putting two guys on Embiid away from the ball to dissuade the entry pass.
(This coverage was so extreme that Cleveland was whistled for three different defensive three seconds violations in the first half alone. They clapped as a group after each one, so they clearly weren't bothered by the officials accepting the dare to keep blowing the whistle.)
PJ Tucker hit a corner three in the first couple minutes of Wednesday's ballgame, which had to be a relief for both Tucker and the team. He has been fighting himself recently, his lack of scoring a huge talking point among fans and media members alike. When he hit a second in the first half, it was damn near time to throw a parade.
Except, well, the Cavs have noticed the state Tucker has been in recently, and they preferred to leave him alone. Most teams have continued to pay Tucker the respect he had earned over a long career, keeping close to him in the corner and keeping space open in the middle of the floor. Cleveland opted to mostly ignore him, deciding it was a better use of resources to load up on Philadelphia's MVP candidate in the middle of the floor. Had Tucker had a bad shooting night on high volume, you shrug your shoulders. But he often decided not to shoot when he continued to get those open looks, which is a much bigger issue for the Sixers.
In theory, this is a matchup where Embiid should be able to have his way with either of Cleveland's top interior defenders. He has beaten up the injured Jarrett Allen in previous meetings, and Evan Mobley's defensive gifts can only carry him so far with the significant weight discrepancy between the two players. There were a few nice moments for Embiid, like a blow-by against Robin Lopez for a nasty dunk...
...and a stretch during the third quarter where he made it a point to attack the rim hard, finally building some momentum in the process. But by and large, he didn't do enough opportunities he had in this one. There were a lot of midrange jumpers launched by the big man, and very few of them went down.
• You're going to be shocked, but the rest of the guys not named Embiid struggled to make shots as well. Outside of a decent, low-volume night for Danuel House Jr., who made a pretty sick layup in the first half, the efficiency numbers were simply terrible.
The Sixers could have used the version of Harris who had shown up in the games leading into this tilt, in desperate need of someone who was ready to put the offense on his back and see them through some tough stretches. What they got was the indecisive guy we've seen in the past, Harris contributing to the team's problems scoring the basketball.
Philadelphia's lineups left a bit to be desired at times, and you sort of have to know which guys shouldn't share the floor together. Putting Matisse Thybulle and Tucker on the floor at the same time didn't do anything to stop Cleveland's three-point assault, and the Sixers are not getting absolutely anything out of that combination in a halfcourt set, not without some genius-level playmaking from the other perimeter guys. Zeroing in too hard on the lineups in a drubbing is sort of a pointless exercise, because when you're getting your asses kicked this badly, you're almost always going to start throwing things at the well and hoping something works. Nothing did, and the snowball kept rolling downhill.
This was an ass-kicking. Not much to analyze beyond that.
• In the final minute of the third quarter, the Sixers had a three-on-one in transition featuring Thybulle, De'Anthony Melton, and Embiid. Suffice it to say that Thybulle attempting to create a layup for himself off of his own dribble was the last option I would have suggested, and the result the Sixers got was about what you'd expect.
Hard to kill Thybulle for his individual play in this one, since they mostly hung in there during the minutes he was on the floor, but they certainly don't get scoring punch out of the arrangement.
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