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April 03, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers escape with win vs. Cavaliers behind dominant Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid put the Sixers in his backpack and dragged his team to victory, with another MVP-level performance pushing them to a 112-108 victory over the Cavs on Sunday. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If you have watched the Sixers on a regular basis for the past two years, you have learned not to draw any sweeping conclusions about Embiid based on how he starts. It used to be that if he stumbled out of the starting blocks that he would keep on sputtering, or even worse, check out of the game as it spiraled out of control over time. The new version of Embiid plays with a different level of commitment and a sort of tunnel vision that ignores his stat line, the opponent, and anything else other than the work he has put in to get here.

His ability to get to the free-throw line is a massive, massive part of getting to that point. A slow shooting start can be worked around because Embiid knows exactly how disciplined (or undisciplined) most of the guys defending him are. Even when he's not "grifting" or foul-hunting or whatever you want to call that, Embiid embracing being a roll man and improving his handle creates a lot of natural foul-drawing opportunities, because few guys are equipped to defend the gigantic Cameroonian when he's got a head of steam on his way to the basket.

Problem-solving a matchup in real-time has been the other fun part of watching Embiid grow these last few years. Moses Brown has his issues as an individual defender, but he is absolutely massive, and trying to bulldoze him in the post all night would have been a pretty poor use of his time. For a lot of the first half, he was lulled into taking open threes with Brown sagging deep toward the rim. But as Embiid found his touch and started to pull Brown out toward him, he sensed the lack of foot speed Brown possessed, waiting until he was lurching forward before exploding through space. That gave Embiid quality looks inside the arc, put his butt on the charity stripe, or opened up opportunities elsewhere.

It pays to have a guy with otherworldly talent when things break down, and they broke down a lot for Philly in this one. There were multiple expired clock jumpers that saved them from humiliation at the end of the shot clock, Embiid all but saying, "Screw it, I'll do it myself."

Defense was more of a mixed bag early, but only because of some off-ball miscues, not commitment. Given that this was the second game of a back-to-back, I thought this was one of Embiid's most impressive defensive performances of the year, nearly four quarters of him leaping through the air to erase would-be makes for Cavs players at the rim. We don't often see him with frequent shot-blocking opportunities because he has to straddle the line between preventing lobs, preventing pull-up jumpers, and cleaning up the messes created by their poor perimeter defense. Sunday evening, though, Embiid was a human flyswatter, burying smaller Cavs players who challenged him at the summit.

It's one thing to simply be "available" for the second half of a back-to-back. He was downright incredible throughout this one, a testament to the improvements he has made in his conditioning and skill alike. He simply wanted this game more than anybody else in the gym, and he went out and seized it for his team. A terrific performance.

• We are going to get to what I think about James Harden as a scorer, but it really is remarkable how much easier he makes life for Embiid regardless of how poor he looks as a play finisher. If you put spacing around Embiid and Harden and allow them to run a pick-and-roll, odds are that they are going to get a clean look out of it. The look will vary from jumpers at the free-throw line to dunks and layups on the move, but the ultimate result is the same. Harden waits, and waits, and waits, and suddenly the ball finds the moving target right where it needs to be, and Embiid does the rest.

Embiid isn't doing almost any above-the-rim finishing with Harden out of that action, but it hasn't mattered even a little bit. The big man's footwork and length has allowed him to finish an array of shots at the hoop even when lanes close off, and these two have morphed into a deadly pairing in the game's most popular action with very little time to work together. If they have learned nothing else during this period, it's that concerns about their offensive synergy were overblown by several magnitudes.

Also, hey, triple-double, shiny object!

• This wasn't pretty, but honestly, who cares? They got a win on the road in a late-season back-to-back and rode their star to victory. Take the money and run, like Thybulle did with the game's critical inbounds pass. Keep your expectations low for early-April basketball.

The Bad

• As far as data points go, this game is a lot less valuable than most, because there are no back-to-back games in the playoffs. When guys look slow and off the pace, it doesn't have to be a big-picture concern.

Unfortunately, back-to-back games are not the only setting where Harden has looked slow and off the pace. Despite how brilliant his passing has been throughout his Sixers run, he has looked bad physically more often than he has looked like a high-level player. It feels hard to square some of the team efficiency numbers with the aesthetics, which are as ugly as it gets when Harden is at his worst.

This wasn't a simple problem of Harden getting too wrapped up in trying to draw fouls, either. Philadelphia's star guard definitely wanted a few more calls to go his way, but that wasn't the reason he threw up a bunch of junk on his way to the rim. There was little explosiveness in his game to speak of, and that is leading to a lot of possessions where Harden can get to a favorable spot before his advantage shrivels up and dies on the floor, defenders packing his shot at the rim or preventing him from getting a good shot off in the first place.

Harden was never a high flyer even at his peak, but he still had functional athleticism to spare, with the strength and burst to go through guys on his way to two points at the hoop. Finishing through contact looks like an absolute chore for Harden at the moment, with smaller bumps able to throw him off. He did manage to reach back and find it on a couple of late possessions, getting past an under-equipped Lauri Markannen to get to the basket. They need that guy more often, because they didn't acquire Harden for him to only be a playmaker when it counts. 

• Doc Rivers tinkering with his rotation isn't why Tyrese Maxey picked up three fouls in the first half against Cleveland. Well, at least it's not the only reason why Maxey picked up three fouls in the first half of the game. But sometimes it's hard to figure what the justification could be for moving things around and fixing what isn't broken.

On Saturday afternoon, the Sixers had one of the best offensive games they've had in recent memory in spite of a rampant turnover problem, dropping 144 points on the Charlotte Hornets. Instead of keeping the same basic rotation patterns that they used in that game — using Harden more with Embiid and letting Maxey/Harris run the bench — Rivers' initial decision was to go the other way, staggering their two primary stars before needing to pivot out of that due to foul trouble.

Of all the times to experiment, the day after an offensive explosion doesn't feel like one of them. I'm all for process over results, but when you get overwhelming results and are on the second half of a back-to-back, what is the sense in messing with anything? This team has absolutely no rhythm or consistency right now, and Rivers toggling back and forth has not helped matters.

• If I took a shot for every stupid Thybulle foul this season, I'd have a hangover by the time the Sixers began their postgame media every night.

The fifth starter spot should really be more flexible than it is, they just don't have the alternative options to justify playing in that spot. Danny Green's legs aren't there, Niang doesn't hold up defensively, and on down the line. 

• If you don't play a guy for the entire second quarter because you're worried he's going to pick up another foul, you've already essentially guaranteed he's going to miss more minutes than he would if he simply fouled out in the second half. I understand being slightly conservative late in halves with the foul game, but benching Maxey until the second half was extreme. 

While we're on the subject, Maxey is going to get hunted by every single team the Sixers play in the playoffs. His defense is rough, from on-ball issues to his inability to get through and/or navigate screens on the move. He's a critical piece of this team, but he gets picked on quite often. Nowhere to hide out there. 

The Ugly

• You have to get the games in when you can get them in, I guess, but having back-to-backs in early April is just stupid. Both of these teams were obviously feeling the effects of playing a day before, and it made for a pretty crappy entertainment product.

• DeAndre Jordan was -11 in six minutes during the first half, and that's despite Jordan being a relatively useful offensive player during that stretch. He had a nice tip-in on a midrange miss from Harden, a lob finish that he threw down off of a Tobias Harris pass, and he posed some danger to a Cavs team that went small-ish with Moses Brown on the bench (and their better bigs currently injured).

Basketball, you may have noticed, is a two-way sport. And Jordan did almost nothing right on the defensive end, the Cavs forcing him to be involved in actions that he had little interest in following. Leaving Kevin Love wide open on the perimeter is the sort of thing you only do when your head is not in the game, which is a common issue for Jordan and has been for quite some time.

That plus/minus number is certainly not all on him. Again, it has to be said that the Sixers' stars have been lackluster when it comes to pushing their backups toward respectability, and Harden's dire efforts around the rim gave the Cavs opportunities to run out and score quick ones in transition. Jordan is not the biggest problem for the Sixers or anything close. But he's a guy that is easily replaceable, which is why people get so mad about him being an auto selection in the rotation, and I certainly sympathize. 

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