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November 18, 2019

How Sixers got back on track with blowout win over Cleveland Cavaliers

If the Sixers win in a blowout and no one is around to see it happen, is it enough to make the fanbase feel better on Monday morning? It is the question we seek the answer for today after the Sixers ran the Cavs out of their own building on Sunday, all under the shadow of Eagles-Patriots and under the weight of hundreds of beers and tailgates across the tri-state area.

For those of you who sat out their win over Cleveland, the good news is that revisiting the game will not make you feel bad. It was a dominant win with contributions from all 13 active players, all of whom ended up on the positive side of the ledger apart from Shake Milton, the poor sap. The final result was a 19-point victory, 114-95, but in truth it was not really that close, and Philadelphia's best players got to spend a bunch of time watching from the sideline as extended garbage time kicked in.

How did they get there? So glad you asked.

Buckling down on defense

Philadelphia's defense has been a bit erratic to start the season. When they've had Joel Embiid in the lineup they have been elite, as has been the case for his entire career. But between new blood and an unsettled rotation, bench lineups have been a bit bumpy even if they ultimately grade out on the positive side.

Some of that comes down to Al Horford, who is being asked to play a very tough role for Philadelphia. Jumping back between the starting power forward spot and the backup center position is not as simple as some make it out to be, and though Horford's instincts have been as good as ever, he's not always going to have the recovery speed to make up for missed rotations. The wiggle room Philly has with Embiid anchoring the defense shrinks.

That means even the players who aren't expected to be standout defenders have to pitch in. Furkan Korkmaz can only control his physical attributes to an extent — you can work on things like core strength and foot speed, but ultimately everyone has a baseline they start from. The key is minimizing mental mistakes and making as many sharp reads within rotations as possible.

We saw some of Philadelphia's best defensive possessions of the season against Cleveland (admittedly, not a good team!), and Korkmaz was involved. Follow him on this play, and you can see him navigate traffic, disrupt Kevin Porter Jr. with James Ennis, and make the right rotation to the corner after Mike Scott commits to helping on the baseline.

Creating live-ball turnovers is ideal, and the Sixers forced the Cavs into a lot of unforced errors on Sunday afternoon. But championship foundations are built on sequences like these, where guys simply pop up and do the right things at the right time. It takes time to get there as a group, and the key for Philadelphia is getting time together so they can work this out themselves.

It helped that Philadelphia had the effort to match the reads on Sunday, which hasn't always been the case this season. I generally downplay the idea that losses are a good thing for teams — the greatest dynasties last not because of periodic humblings from opponents, but because the internal will to achieve and sustain greatness is matched by one's talent. 

That said, the Sixers came out like a team who needed a good kick in the ass to really get going, and everyone is driven by different factors, so perhaps it was the kickstart they needed.

Making life easier for their best players

Hello, it's me, the guy who keeps telling you the Sixers should lean into Embiid's versatility and stop treating him like a post-up machine. Let's be clear about one thing: Philadelphia should still post him up a lot.

What they must do, mind you, is still offer him help in order to get himself established. Asking him to dominate individual matchups is what they should do with their best player, but too often that looks like leaving him alone to win on an island. The Sixers' off-ball movement and screening is not particularly complicated, in part because it would be a lot of wasted energy if no one cares to chase your shooters. So why not repurpose that same energy to take some of the burden off of Embiid? 

Josh Richardson doesn't do much here, but by chipping Tristan Thompson in the paint on his way by, he creates the separation Embiid needs to seal off Thompson, and from there, it's easy money at the rim for Embiid. 

Something else the Sixers have been doing more of over the last week or so is setting pindown screens for Embiid to free him up for jumpers around the free-throw line. The more analytically friendly among you are probably pulling your hair out, wondering how I could be advertising this as a good thing.

It is certainly a break from the leaguewide trend of fazing out the mid-range in favor of shots at the rim and the three-point line, and the Sixers should still broadly be hunting the same shots they have been since Sam Hinkie took over a billion years ago. But it is another wrinkle for the playbook nonetheless, and in the event teams switch when Simmons screens, it allows Embiid to either shoot over a smaller player or use that opportunity to repost and potentially get to the line. If they don't, it's still a wide-open 15-footer for Embiid.

Embiid's touch would leave him in the second half and he only finished with 14 points, but he was absolutely killing the Cavs before the game got out of hand. 

Oh yeah, Tobias Harris was pretty good

Harris' name almost never comes up these days without mentioning the huge contract he signed this past summer. Heavy is the head that signs a check for a major marker sports team wears the crown, I believe they say.

But it comes up for good reason. There's no sense in paying him $180 million if you're not going to lean on him as an offensive hub. The trouble so far has been balancing what he's good at with what the team needs him to do to be great as a collective. No one has any doubt about his ability to punish smaller matchups from the mid-post, but he can't lurk there all game when the Sixers are trying to post up Embiid, get Simmons the ball around the basket, or cut off of Horford double teams for easy layups at the rim. 

There are a lot of mouths to feed in Philadelphia, and with Harris being a naturally team-first guy, sometimes he will take himself out of the flow of the game for too long. Against Cleveland, there were no such fears. Harris was involved pretty much from the get-go, pouring in a game-high 27 points on just 14 shots, helping to shut the door in the fourth with other starters already done for the night.

Oddly enough, I think Harris is one of the guys who benefit most when the Sixers are at their defensive best. When the Sixers can run on either stops or forced turnovers, that's where Philadelphia's potential for mismatches really screws teams up in transition. Opponents can't afford a bad crossmatch because if a guard ends up on Harris, he will make light work of them around the basket.

So plays like these, encouraging as they are in terms of Harris' individual defensive progression, are a key part of him getting going early and sustaining it over 48 minutes, regardless of the opponent.

The Sixers got good performances out of bench guys like Korkmaz and Ennis, watched Trey Burke state his case for the backup point guard minutes, and saw Matisse Thybulle look comfortable in limited action, the game slowing down for him after a tough couple weeks.

But ultimately, this team's future hinges on their starting five setting a tone and leading by example. Their rough road start is now behind them, and they'll have the opportunity to keep building starting Wednesday against New York.

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