More Sports:

March 15, 2023

What to watch for as Sixers battle Cavs for season series tiebreaker

The Sixers may not have a bigger game left during the regular season than their tilt with the Cavaliers.

The Sixers are in Cleveland to kick off a rough road stretch on Wednesday night, and their matchup with the Cavs is quietly one of their most important games left. A win would all but lock Philly into a top-three seed heading into the playoffs, earning them an important tiebreaker over the upstart Cavs.

Here's what I'm watching for on Wednesday night.

Joel Embiid vs. Cleveland

Quietly, Joel Embiid has been off of the pace this season against a Cavs team he has run up the score against in the past. Embiid is shooting 40.5 percent from the field against Cleveland this year. What will he look like on Wednesday night?

Philadelphia's first two meetings against the Cavs are hard to use as measuring stick games for multiple reasons. The Sixers were without both James Harden and Tyrese Maxey in their fall meeting, and the Cavs spent much of that matchup ignoring shooters in the corner (most notably P.J. Tucker and Matisse Thybulle) in order to restrict Embiid's airspace. A recent matchup between the two teams was something closer to a litmus test game, with both teams essentially at full strength, and the Sixers' dominant first half put them in cruise control as the Cavs whittled down the lead over the final two periods. 

Jarrett Allen, who missed the first meeting between these two teams, is expected to sit out of Wednesday's game due to an eye injury suffered late last week. To prevent Embiid from running wild against the Cavs in that first November meeting, Cleveland singled out Sixers players who they were comfortable with trying to beat them. The following still image is only slightly misleading — Tucker ended up with this look on the wing after pass-faking to send Dean Wade to the corner, but using a second player to front Embiid was often a priority over defending some of Philly's shooters:

tucker cavs game lol.png

(The bigger issue, truthfully, is that Tucker stared down this look and passed out of it. His comfort zone is basically exclusively in the corners, but when the look is this clean, you have to take it or sit on the bench.)

This is obviously less of a concern when you have a Harden/Maxey backcourt on the floor. You can use any extra attention on Embiid to either hunt perimeter shots for those two or use that extra space to drive, kick, draw fouls, or set up Embiid for easy looks. There was also a bit of shooting variance in that game, with Embiid missing a fair number of looks he is normally expected to knock down. 

That said, the Cavs have shown that they want to help off of Tucker (or a similar sort of role player) in order to crowd Embiid in the middle of the floor. With Allen and Evan Mobley both in the lineup, they frequently used the latter as a roamer off of Tucker. 

embiid mobley cavs game.png

The veteran forward was a bit livelier in this game, with Tucker making a pair of threes. More notably, Embiid's reads from the middle of the floor were a big help, with quick-hitter passes finding Tucker (and others) for makes from the perimeter.

While I think Embiid is perfectly capable of dismantling Cleveland's talented frontcourt, it is the sort of matchup where he has to find the balance between dominant scorer and team-friendly hub, reading the game incisively to capitalize on how much they cheat off of Philly's shooters. And then, well, the shooters have to do their jobs.

Containing the Cavs better

Philadelphia's two big issues this year (insofar as a very good team has issues) have been its rebounding and transition defense. Those have been common themes over the years, and the Cavs had moments in their November win over Philly where they punished them for their poor play on the break. Cleveland killing them in transition runs counter to the team's usual style — the Cavs are dead last in pace this season, and toward the bottom of the league (along with the Sixers) in transition possessions. But just like the Sixers, they are efficient when they do get out in transition, fourth in the league in points per possession.

Where we need to put the spotlight, though, is everywhere else. Cleveland's numbers in the November meeting were downright cartoonish, with the Cavs shooting 82.1 percent at the rim, and over 50 percent on every type of three-point shot, including a blistering 60 percent from the corners. Philadelphia managed to cut into their three-point dominance in the second-meeting, but they weren't that much better at protecting the paint, allowing the Cavs to shoot 75 percent at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass.

These two problems are connected. The Cavs are a tough team to guard on the perimeter with Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland both crafty ballhandlers who can hurt you, and coming up to meet them leaves you susceptible to Allen or Mobley getting easy looks on the back end. The rim pressure generated by those four players opens up opportunities for the others from the perimeter, though the Sixers did a nice job in the February matchup to force Cleveland into living and dying on pull-up jumpers.

With Allen ruled out for this game, Rivers' use of Embiid will be a fascinating subplot to watch on defense. Using Mobley as more of a stretch big could open up the floor for Cleveland's drivers, and it might make some sense to stick Embiid on Isaac Okoro, who has progressed as a shooter but is still their best bet to ignore on the perimeter. The Sixers have used Embiid as a roamer more frequently in the second half of the season, and if Tucker can match up with Mobley (a pretty big ask athletically), it might put Philly in the best possible spot to defend the Cavs.

Philadelphia's sense of urgency

Maybe it seems obvious to you that the Sixers would come out revved up for a game against the team immediately behind them in the standings, with the chance to put them in the rearview and basically guarantee a top-three seed. I tend to agree with that line of thinking, but it may be a little more complicated than you'd think.

Here are the Eastern Conference standings heading into tonight:


Realistically, the Sixers are not going to catch the Bucks by the end of the regular season, save for a giant dip in form for Milwaukee and a hot streak on Philly's end. So then the question becomes — is it smarter to push for homecourt in Round 2 against Boston, or try to game it in a way to slide to the fourth seed and play the Bucks (who you've beaten twice) in the second round?

So long as you aren't being stupid with minutes distribution, I think it's pretty clearly the former, as I don't believe ducking matchups and playing anything other than your best basketball serves the team. It would be one thing if this was a team with a track record of playoff results who you could count on to capitalize on any matchup-based advantages, but these Sixers are still figuring some things out. Last season, with a lot of teams worried about the Brooklyn Nets boogieman in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics pushed for as high of a seed as they could get with a strong close to the regular season, and they not only stomped the Nets in Round 1, they went all the way to the NBA Finals.

The Sixers' record vs. Boston this season is what it is, but I don't think there is much separation between the teams at the top of the conference and thus value homecourt accordingly (which is to say, I value it a ton). Add on that you get a softer matchup in Round 1, and I think you'll get the best out of Philly tonight and over this final stretch. But we'll see soon enough.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports