More Sports:

March 15, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers earn tiebreaker over Cavs behind massive Joel Embiid effort

Furthering his MVP case, Sixers star Joel Embiid totaled 36 points and 18 rebounds in a win over the Cavaliers.

Joel Embiid turned in another MVP-level performance on national TV to lead the Sixers to a 118-109 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The only thing stopping the Sixers in the first quarter of this game was, well, the Sixers. Philadelphia was able to get just about any shot they wanted against the Cavs early, and a gaggle of sloppy turnovers was the only thing standing between them and a comfortable lead.

Joel Embiid was at fault on a couple of those bad turnovers — including one that will be a Shaqtin' A Fool candidate — but he was absolutely ruthless as a scorer in this game. On the very first possession, he put his shoulder into Evan Mobley's chest and let him know he was going to be in for a long night, drawing two free throws to the groan of the Cleveland crowd. Moments later, Darius Garland reached in and sent him to the line again. But after that, it was just a shooting display for the big man, who hit his first four shots and never really let up from there.

There have been some significant Joel Embiid carry jobs during his time in Philadelphia, but this game was up there with any of them. In single coverage, the Cavs were dead. Double teams weren't much more effective, with Embiid simply shooting over or going through multiple players at a time if that's what a possession required. Hell, Embiid essentially scored through three guys during this sequence in the first half, turning and looking and feinting before barreling toward the rim and flipping one in for two points:

It just feels inevitable that this guy is going to score the basketball right now. He's not always going to have the midrange going, and some teams will foul less than the Cavs did, but he has an answer for almost everything teams can throw at him. And that's without getting to the defensive end of the floor.

You could see that Embiid put the fear of god in the Cavs every time they got near him in the painted area on Wednesday night. Whether it was Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley, or Darius Garland, Cleveland players were seeing ghosts at the rim. This sequence in the first half stood out in real-time, with Embiid lurking near the basket and forcing Mobley into a tough mid-range miss to end the possession.

With six minutes and change left in this game, Embiid had a sequence where he helped off Mobley to contest a Cedi Osman drive, and after Osman dumped the ball off to Mobley on the other side of the paint, Embiid flashed back across and denied the younger big at the summit. Cleveland went from what looked like an easy two points to pulling the ball out of their own basket after Harden scored on the ensuing fast break.

A well-timed challenge from Doc Rivers saved Embiid from his sixth foul in the final four minutes of this game, and I think he was fortunate to win that one, as my read was that it was both a flop by Mobley and a push-off from Embiid. After that moment, Embiid's impact on the game was muted, but one can only guess how poorly it would have gone in the final few minutes without him.

The big man would finish the game with a 36-18-3 line on preposterous efficiency, 12/19 from the field and a perfect 10/10 from the line. This dude has been scoring like he's Kevin Durant this season, with a DPOY type ceiling. Absurd player.

• If Tyrese Maxey had taken better care of the basketball, this would have been an absolutely terrific performance, filled with all his best qualities of his scorer and none of the downside of his skill set. As it was, this was still an essential Maxey effort, with the young guard giving Philadelphia a needed jolt of pace and space in the starting lineup.

All night long, it felt like Maxey hit big shots as soon as it looked like the game was taking a turn for the worse. It would have been hard to imagine him being this level of shooter watching him as a rookie — the Sixers utilized him as an off-ball weapon all night long, including on a critical possession in the final three minutes, with James Harden and Maxey going through a series of ball screens that ended with a trail three for young Maxey.

As his shooting diversity grows over time, so does Maxey's ceiling as a player. Making a living as a small-ish shooting guard is pretty tough, but he has done everything in his power to be the best possible version of that player. He killed the Cavs with speed, carved them up from deep, and always made sure they had to think about him. 

• Philadelphia's Embiid-less minutes were a mess in the first half, with Doc Rivers going to Paul Reed as backup center before abandoning their usual look in favor of small ball. That didn't go much better, but Rivers decided it was back to the small-ball well in the fourth quarter.

Whether it actually worked or not is up for some debate. Philadelphia's offense absolutely cooked during that stretch, and they got torn to shreds on offense. If you want to make the case that it's how they're going to have to win the minutes without their MVP when it counts, I won't necessarily argue with you on that.

On the good side of things, the Cavs were clearly left with few good options against that setup. Again and again, James Harden forced a switch to get Raul Neto in front of him, which ultimately meant he was going to draw a second defender or have a favorable one-on-one matchup. Late in this game, Harden picked Cleveland apart whenever they sent extra help, finding shooters all over the floor.

(Harden was aided in that early fourth-quarter stretch by Shake Milton, who has quietly been one of Philadelphia's most important players all season. Milton has been in and out of the rotation at any given moment, but he has basically always produced when on the floor this season, offering the perfect blend of on-ball creation and off-ball spacing.)

Harden's outside shot was hit or miss for most of the night, but you eventually looked up and saw he had amassed 27-7-12, winning enough individual battles to distort the floor and help out his teammates. Not his best, but good enough for the win. 

The Bad

• The Cavs (particularly Evan Mobley) deserve their piece of the credit for forcing the Sixers to commit a bunch of sloppy turnovers. Without Jarrett Allen to pack the paint and contest at the rim, this game could have gotten out of hand for Cleveland, but they played the aggressor in passing lanes, capitalizing on sloppy passing from Philadelphia.

And, boy, was it sloppy. I don't think anybody deserves to be the face of the problem, as they were all pretty terrible, but Tyrese Maxey's passing reads were significantly worse than a normal game, so they stood out. He appeared to be unhappy with Embiid for their failure to connect on several plays, but even if Embiid had been staring right at him and waiting for passes, it's unlikely Maxey's attempts would have gotten there, with No. 0 throwing soft, half-hearted attempts in the direction of his running mate.

As we discussed in our pregame write-up, the Cavs are one of the slowest teams in the league in pure pace, but they're a ruthless team when they get on the break and hurt Philadelphia once again there, playing at an elite rate on the break in the first half of this game. It's not hard to manage when the opponent is gift-wrapping you turnovers.

If there was one area where Embiid was as bad as the rest of them, it was the turnover department. He led the game in giveaways and had no excuse on many of them, losing his grip on the basketball as he tried to get into scoring moves or spray passes around the perimeter. Ball security is still an issue at times, even if he has improved there this year.

• I think we should probably start ringing some alarm bells with regard to Tobias Harris, who was not just bad but actively harmful in this game. His past habits have come roaring back, and worse than that, Harris has absolutely no rhythm or flow right now, even when he's given a bit of leniency to get to work himself. I'm not sure if they're going to be able to pull him out of this tailspin between now and the playoffs, and if they can't, it will impact their playoff ceiling, if not their playoff floor.

There have been a lot of games lately where this scene from "Office Space" has played in my head while watching Harris.

Harris is a versatile, impactful player when he's rolling, someone who can space the floor for top groups and offer some on-ball creation for undermanned teams. We've seen very little of either lately. Perhaps we should note that he has trended downward as Philadelphia has leaned heavier into staggering — there used to be a period in every game where there was a natural opportunity for Harris to get more touches, more chances to find himself. Those aren't really there with Harden controlling the bench-heavy groups, and so Harris can get lost in the shuffle, which bleeds into his overall effectiveness.

At times over the past two seasons, sticking Harris on a high-value assignment on defense has been a decent trick to get him locked into the game. It hasn't seemed to do much of anything lately except expose whatever weaknesses he has on that end.

Scattered throughout the game were some examples of ways Harris can help — he drew a foul (and a tech) on Darius Garland by getting down the floor and sealing the smaller guard on the cross match, the sort of thing they should be looking to exploit with him as often as they can. But those occasional exploits aren't going to make up for Harris fumbling plays in transition, missing open shots, or stepping out of clean looks created by the pressure of Embiid and Harden in the middle of the floor.

He's in a bad spot right now, though, and if he can't figure it out, there's a decent chance he gets boxed out for closing minutes in the games that matter. The moment he and P.J. Tucker began hitting shots, this game turned in the second half.

The Ugly

• Georges Niang might have had the single worst rebounding attempt I've ever seen from a professional basketball player in the second quarter. Barely leaving the floor as a defensive rebound bounced in his direction, Niang somehow managed to completely misread the ball's trajectory, slapping the attempt back at the backboard and ultimately surrendering a second chance for Cleveland. Moments later, the ball found Cedi Osman on the perimeter and he punished Niang's mistake, hitting a three on a possession that should never have existed.

One of the downstream effects of Jalen McDaniels missing the game is that you don't have great options to cope with Niang playing poorly. Harris obviously wasn't helping, and while I suppose you could play Danuel House Jr. in that spot, he's not exactly the picture of consistency himself.

• There were a lot of soft calls in both directions in this game. Consistency is good, but it would have been nice to let these guys play instead of having to listen to whistles for 2.5 hours.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports