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November 27, 2016

‘When those guys are on, it’s hard to beat them’: Sixers get off to fast start, but fall to Irving, James, and Cavs

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It’s nice to be Tyronn Lue. Specifically, the ability to go to the Kyrie Irving-LeBron James high ball screen down the stretch of tight games is a luxury that very few NBA coaches are afforded with. And with the Cleveland Cavaliers trying to close out a competitive Sixers team on Sunday afternoon, they went to old reliable.

There are choices, but all of them are difficult. Do you switch and risk a mismatch? Do you try to fight through the screen and possibly allow James a full head of steam to the cup? The result of this particular play, T.J. McConnell matched up against James, predictably put the game away for good:

This is just one of the ways that the Cavs force teams to make uncomfortable choices defensively. And after a slow first half, the league’s second-best offense (115.1 points per 100 possessions) got back on track en route to a 112-108 victory over the Sixers.

“The slightest of a false step where you shouldn’t be rotating or you shouldn’t be stunting, there’s a ball flying over your ear on a line to someone that’s got bent knees and bent arms and loaded up,” Brett Brown said. “And they will shoot and make threes if you aren’t positionally perfect.”

(Now if you do want to criticize Brown, playing Robert Covington more than 20 minutes is an area to maybe look at.)

The Sixers have this weird thing going on with LeBron: They never beat him, but the games are often pretty close:

The trend continued today. The Sixers raced out to a fast start and went into halftime with a six-point lead over the defending champs for a couple of reasons. First, the Cavs (who were at the Ohio State-Michigan football game yesterday, perhaps that had a slight effect combined with a less talented opponent?) were simply missing a lot of good looks that they usually make (.40 3P%, tops in the NBA).

And the other reason is that the Sixers offense was very good, getting out in transition and moving the ball well against a sleepy Cavs defense. They finished the half with 16 assists on 24 field goals.

“We know we can play with anyone at this point,” Nik Stauskas said. “We’ve done it so often. The first game we played [the Cavs] this year, we lost by one. So we know we belong in these situations, it’s just now about closing them out.”

As tends to be the case when LeBron and the Cavs come to town, there were some fireworks at times. For instance, Joel Embiid got into it with Richard Jefferson after an impressive Embiid and-one drive:

Offensively, the Sixers got contributions from up and down the lineup. Stauskas, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric combined for 35 points off the bench on just 26 shots. But when the game got close, they had to deal with the likes of Irving (39 points) and James (26-13-10) defensively. They weren’t able to hold up.

“I think Kyrie had what, 40?” Embiid said. “LeBron had a triple-double, so when those guys are on like that, it’s really hard to beat them.”

Embiid, who didn’t have his best offensive game, used a late surge to finish with 22 points (8-18 FG), 9 rebounds, a career-high 4 assists, and 3 blocks. After being exclusively double-teamed by the Cavs, Embiid was satisfied with his performance dealing with extra bodies in his direction.

“I thought I did better,” Embiid said. “My turnovers (three) were mostly offensive fouls today, but I thought I passed out of double teams better. I was taking my time, baiting them. And I passed at the right time and we made a couple shots.”

They did, but the Cavs made a few more, as is often the case. The Sixers will take on one of the Eastern Conference’s other top teams tomorrow night in Toronto, this time without their best player.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann