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The Sixers sputtered through a 122-119 overtime loss to the Cavs that likely kills their run in the In-Season Tournament. While Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey each scored 30+ points, neither could push Philly over the top when it counted.
Here’s what I saw.
— The “activity” guys on the team managed to put in some pretty good shifts on Tuesday night. Paul Reed gave them a needed dose of energy to start the fourth quarter, and Robert Covington was one of the more noticeable players on the floor every time he was on it. RoCo came up with some huge plays on offensive rebounds and deflections, keeping possessions alive through sheer force of will (with some help from great hands).
And then there was Pat Bev, who sputtered through a lot of this game and committed some silly fouls on the perimeter. Playing in crunch time due to Nic Batum struggling, Beverley somehow managed to make a couple of the biggest plays of the game down the stretch, skying for rebounds before hitting the biggest shot of the fourth quarter, a runner with the clock running down to pull Philadelphia out in front:
Of course, Beverley then fouled Garland at the other end for the tying free throws, so…
— There were a lot of “not your night” moments in this one. For example, De’Anthony Melton somehow turned a cut that should have earned him a wide-open layup into a slapstick comedy routine, letting the pass glance off of his hands before falling out of bounds and saving it into the waiting hands of the Cavs. Even when the Sixers executed a play and a read correctly — Embiid made a nice pass to Melton on that one — it felt like they couldn’t get out of their own way.
The thing with Melton, though, is that he was one of the few players who felt like the motor was running for the entirety of the game. As both teams wore down late and continued into overtime, Melton seemed to have an extra reserve of energy to fall back on, darting into passing lanes and flying around the floor for loose balls. His shot selection was borderline unhinged, with Melton confidently taking contested threes early in the shot clock, but he often ended up making up for it by chasing the ball down in one way or another.
How good would he be if he could simply make layups at a normal clip? He does the hard work to beat the first level of defense and get to the painted area, and then loses all control and touch as he tries to put it in the basket. Baffling player (and I still think he’s a good one in spite of that).
— Tobias Harris deserved better from the rest of the group in this one. He hit some big-time shots in the second half, was one of their better options defending Darius Garland, and arguably should have been featured more as Embiid wore down late in this game.
— It was a mixed bag for Joel Embiid to start Tuesday’s game. On the one hand, he ended the opening period with a 10-6-2 line and gave the Cavs a lot of problems around the rim, proving to be too much to handle for Jarrett Allen (as usual). Unfortunately, ball security was a problem for the big man, with Embiid giving the ball away three times in the first 12 minutes, giving Cleveland a platform to get their transition game rolling.
But you’re going to have to live with some high-turnover moments for the big man with the way they’re playing this year. What they can’t live with is poor defense from their anchor, and that’s exactly what he offered for long stretches of this game. Poor reads in space, subpar rim protection, and nowhere near enough resistance at any level of the floor.
To be fair to the big guy, he was far from the only culprit. Philadelphia’s perimeter defense was as bad as it has been all season, allowing constant penetration at the point of attack, often leaving Embiid in no man’s land in and around the paint. Darius Garland got to work early and tortured the Sixers for basically the entire first half. When Embiid stepped up to meet him, Jarrett Allen was already rising up for a lob pass at the rim, putting together one of the best outings he has ever had against Embiid.
In other instances, Embiid did his own damage with poor reads and worse effort. He took a few wild swipes at the ball and a couple of those were punished with fouls, leaving him on the bench for the last few minutes of the first half with the Sixers already sputtering. One of his best traits as a defender has been his ability to avoid cheapies while still scaring the daylights out of the opponent with towering block attempts and length at the rim. He’s of no use to the team sitting on the bench, obviously.
To his credit, Embiid picked up his intensity after halftime and was a legit difference-maker around the basket, spooking Allen and Mobley so bad on a few occasions that they turned four-foot shots into Shaqtin’ a Fool-level moments. If anything, that only made the start to the game more frustrating. But I would argue his defensive effort was the single biggest swing factor in the second half, giving the Sixers a platform from which to work.
And as usual against the Allen/Mobley combo, these dudes are not equipped to keep him off of the charity stripe. Embiid came back earlier than normal in the fourth quarter, and he immediately went to work to try to slow the game down and get to the line. The Sixers continued to chip away and chip away at Cleveland’s lead, and Embiid slowing the game down certainly helped.
Unfortunately, there was nothing left in the tank by the time winning time arrived, with Embiid clanging important jumpers off the iron when it counted. He left himself with too much work to do in the second half.
— There have been a few games recently where Tyrese Maxey has noted he needed to stop focusing on drawing fouls. This felt like another one of those for about 2.5 quarters, with Maxey trying to highlight contact with runners and floaters instead of going all the way to the rim.
(In fairness, there are other reasons for a Maxey-sized player to get spooked around the rim against Cleveland. They’re showing you a lot of length there between Allen and Mobley.)
In addition to simply making some shots, I thought the difference for Maxey in half-two was putting more pressure on the officials by going strong to the basket. He took a beating at times, including a flagrant foul in transition where Max Strus hit him over the head mid-layup attempt. And Maxey kept on coming, short on made jumpers but heavy on tough finishes and free throws in the second half.
That relentlessness would eventually end up paying off. It was what I felt is a classic case of needing to ignore efficiency — the important thing for Maxey was that he kept attacking. But like Embiid, Maxey left points on the table when it mattered, including a crucial blown layup in overtime that might have swung the game in another direction.
— I want to be crystal clear here after starting with the big fella: Philadelphia’s defensive struggles were not a one-man problem. The Sixers looked like they had barely read the scouting report on the team they were up against, including in one specific case where they played with one of these guys last season. The amount of times players lost sight of Georges Niang in this game was absolutely comical after many of these dudes watched him swing games in their favor last season.
Different team and different scheme, certainly, but you’d be hard-pressed to name something they did well in the first half. Cleveland shot 58.7 percent from the field in the first two quarters and it didn’t feel unsustainable at all. They were getting loads of layups, dunks, and open threes by outrunning the Sixers in transition and punishing Philadelphia’s weaker defenders on the perimeter.
It’s here we should bring up Tyrese Maxey by name, because it felt like Garland punished him quite a bit. He wasn’t the only one, with the Cavs bringing him over and hunting the small guard throughout the night. While Maxey has earned some press for improved defensive output this year, rightfully so, this looked like the kid who has been beaten up by some teams on that end in the past. Even with a fully engaged Embiid at the rim, the Sixers (and Maxey) put so much on his plate that it would have taken a Herculean effort to limit the damage.
And a Herculean first half it was not, from any guy on the team. When Max Strus closed the opening half with a pretty open three and the Sixers running around like headless chickens, it felt like a fair summary of what had transpired. If there was a plan of any sort, they sure didn’t act like it.
— *Bernie Sanders voice*
I am once again asking for a real ballhandler to lead backup units. Even as someone who likes Patrick Beverley’s brand of shenanigans, he’s not going to cut it for the Maxey-less minutes. And neither is De’Anthony Melton, for that matter.
— Small-ball minutes with Nic Batum at center: cool in my book.
Small-ball minutes with Nic Batum at center that feature Marcus Morris: less cool in my book.
Elsewhere in the Batum story, he could not stay out of foul trouble against Cleveland. Nick Nurse had him matched up with Max Strus off-ball for a lot of the night, and he got caught clutching, grabbing, and holding quite a bit.
— It was bad enough that I had to watch this defensive performance, of course it came on this god-forsaken red court. Philadelphia bled points in both games on this court. I’d advise them to go with something different for next year’s tournament.
— I appreciate that they were consistent, but the officials called every single ticky-tack call possible in this game. It would have been disjointed without that style of officiating, I think, but they definitely made it worse to watch calling it that way.