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The Sixers earned one of their most improbable wins of the season with a W over the red-hot Cavs, squeaking out a 123-121 win on the road Cleveland.
Here’s what I saw.
— It was only about a week ago that the Sixers felt like a team that would never score again. They were fluid and (dare I say it?) fun against the Cavs, flowing out of sets and sharing the ball like a team that had spent months working on their chemistry.
The new additions to the team have certainly helped. Buddy Hield has been a revelation for the Sixers, offering the shooting and spacing you expected but so much more on top of it. It’s hard to overstate how much of a pain in the ass it is for opposing teams to chase Hield around the floor. He has a great sense of when to leak out in transition, can hit set shots and difficult stuff on the move, and he has been a much more willing passer than I would have expected. If you leave him open for a standstill look, good luck. But Hield doesn’t even need good looks, as he showed when he hit a quick sidestep three to get around tight coverage from the Cavs in the first half.
One of my favorite plays of the night was a Hield sequence in the first half, when he started a possession with an excellent skip pass to Ricky Council IV in the opposite corner. Mo Bamba pulled down the offensive rebound on the miss, and Hield relocated into the corner for the short pass from Bamba, canning the three before Cleveland knew what had hit them.
Hield’s ability to playmake for others has already allowed Nick Nurse to run the offense through him in crunch time, which is a wild concept when you consider he only joined the team on Friday. After picking up six assists in each of his first two games in Philly, Hield dished out eight dimes against the Cavs, including a few high-leverage passes in the guts of the game to bail Philly out of trouble.
The shotmaking though? Man. Hield must have seen Cleveland’s maroon jerseys and felt like he was back at Oklahoma because he went full takeover mode down the stretch of this game. Max Strus is still searching for his soul after Hield dotted him up after hitting the crossover from the top of the key.
If it has not been made clear, he is going to cook on this team, especially as they get their other rotation players back.
Less important (but still important) has been Cam Payne, who is expected to get bumped to the bench once Kyle Lowry clears waivers and joins Philadelphia. Payne may not be outright “better” than Patrick Beverley if you stack all their strengths and weaknesses up side-by-side, but his skill set is a lot more helpful right now than Beverley’s. Adding an extra ballhandler on the floor who can get to the rim and create for others has taken some stress off of Tyrese Maxey, making it harder for teams to load up on No. 0. Payne has done a nice job of probing the defense and keeping them honest, and as a more willing shooter than Beverley, he draws defenders out to the perimeter more often than the man he replaced.
(I also enjoy that Payne is the type of guard to see a bad defender on him and immediately go at him. Oh, you’re going to stick Georges Niang on me? Bet.)
How long will the good vibes last? We’ll see, but the early returns are good.
— I kill him regularly in this space, so it’s only fair to give Kelly Oubre a good deal of credit for his work in this game. For whatever other issues he has had, Oubre has done an amazing job of attacking the basket in recent weeks, piercing through any space defenses have handed him to get to the basket. And when shots haven’t gone down on his drives, he has often been the first guy off of the floor, turning misses into fouls or second-chance points.
When the touch is there for Oubre, it is really there, and he delivered some big bail-out moments on possessions that otherwise looked to be going nowhere. The baseline jumper was a source of success for Oubre basically all night, with Oubre going right over and over again before squaring his shoulders for little 8-10 footers.
Perhaps more importantly, Oubre was engaged on defense for the vast majority of this game, making some excellent plays in traffic as a helper away from the ball.
— Paul Reed was more offense than defense in this one, but blocking Donovan Mitchell without fouling on the final play of the game was tremendous. A+ defensive play.
— This was a strong outing for KJ Martin, who got the starting nod with Tobias Harris ruled out before tip-off. He offered a lot of activity on the offensive glass, and though Martin was in foul trouble for much of the second half, still a good outing overall.
— Ricky Council IV did not follow up his banger against the Wizards with a big game in Cleveland, but I thought his discipline was sound on defense, allowing Nick Nurse to continue riding him even as he struggled a bit on offense. If Tyrese Maxey didn’t climb his back in the process of following his own miss in transition, I think he probably would have added a couple of points to his total, too.
And how about the rookie calmly sinking two critical free throws to keep the Sixers up by three with 10 seconds left?
— Maxey had gaudy assist numbers in this game, but I thought this was a pretty disappointing game for him as a passer and decisionmaker. There were instances throughout the game of the Sixers needing one more pass to set up an easy look, and it felt like more often than not he didn’t see it, leaving money on the table on a night when they really couldn’t afford to. Rather than making the right play, even the easy play, he forced up some junk or tried to make a complicated pass through traffic. It’s rare to see him turn the ball over, period, let alone at the frequency he did on Monday.
It wasn’t all bad, obviously, with Maxey going on a great individual scoring run in the second quarter to push the Sixers out in front. The Sixers ran a great designed play on their first possession out of the quarter break, providing Maxey with an open look at a three to get himself going. That turned into a mini avalanche, with another standstill three and some strong moves to the rim to go with it. And here’s another ray of sunshine — Maxey hit some big midrange jumpers in this game, which have been a sore spot for him this year.
But If we’re holding him to an All-Star standard, not his best stuff. The missed free throw in the final 10 seconds nearly cost them the game.
— Rebounding continues to be a problem for this team. The Sixers were not able to get a sub in for an important sequence in the final 30 seconds, so I don’t necessarily blame Cam Payne for his inability to rebound against a huge Cavs frontline. But I hate watching this team rebound as a general rule.
— The offense has looked quite a bit better the last few nights, but it is hard to watch Philadelphia’s point-of-attack defense. There is a degree of allowing penetration by design — the Sixers wanted to funnel drivers toward Joel Embiid when the big guy was still healthy — but that doesn’t fully explain how piss-poor they’ve been at containment.
Nitpicking, I think, given how good of a win this was.
— Doesn’t the offense flowing like this reflect at least a little poorly on Tobias Harris? On paper, they had a lot less available talent against a much better team than the Wizards team they beat on Saturday. And yet, they looked a hell of a lot better and more comfortable as a group without Harris. Something to think about.
(Maybe you just can’t play him and Oubre together at the same time.)