3 Observations: Sixers Survive Against Cavs in Final Game Before All-Star Break

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Things were not always pretty. In the end, the Philadelphia 76ers were able to squeak by with a 118-112 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid scored 29 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out five assists in the win. He surpassed the 10,000 point mark in his career, becoming the fastest player in Sixers history (373 games) to do it. James Harden finished with 19 points, four rebounds and 12 assists.

Furkan Korkmaz (personal reasons) remained out of the lineup.

The Cavaliers were led by 33 points, five rebounds and five assists from Donovan Mitchell. Darius Garland added in 27 points, six assists and three steals.

The Sixers head into the All-Star Break with a 38-19 record. Here are three observations from the win:

Harden firing on all cylinders

Harden began right where he left off from Monday’s win over the Houston Rockets. He drilled a pair of step-back 3-pointers, the first of which came on a contested shot from the corner. In vintage form, he also took advantage of mismatches whenever possible. He executed a beautiful crossover on Evan Mobley, driving past him and finishing at the rim.

The Sixers opened up the game on fire from beyond the arc. Tobias Harris scored the team’s first points of the game, cashing in on a wide open 3-pointer from the corner. Harris connected on another 3-pointer later on in the first quarter. He stepped into both looks with a ton of confidence, a major positive for someone who has been hesitant in recent games as he battles through a cold stretch.

The 3-pointer played a crucial role in powering a 21-2 run for the Sixers. Everyone in the starting lineup, with the exception of Embiid (he did not attempt one) got in on the action from beyond the arc. They opened up a 31-10 lead with 4:50 remaining in the first quarter. The Sixers shot 7-of-8 from deep in the opening quarter.

Harden set the tone for the Sixers both as a scorer and distributor. He continued to do an excellent job orchestrating the offense whether it was on pick-and-rolls with Embiid or full-court passes in transition. The savvy veteran dished out eight assists in the first quarter without committing a turnover. The Sixers went into halftime with a 63-38 lead and having assists on 14 of their 22 made field goals.

Positive things from the second unit

The non-Embiid minutes have been an issue for the Sixers this season. The team often gets outscored convincingly when the big man sits, but there have been signs recently of progress on that front.

After playing the entirety of the first quarter, Embiid finally went to the bench for his first rest of the night. New acquisition Dewayne Dedmon was active for the Sixers, but head coach Doc Rivers elected to go with Paul Reed for the backup center minutes.

Reed’s defense and energy provides a breath of fresh air to the Sixers’ second unit. He went with Garland stride for stride before swatting his layup attempt. A few minutes later, he gobbled up an offensive rebound and scored on a put-back dunk. He finished his first stint, lasting six minutes, with two points, two rebounds and two blocks. The most important result was the Sixers having extended the lead by six points with Embiid off the floor.

The Sixers turned things up a notch defensively against the Cavaliers. It began in the second quarter with the bench unit on the floor. Having the combination of Reed and Jalen McDaniels on the floor gives the Sixers an added level of versatility defensively. Both players have the speed and length to both opposing offenses. The defensive rotations with both of them on the floor were crisp and on point. On one possession early in the second quarter, the Cavaliers had to pass up multiple open shots due to the Sixers’ good communication and hard closeouts. The possession eventually resulted in a turnover. The Sixers should definitely look to utilize this duo defensively moving forward.

McDaniels had an up-and-down night. He struggled at times, especially in the second half, attempting to guard Mitchell. He was mostly a non-factor offensively, although he did grab two offensive rebounds. His combination of defensive ability and rebounding should make him a useful player on most nights. He finished with four points (2-of-6 shooting), four rebounds and a steal.

Sixers survive near second half collapse

The Sixers’ performance in the first half was possibly their best of the season. They played efficient basketball offensively while holding the Cavaliers to just 38 points.

However, the Cavaliers did not go away quietly. The Sixers possessed a 27-point lead with 7:08 remaining in the third quarter. Cleveland responded with a 13-0 run to cut the gap to 14 points. A lot of their success came from in the paint, with three of their baskets on the run coming from dunks. The Sixers ended the run on a De’Anthony Melton 3-pointer with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter. Tyrese Maxey knocked down a big shot from beyond the arc with 1.7 seconds left in the quarter to put the lead back up to 17 points.

Mobley and Mitchell, after combining to score 10 points in the first half, could not miss in the fourth quarter. The Sixers were up 92-70 with 10:58 left to play, but over the next few minutes the lead dwindled down to eventually as low as four points. From 10:58 to 4:22, Mobley and Mitchell scored 21 of the Cavaliers’ 25 points. The Sixers defense collapsed, especially in transition. Mitchell carved up the defense regardless of who was attempting to guard him. In an example of how Mitchell could not miss, he banked in a line-drive 3-pointer from the top of the key.

The Sixers sleepwalked offensively in the second half. They often had no response against the pressure defense and hedging the Cavaliers were throwing at them. The offense was vanilla and had no pace. Fortunately, a combination of free throws and a few timely buckets helped the Sixers avoid a devastating collapse.

After Caris LeVert hit a 3-pointer that cut the lead to eight with 4:21 remaining, Embiid responded with a crucial turnaround jumper from the post at the end of the shot clock. With the lead down again to seven points with 2:46 remaining, Maxey connected on a high-arcing floater to make it a nine-point game. The closest the Cavaliers got was four points with just over a minute remaining. Mobley had a good look in the paint, but he missed the hook shot. From there on out, it was mostly a game of free throws as the Sixers secured the win.

The Sixers at some point this season need to learn how to play when holding a lead. Games like this near disaster happen far too often to the Sixers. They were fortunate to come away with the win against the Cavaliers despite nearly losing what was at one point a 28-point lead.