Instant Observations: Embiid’s Herculean Effort Enough to Give Sixers Big Win Over Cavaliers

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots beside Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) in the first quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A herculean effort from Joel Embiid powered the Philadelphia 76ers to a 118-109 win on the road over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night. The win gave the Sixers the edge in the season series between the two teams. Now sitting a full four games ahead of Cleveland, the Sixers have essentially sealed themselves as a top-3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Embiid finished with 36 points, 18 rebounds, three assists and four blocks. James Harden had 28 points, six rebounds, 12 assists and three steals. Tyrese Maxey added in 23 points while shooting 5-of-7 from long distance. Jalen McDaniels missed the game with a right hip contusion. The Sixers were able to come away with the win despite committing 20 turnovers.

The Cavaliers were led by Donovan Mitchell’s 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. Caris LeVert scored 24 points and dished out six assists off the bench. Cleveland was without Jarrett Allen (right eye contusion).

The Sixers are on a six-game winning streak. Their next matchup is against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. Here are some instant observations from the win:

– Embiid always plays a central role in the Sixers’ offense, but that was even more the case against the Cavaliers. With Allen out, Evan Mobley had the task of defending Embiid. According to ESPN, there is an 85-pound difference between the two players. Embiid took full advantage on the opening possession, driving at Mobley and practically tossing him into the second row. He scored 15 points in the opening quarter, giving the Cavaliers fits defensively.

There have been other games this season where Embiid had to carry the Sixers, but it still never ceases to impress. He carried the offense for large stretches, making one big time play after another. There was a play in the final few minutes of the first half where he was double teamed in the post. He created space against Cedi Osman and then stepped through Mobley to make a contested layup.

Some of the plays he made were simply dazzling. He is in such a rhythm as a scorer that there is often nothing opposing defenses can do to slow him down. Against the Cavaliers, the only person who slowed him down was himself. He committed six turnovers, including one where he sailed a pass multiple rows into the crowd.

– The Sixers have had some recent success using Embiid as a rover defensively and they continued that strategy against Cleveland. They opened up the game having both Embiid and Harden roam off their assignments (Lamar Stevens and Isaac Okoro respectively). This allows Embiid to focus his efforts on protecting the rim. The team gambled that Stevens and Okoro would not be able to do enough damage to offset the positives from having Embiid defend the rim. The gamble paid off immediately, with Embiid rotating over to block Okoro at the rim.

Embiid’s interior defense was excellent whether it resulted in blocks or otherwise impacting what the Cavaliers were trying to do. The video below showcases the kind of defensive presence he has when on the floor. In one possession, he forced LeVert to pass out of a layup, prevented Stevens from even putting up a shot and then heavily contested a Mobley jumper.

Plays like the one above occurred often. However, the Cavaliers adjusted in the second half and attacked Embiid more often on drives to the rim. While Embiid’s defensive performance was fantastic overall, he was a bit overeager at times, biting on pump fakes multiple times. He got himself into foul trouble and would have fouled out with 4:12 remaining. However, head coach Doc Rivers challenged the call and the referees, in a controversial decision, overruled the foul call.

– Maxey continued his recent stretch of strong play. He played a crucial role as a floor spacer against the Cavaliers, knocking down multiple 3-pointers. In addition to an efficient outside shooting performance, he excelled at pushing the pace when necessary. He did make a few boneheaded playmaking decisions, but he shined as a scorer against the Cavaliers.

– The odyssey of the Sixers’ second unit performances extended into the matchup against the Cavaliers. As per usual, they ran out the Harden-plus-bench lineup to begin the second quarter. That unit was outscored 11-4 in the first 4:02 of the quarter. Paul Reed struggled, looking lost offensively, and the Sixers adjusted by moving to a small-ball lineup.

They went back to small-ball to begin the fourth quarter to mixed results. P.J. Tucker made a lot of hustle plays, coming down with key offensive rebounds throughout the night. He finished with five points, seven rebounds (four offensive), three assists and a steal. Small-ball lineups with Tucker at center this season have often resulted in a shootout. That was the case against Cleveland, with the Sixers winning the battle 20-11. The small-ball lineup definitely poses some risk and is not always pretty, but it usually is able to get the job done.

Shake Milton received the bulk of the minutes opened up from McDaniels’ absence. He played well, especially in the fourth quarter when he knocked down a pair of 3-pointers. He finished the game with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. His spot in the rotation has not always been there this season, but he manages to produce whenever the opportunity arises.

Tobias Harris‘ recent struggles continued against the Cavaliers, where he scored just seven points on 2-of-7 shooting. He was poor in transition and did not take advantage of multiple open looks from beyond the arc. He was also a no show defensively, a bad sign that his offensive struggles are leaking over into other parts of his game. For the Sixers to achieve their maximum potential, they need him to get back to making quick decisions and playing with confidence. He does deserve some slack for all the adjustments he made to adapt to playing with both Embiid and Harden. However, if he fails to break out of his slump in the next week or so the Sixers might have to start cutting some of his minutes.

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