Watching the Sixers, or even considering being a fan, is a constant test of your sanity. You see some of the same mistakes, miscues, and pitfalls that come up wondering why you would ever expect a different result. You look for signs of progress so small that they might not exist for players that clearly don’t belong in the NBA, but you forget it because you’re so used to seeing subpar performances that competency must be protected at all costs.
And when everything is going well, you dread and expect the worst. You might not know what the worst actually is but it’s like Potter Stewart’s threshold test: you know it when you see it. Every time, it’s the worst.
Tonight, the Sixers played the Cavaliers well in an intense, charged atmosphere at the Center but couldn’t close out a victory late over a much better team. Keeping the situation in perspective, the Sixers should be proud that the team played well enough to make it a one-possession game against the defending champions. I clearly did not expect this to happen.
Joel Embiid hit four threes in four attempts, scoring a total of 22 points in his 25 minutes, and blocked 3 shots put up by LeBron James. Ersan Ilyasova used 14 possessions but scored 21 points on those, and has been a shooting plus just as Bryan Colangelo envisioned through a two-game sample. Jahlil Okafor shined in the second half and helped give the Sixers the lead they ultimately coughed away. They surged back from an 18 point deficit.
It didn’t matter. The Sixers made all the wrong moves, and Tyronn Lue figuratively stepped over Brett Brown with his late-game coaching prowess. Let’s set the stage, with the Sixers up 101-99 with 80 seconds remaining.
Embiid terrorized the Cavs all night with his contests at the rim, with four blocks (including three on LeBron James attempts) and nearly disfiguring Kevin Love on one occasion, the Cavs decided to abandon challenging Embiid and instead bombing away with threes. As well as Tristan Thompson had managed guarding Embiid in the post, he hurt the Cavs on offense whenever he played; he couldn’t finish over someone half a foot taller.
Knowing that Embiid was loathe to leaving the paint unprotected, Lue subbed in three-point threat Channing Frye late on offensive possessions for Thompson. Down two, with possession out of a timeout, LeBron forced a switch and started driving toward the rim. Embiid responded and rotated to prevent a layup, and the world’s best passer found Frye open at the top of the key for what became the game-winning three with over a minute remaining.
From there, Brett Brown called timeout, allowing Lue to substitute in the better defender in Thompson on the next possession for Frye. Lue organized the Cavs defense around forcing the ball out of Embiid’s hands. Embiid then committed his sixth turnover of the night, giving up possession.
Then a bit later, on the final full possession of the night for the Cavs, they created an open three off a botched switch from J.R. Smith, but the shot was too open so Smith missed it. The Sixers got the rebound and pushed immediately, the right move in most situations. But Brown called timeout with seven seconds remaining, the team looking disorganized. A restoration of order was probably necessary. But the unprepared Sixers in advancing gave away benefit of the halfcourt imbound with the full court available, instead getting only their end of the court for the final possession.
Due to that limitation, the Cavs had a much easier time defending the inbounds plays, first nearly forcing a five-second violation and then causing the Sixers to break down and Gerald Henderson to make a play he’s ill-equipped to create. The clock expired shortly thereafter, and the worst while unbeknownst to us beforehand had happened, just like normal.
Like Unikitty, I must - stay - positive, so here are six points starting off with a good thing.
- For the first time this season, Jahlil Okafor resembled the post player that makes you dream on his offensive potential. Singled up against Frye for much of the fourth quarter, he scored on three consecutive possessions and starting drawing those once-familiar double teams. Okafor should expect to feast on opposing benches, where his size is more evident, and where his negative rebounding and defense can be appropriately hidden. As one twitter user noted, Okafor currently leads the Sixers in defensive rating (which is an irrelevant defensive stat, but still!).
- Robert Covington shot 1-9 on three point attempts, managing to lower his putrid three point percentage even further. Covington went through a similar stretch last season where he stopped hitting threes, and he recovered back to being an average shooter with a high volume of attempts. His offensive game isn’t diverse enough to survive prolonged shooting slumps, and his defense is solid but not important enough to keep him in during key moments.
- On paper, Kyrie Irving being defended by Sixers guards was an unconscionable mismatch. So Kyrie of course goes and shoots 3-17. While Gerald Henderson will be maligned for the last possession shot attempt, he had primary responsibility for defending Kyrie over El Chacho, who primarily stood by idly while J.R. Smith increased the difficulty on his jumpers because they’re more fun that way.
- Both teams managed to hit exactly 14 of their 38 three point attempts. Not only is that the first time for that to ever happen in NBA history, but it’s the first time ever where two teams managed to each shoot more than 36 threes in game in league history, per basketball-reference. The only two teams to manage 36 previously were the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trailblazers last March.
- Dario Saric played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble. Whether he gets replaced by Ilyasova in the starting lineup is now an open question.
- The Sixers get another chance at win number one on Monday at home versus the Jazz, a team with a center whose size rivals Joel Embiid’s in Rudy Gobert.