The Philadelphia 76ers have opened the 2020-21 season with a 2-0 record after picking up a 109-89 win against the New York Knicks on Saturday. Now, they’re faced with the challenge of their first back-to-back of the season. They’ll be wrapping up their two-game road trip on Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 2-0 themselves after a 128-119 double overtime win against the Detroit Pistons.
Playing the Knicks’ defense certainly helps and it’s going to take time to iron out all the kinks in their new offense, but the Sixers looked better on Saturday than they did in their season opener. Their starters moved the ball and played off one another with a bit more fluidity, Dwight Howard had another strong game off the bench, Joel Embiid looked excellent again and scored 27 points, Ben Simmons’ defense was smothering, and Seth Curry showed off more of his scoring ability with 17 points and a 3-of-4 mark from three.
Even though the Sixers’ final game of this road trip should be a winnable one, they can’t let their foot off the gas against the Cavs.
Cleveland’s starting backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland have unsustainably high shooting percentages right now, but they still look improved with large scoring burdens to start the season. Through two games, Sexton is averaging 29.5 points per game with red-hot 61.5 percent shooting, while Garland is putting up 21.5 points and shooting 59.3 percent overall (63.6 percent from three on 5.5 attempts). Cedi Osman has moved to the bench this season, and is off to a solid start in his new role.
The Joel Embiid-Andre Drummond matchup (where Embiid has typically had his way) should be a fun one as always. Also, if the Cavs use Kevin Love at center at all, Embiid and Dwight Howard will have a tough pick-and-pop matchup to deal with. The Sixers are mixing up their pick-and-roll coverages this year, bringing their bigs higher up and to the level of the screen more often. This could come into play for covering Love when he pops out to the arc after setting ball screens, rather than bigs dropping as far into the paint and struggling to recover outside.
Tobias Harris will likely be handling the Kevin Love assignment when both starting lineups face off, so it will be interesting to see how Simmons defends the likes of Sexton and/or Garland and how he attacks Cleveland’s smaller backcourt. Once you get past the hefty frontcourt duo of Love and Drummond, the Cavs have a very small starting unit — Sexton and Garland are both 6’1”, and Isaac Okoro, who’s starting at the 3, is only 6’6”. Simmons should look to use this to his advantage, remain aggressive, and utilize ball screens from the Sixers’ smaller guards (like he has done so far) to force some switches onto smaller matchups.
If you’re interested in following this year’s rookie class, Okoro is someone to keep an eye on, too. He’s a highly talented defender with improving craft as a complementary passer and driver, and his jumper has looked smoother through his time with the Cavs so far.
We all know how badly the Sixers struggled on the road last year. When speaking with media before the Knicks game, Doc Rivers said that he does think about the Sixers’ road record last season (12-26, ranking 21st in offensive rating and 15th in defense). Rivers was asked how the team can address the problem, and to that, he simply replied, “by winning.”
The Sixers have been fortunate to not face any top teams in their first road trip of the season. We’ll soon see if they can gain a little momentum and get started on the right track with a 2-0 trip.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
When: 7:30pm ET
Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland, OH
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic