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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Cavs preview with Chris Manning

Getting a little insight about Saturday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Chris Manning, who covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Locked on Cavs.

What has keyed this rapid Cavs turnaround?

It’s a combination of things — Darius Garland becoming an All-Star-level guard in year three, Jarrett Allen playing at a career-best level, Evan Mobley being already very good. But I think the core of this team is an elite defense that relies on what Mobley and Allen do. They protect the rim, cover for lesser defensive wings and provide a baseline for the team to rely on, mixed in with just enough offense for the team to maximize its defense. It is not always pretty or flashy basketball. but it’s been effective.

What’s the bedrock of their status as a playoff team?

It is the defense, full-stop. This is a top-five unit asked to be the foundation of what Cleveland does. Even with Caris LeVert coming in, the Cavs’ offense probably is not good enough to carry them to a series win or any further. Their ability to win games and beat other good teams is based on their ability to play at a high level and drag teams into games that fit their style. They are equipped to play games that they grind into half-court sets on defense before trying to get out on the break, when possible, as the result of good defense. If they get into a series where they have to engage a shootout with another team, it becomes harder to see them winning. But if Mobley and Allen set a defensive tone and define a series, that’s a way forward.

How has head coach JB Bickerstaff helped enable Cleveland’s success this season?

For one, Bickerstaff has related to the players and gotten them to buy into what he’s doing in a way that helps with effort and the general good vibes around this team right now. He’s also kept the team’s scheme simple on both ends. Defensively, the team lets Mobley and Allen absorb as much as possible by design; they will switch onto guards and wings, and dare teams to attack them one on one.

Offensively, more cutting and action has been added in over time. But the offense is largely predicated on Garland having the ball in his hands, him creating and making the reads necessary to get guys good looks. His ethos, I think, has been to establish a baseline level of competency and then slowly add to it as the year has gone on, health depending.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

I want to see how Cleveland defends James Harden. It seems like Isaac Okoro will defend him, assuming he’s still starting and Caris LeVert comes off of the bench. Okoro, in a lot of ways, will be the test case for how to defend Harden now that he’s a Sixer. Without much time to look at film or get a robust scouting report, he’s going to have to react and read in real-time when stuff comes his way. That’s going to be fascinating.

Editor’s note: Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice reported Friday “Harden is not expected to play this weekend.”

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

I thought Evan Mobley was going to be good — eventually. But he’s already incredible, particularly on defense where he looks like an All-Defense-level player already. He looks a little worn down of late, but he’s maintained a very high level for most of the year. As of now, I think he’s clearly the Rookie of the Year favorite. I can’t say I expected this from him from day one.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

Isaac Okoro’s offensive development has somewhat stalled out and I don’t know if it’s all on him. Bickerstaff has largely placed him in the corner on offense, where he takes the occasional three-pointer, sometimes comes off of screens and mostly makes an extra pass if the ball gets swung his way.

Okoro not being a plus shooter is part of the issue here. But he has ability as a cutter and in attacking closeouts that is not being maximized or really thought of in how Cleveland plays offense. I think that’s a mistake and for someone who believes Okoro is good, despite his lack of offensive impact, it’s a disappointment.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

Watch LeVert and how he fits into what the Cavs are doing and how the Cavs get used to him. It’s still early in the relationship between the two sides (Editor’s note: Saturday should mark his second game with Cleveland), so watching them figure each other out and him develop chemistry is the thing to monitor right now. In particular, watch LeVert with Kevin Love; those two developing chemistry is going to be massive.