There were some positives for the Sixers’ starters in Monday’s loss to the Nuggets. Joel Embiid tallied 34 points on 11-of-20 shooting in his matchup against Nikola Jokic. James Harden got back on track with 24 points on only 11 shots, and looked better as a driver and provided some of his typically stellar passing with 11 assists. Tyrese Maxey added 19 points, while Matisse Thybulle was fantastic with nine points, five rebounds, three assists, six steals and two blocks — he was absolutely everywhere on defense with the most disruptive performance he’s had in quite some time.
However, with the bench failing to step up, DeAndre Jordan getting burned on defense (and going just 1-of-6 on his attempts at the rim), and the team playing useless transition defense, the Sixers only managed a 114-110 defeat.
On Wednesday, it’s time for them to head back on the road and face the 39-29 Cavaliers, who’ve stumbled somewhat recently with a 4-6 record in their last 10 games.
This matchup is going to look quite different, as Jarrett Allen is out indefinitely with a fractured finger. Allen may not be a strong matchup against Embiid one-on-one, but with his elite ability deterring and rejecting shots at the rim, and his athleticism to catch lobs in pick-and-rolls and run down the floor, his absence will hurt the Cavs a lot in this contest. Cleveland has already felt Allen’s absence over the last four games, going 2-2 with double-digit losses against the Heat and Bulls.
In addition to Allen, Rajon Rondo (right ankle sprain) and Dean Wade (right knee soreness) are both out. Collin Sexton remains out after suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee in November.
The Sixers are at full strength for Wednesday’s game — the only players on the injury report are those assigned to the Blue Coats (Jaden Springer, Myles Powell and Charles Bassey).
The Sixers are 2-0 against the Cavs so far this season. Their first win was a 103-93 victory on Feb. 12 behind Joel Embiid’s monstrous 40-point triple-double, followed by a 125-119 win on Mar. 4 led by 33 points from Tyrese Maxey and the newly arrived James Harden, who added an efficient 25 points and 11 assists.
Tyrese Maxey is 21 years old and he's already the third-best player on a contender.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) March 5, 2022
This was a brilliant 40-second stretch from him against the Cavs: pic.twitter.com/UfNgElV27P
The Cavs still have plenty of size, but have obviously shifted to a smaller lineup without Allen. Rookie Evan Mobley is manning the center spot, while Lamar Stevens got the start in their latest game against the Clippers.
Mobley has had a seriously impressive season, averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks, all while defending at an All-Defensive team level. He’s in fine form right now, too. He’s averaged 21.6 points on 55.6 percent shooting with 10.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks over his last five games, adding a new career-high 30 points against the Clippers on Monday. The way Mobley has helped anchor the Cavs’ defense at an elite level should basically be impossible for a rookie big man, yet he’s done just that with his extremely rare blend of IQ, mobility, length and instincts.
As good as Mobley has been, though, especially defensively, having to lead the Joel Embiid assignment is a tough ask for him. The 20-year-old rookie has a far more slender frame at 215 pounds compared to the 280-pound Embiid, giving the Sixers’ MVP candidate an even bigger strength advantage than he normally has. The big fella has already been dominant enough in previous games against the Cavs. Facing a depleted frontcourt should only bode well for Embiid.
The main task for the Sixers’ defense in this game will, of course, be handling Darius Garland. He’s been having a sensational third season, making the All-Star team for the first time with career-highs of 21.2 points and 8.3 assists per game and a 58.3 true shooting percentage. Garland has blossomed as a shot-maker with more control of the offense and has emerged as one of the better passers in the league. Just last week he erupted for a career-high 41 points with 13 assists in a win vs. the Pacers, although he has cooled down over his last three games, shooting only 33.9 percent from the floor in this span.
Garland’s three-point stroke off the bounce (he’s making 37.8 percent of his 6.9 attempts from deep) and advanced passes when orchestrating pick-and-rolls and getting downhill will give the likes of Maxey and Thybulle a real test. With Thybulle seemingly in peak defensive form after his showing against the Nuggets, he looks ready to lead the way against Garland.
Matisse Thybulle is having an absolutely awesome game today.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) March 15, 2022
What a play coming over to help and block Jokic. pic.twitter.com/cp8t3v0K1n
Then, there’s the matter of transition play. The Sixers are now allowing the third-most fast break points per game this season at 14.5 (only the struggling Lakers and league-worst Rockets allow more). This obviously isn’t a new problem, either. The Sixers’ transition defense was far worse than it should have been last season as well, as they ranked 29th in fast break points allowed at 14.3.
“Getting back, getting loaded, being more disciplined,” Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ loss to Denver when asked about how to fix the team’s transition defense. “It’s disappointing, I can tell you that, because it’s a recurring thing. I think Kevin Durant said it after the game: ‘You know they don’t get back.’ Orlando, they made a concerted effort. You could just see them doing it. And so it’s something that we’ve just got to get better at.”
It’s easy to talk the talk with something like this, but there’s no good excuse for the Sixers’ transition defense being this useless. It was a weakness all last year and we’re approaching game 68 of this season. They’ve had more than enough time to sharpen up. Sure, they would benefit from having more speed, length and athleticism, but simple improvements to their communication, ability to find matchups quickly, and sheer effort would help a great deal.
The Cavs have been one of the slowest teams in the NBA this season with a 26th ranking in pace, but they are efficient when they get out on fast breaks, ranking eighth by scoring 1.15 points per possession in transition. Both against the Cavs and moving forward this season, the Sixers have to try to make some of the improvements mentioned above to avoid giving up so many easy points. At this stage, though, it’s hard to expect much change.
The Sixers are heading into Wednesday’s game as -4.5 point favorites. After poor bench and transition play led the Sixers to a narrow loss on Monday, can they correct those issues at all and bounce back behind their stars?
With the absence of Allen and the offensive talent advantage, the Sixers have compared to the Cavs’ 19-ranked offense (which has slipped further to 24th over their last 15 games), Philly should have a solid chance to bounce back with a win.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
When: 7:00 pm ET, Mar. 16, 2022
Where: Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland, OH
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic