Continuing their gauntlet against fellow Eastern Conference playoff teams, the 37-19 Philadelphia 76ers square off at home against the 38-22 Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night on ESPN. Cleveland enters this contest riding a seven-game winning streak and sits just one game behind Philadelphia, which has won three straight outings, for the East’s No. 3 seed.
When these teams last met on Nov. 30, the Cavaliers routed the Sixers, 113-85. Key players like James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Jarrett Allen were all sidelined. Furkan Korkmaz and Danuel House Jr. saw notable minutes. Mamadi Diakite started for Cleveland. Joel Embiid struggled in his second game back following a four-game absence due to a foot injury and scored just 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting,
This go-round, both teams are much healthier. For the Sixers, Joel Embiid is questionable with left foot soreness. That’s been a standard listing for a little while now. P.J. Tucker is probable because of right calf tightness. Furkan Korkmaz (personal reasons) is out. The Cavaliers will only be missing their G League assignees, Diakiate, Isaiah Mobley and Dylan Windler.
Philadelphia is sixth in net rating (plus-3.8), eighth in offensive rating (116.5) and seventh in defensive rating (112.7), according to Cleaning The Glass. Cleveland is second in net rating (plus-6.2), ninth in offensive rating (116.3) and second in defensive rating (110.1).
The Cavaliers’ elite defense is led by the towering, menacing duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, who pose tons of issues at the rim for opposing offenses. Cleveland’s point-of-attack options aren’t premier, which explains why it ranks just 17th in opponent rim frequency. But with Allen and Mobley patrolling the backline for long stretches each night, the Cavaliers are second in opposing rim efficiency (62.9 percent). They’ll typically play drop coverage against ball-screens, but aren’t afraid to switch when required. They love funneling offenses into Mobley and Allen’s sea of limbs.
In the first Cavaliers-Sixers matchup of the season, Mobley spent a good deal of time assigned to Tucker and filled the role of roamer to muck up Philadelphia’s offensive actions. Given that strategy’s success, I imagine Cleveland goes back to it. Harden and Maxey’s availability adds welcomed diversity to the offense this time, but it’s still something the Sixers will have to mitigate. This could be a low-minutes night for the veteran wing with Georges Niang seeing a larger share of run or more three-guard lineups. Although, I’d avoid the latter against Cleveland’s dynamic backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland.
With Isaac Okoro’s slippery screen navigation and Mobley’s potential to provide nail help, it could be a game where the Sixers lean more on Embiid’s post-up and face-up creation. That was the case in their matchup last February, shortly before Harden made his debut, and Embiid dropped 40 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals in a 103-93 victory.
The Cavaliers are a pick-and-roll-heavy team that relies on the pull-up shooting of Garland and Mitchell to fuel their attack. That, plus Mitchell’s downhill slashing, the Garland-Allen ball-screen connection, and Mobley’s excellent processing as a passer, are the bedrock of a top-10 offense. I wonder how Philadelphia approaches the matchups defensively. De’Anthony Melton will take one of the star guard. Yet the rest of the Sixers’ guard rotation is severely compromised on that end and Tucker’s offensive limitations could make it tough to play him a ton. Tobias Harris had some success defending Garland last year, so perhaps he’s tabbed for the gig.
This is the first time this season Cleveland and Philadelphia are facing off with both squads at or near full strength. It’s on national television. Stars are intact for each side. This should be a doozy.
When: 7:30 pm EST, Monday, Feb. 13
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: ESPN, NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic