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Sixers face tough challenge on the road against surging Cavaliers

Fresh off snapping a four-game losing streak, the shorthanded Sixers are facing a much bigger test against the NBA’s hottest team: the 35-16 Cavaliers.

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards

Saturday was a good day for the Sixers. Not only did they snap a four-game losing streak with a 119-113 win against the Wizards, but Philly native Kyle Lowry agreed to sign after being bought out by the Hornets.

On Monday, though, in their second-last game before the All-Star break, the shorthanded Sixers have a serious challenge ahead of them as they take on the hottest team in the NBA: the 35-16 Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs have recently got their key players back to full health, but the Sixers will remain shorthanded in this one. Nicolas Batum (left hamstring strain), Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress response) and of course Joel Embiid after his meniscus surgery are all still listed as out. Lowry can't sign and join the team until he clears waivers at 5:00pm on Tuesday.

The Cavs are 17-1 in their last 18 games since Jan. 3, which has catapulted them up the Eastern Conference standings to second place. In this dominant stretch they’ve ranked third in offensive rating, first in defensive rating at 104.2 (way ahead of second-place New York at 108.1) and first in net rating at a ridiculous +17.0 (again, miles ahead of second-place New York at +11.1).

The Cavs have put together a lot of this run without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley due to injury as well, but both players returned at the end of January and the team hasn’t lost again since. Mobley in particular, after a couple of quieter games when he first returned, has quickly jumped back into his typical impressive two-way play with averages of 18.8 points on 66.7 percent shooting, 11.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.0 block over the last four games.

Donovan Mitchell has been leading the way offensively. He’s averaging 28.5 points on 50.1/38.7/82 shooting splits (while launching 9.6 three-point attempts), 5.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game in this stretch. Alongside their top players, the Cavs are also benefiting from their improved depth with contributions from guys like former Sixer Georges Niang, Max Strus, Dean Wade, and (very) high-volume sharpshooter Sam Merrill.

(Side note: on the subject of former Sixers in Cleveland, the Cavs have also just signed Zhaire Smith to a 10-day contract. He’s earned it with his play in the G League for the Cleveland Charge this season).

With Jarrett Allen continuing to anchor the paint at a high level, surrounded by rock-solid team defense and now Mobley back to complete their menacing, rangy, athletic frontcourt, the Cavs’ defense is comfortably the best in the league right now.

The Sixers, on the other hand, are far from dominating like the Cavs, but there were a few standout positives in their latest win. Tyrese Maxey returned from illness and tallied 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Buddy Hield had 23 points (shooting 9-of-16 and 4-of-9 from three) with five rebounds, six assists and four steals in his second game as a Sixer. Before even getting into his shot-making, the gravity of Hield’s off-ball movement is evident. Plus, he’s showing what he can add off the bounce with his step-back threes, a few solid drives, and some useful secondary playmaking.

But really, it was The Ricky Council IV Game. In his first contest with real rotation minutes (29 to be precise), he seriously made the most of it. Council dropped 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds (five offensive), providing great energy, athleticism and physicality at both ends of the floor.

From his bully-ball driving style and work on the offensive glass, to his strength fighting around screens on defense.

Council showed off some shifty control with some of his drives, too.

With play like that, Council looks like a guy the Sixers should convert from a two-way deal to a standard contract (as our Bryan Toporek broke down well here). It’ll be interesting to see how he operates against the Cavs’ wings — he’s earned the opportunity for more minutes again.

Even with the added help of Hield and Payne, though, it’s going to be awfully difficult to hang with this Cavs team and their frontcourt size while so many key players and Embiid are injured. Nevertheless, we’ll see how much fight this Sixers team has, and can at least watch how the offense keeps changing with the new additions and (hopefully for the Sixers) more strong performances from young guys like Council.

Thankfully, after Monday’s game, it’s not long till the Sixers get some much needed rest in the All-Star break. After adding the likes of Hield, Payne and Lowry last week, their roster has certainly improved. Now all they need is to get healthy.

Game Details

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

When: 7:00 pm EST

Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland, OH

Watch: NBCSP+

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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