Controlling Your Own Destiny – Observations from Sixers 132, Cavaliers 130

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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This was one of those games where your open your laptop, start a new story, and just sort of stare at the screen for a few minutes because you don’t really know where to start.

I guess I’ll go macro and point out that 13 straight wins, five without Joel Embiid, puts the Sixers in control of their own destiny for the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference. At 49-30, they can finish ahead of Cleveland with a Sunday win vs. Dallas, a Tuesday win in Atlanta, and a Wednesday win at home in the regular season finale against Milwaukee. That would guarantee a 52-30 record while the Cavaliers can finish no better than 51-31 if they also win out.

It would set up a 3/6 matchup with Miami, Milwaukee, or Washington, and if the Sixers advance, they’d play Kyrie Irving-less Boston in round two instead of the #1 seed, Toronto. That’s assuming the Celtics also get past round one.

So yea, it’s a big deal, not just for seeding purposes but just in a “step back and take a deep breath” kind of way. Nobody, and I mean nobody, had the Sixers winning 50 games this season. If you can find someone who did, let me know, and I’ll share the hell out of that prediction. Most of us had them around .500, justifiably assuming that Joel Embiid would not play as many games as he did. I thought 41-41, my prediction, was reasonable enough, but most of us were way off.

From a micro sense, that game had a little bit of everything – a massive lead built, a massive lead blown, some very interesting defensive and matchup wrinkles, sloppy mistakes, and a wild finish. The Sixers were up 78-55 at halftime, a 23 point lead that fell all the way to 7 after Cleveland shot 70% (14 for 20) in the third quarter. Brett Brown’s team was kept afloat by Marco Belinelli, who scored 12 of his 23 points in that period alone. Ersan Ilyasova and Markelle Fultz added 17 and 10 apiece, and the Sixer bench, the bane of the 2017 part of the schedule, chipped in a combined 56 points in the win.

But it was Ben Simmons and JJ Redick who led the way on the starting unit, pouring in 28 and 27, respectively, sans Embiid and with a rusty Dario Saric shooting just 1-9 in his return to the lineup after three games missed due to an elbow issue. Every time Cleveland went on a bit of a run, the Sixers answered, building a two-point lead back up to eight with 1:34 to play.

It came down to the dying seconds, a three-point Sixer lead, and a Robert Covington foul on a LeBron James three point attempt that I found to be highly questionable:

(Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

You can see the contact (with both arms) clearly before LeBron is in any kind of shooting motion. That play should have been ruled a foul on the floor, not a resurrection of the old rules that were scrapped heading into this season. It’s not something that will go on Covington’s 2029 tribute video, but I thought Lauren Holtkamp clearly missed the first instance of contact here.

Turns out it wouldn’t matter, since LeBron missed the second free throw anyway:

That’s it. That’s really LeBron’s only weakness as an all-time NBA great – foul shooting. I thought Cleveland almost had that tip-in on the final attempt, the intentional miss, but nope. That was the ballgame, Sixers 132, Cavs 130.

Transition defense

Let’s get one thing out of the way:

Cleveland is not a good defensive team. They have not been a good defensive team this entire year. Coming into this game, they were ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating, allowing 109.3 points per 100 opponent possessions:

And you saw why in the first half, specifically, when the Sixers were just destroying the Cavs in transition. On nearly a half-dozen occasions, Ben Simmons had easy looks at the rim while Cleveland was incredibly slow to react:

And if Simmons wasn’t getting anything at the rim, Cleveland’s inability to follow the trailing shooter allowed for easy kick out opportunities, like this one:

Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue:

“We just weren’t ready for the speed, the pace they play at. I think they took advantage of that early. I thought in the second half, really making the adjustment defensively it worked out for us.”

JJ Redick talked about that a bit post-game, specifically the idea that the Sixers play at a faster pace without Embiid on the floor:

“It’s how we’re playing. In the Detroit game, Jameer [Nelson] said to me during a timeout ‘You guys play so fast.’ I think that’s our strength right now without Joel [Embiid]. We’re not going to slow it down…which is a very efficient way for us to play. I think this way, without [Joel], allowing Ben [Simmons], Markelle [Fultz], T.J. [McConnell] and just take advantage of their speed in the open court. Surrounding them with shooting. That’s the best way for us to play.”

No doubt, they’ve really found a way to adapt without Joel in the lineup.

But let’s not get it twisted; LeBron might put up 44 and Jeff Green might magically stumble upon 33, but Cleveland is not good defensively and has not been good defensively the entirety of this season.

Guarding LeBron on the pick and roll

Where Cleveland excels is… well.. they have the league’s best player, and the Sixers really struggled in the second half when they found themselves mismatched on LeBron on what felt like every other possession.

You probably were sitting there thinking to yourself, “ah shit, Belinelli is on LeBron again?” The Sixers are athletic enough on defense to switch 1 through 4 with the starting unit, but Belinelli or JJ Redick against LeBron is a total mismatch, so it throws a wrench into the style with which Brett Brown’s team usually defends.

He was asked about the pick and roll mismatches after the game:

“We tried like three different looks. Inevitably you don’t want that. You’d prefer to have Ben on LeBron. They do what they do, they kind of surgically draw the pick and roll. Sometimes we switched, sometimes we didn’t. It’s very methodical, that’s what they’ve done since he’s been there. We tried to blitz some, we tried to stay on him some. When JJ or Marco has LeBron, you’ve got some problems. And so the long two, we’re gonna live with a little bit. I thought his roll offs, I thought some of the ways that we showed no resistance on him was disappointing. That’s a playoff lesson. That’s a playoff game. You go through the multiple things that go through your mind on the bench, trying to put our guys in schemes that are successful, and we went through four of ’em. That’s what he does.”

Here’s a series of three clips, one where nobody switches at all and LeBron gets an easy dunk, one where JJ Redick is asking for help from Simmons on a switch, and one where LeBron easily goes right past Belinelli:

One thing they did try a bit later was to double LeBron immediately after the the switch, which forces the ball out of his hands but leaves somebody else wide open.

In this case, it was Cedi Osman, who missed two easy looks from three late in the fourth quarter:

That’s the game you play with LeBron. Do you try to follow him over the screen? Do you double and force him to become a facilitator instead? In a lot of ways, you’re just picking your poison out there.


Brett Brown admitted pregame that he would get a more clear evaluation of Markelle Fultz against a good playoff team. He was diplomatic, and stopped short of saying that Brooklyn, New York, Charlotte and Atlanta are total crap.

Markelle went for 10, 2, and 4 in about 12 minutes of play, rolling to the rim twice successfully with that spin move and not looking out of place at all.

The thing that jumped out most at me was this play, a turnaround catch and shoot from about 20 feet away:

That’s the longest shot he’s hit since returning to the lineup.

My takeaway was that Markelle looks like he’ll be an option in the playoffs, maybe 10-12 minutes off the bench to run the point while Ben Simmons gets a breather.

Who saw that coming a few weeks ago?

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16 Responses

    1. Good write-up, Kevin. That was the most electric game of the season and a huge statement heading into the playoffs..

  1. Saw the cuz badly and spaghetti last night . Cuz looked good in his leather jacket . B West there too in his nova gear . Ton of ladies there

    1. Our 5 podcast listeners would prefer to be put to sleep by soccer talk than golf talk. Works faster.

  2. Soccer fans in America are people that were excluded from regular sports whilst kids. If you sucked at normal sports you played soccer.

      1. Na , hockey is 1 of the 4 normal sports. Take a look at a random pro soccer team… all the guys are 5’3” , 125lbs. That’s why soccer is so lame.

  3. Here’s another reason. Pro soccer players are not as good at soccer as our athletes are at there’s. Soccer players are always missing the net. A hockey player almost never misses an open piece of the net.

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