3 observations after Sixers wrap up road trip with win over Cavaliers

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Noah Levick
·7 min read
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3 observations after Sixers wrap up road trip on satisfying note originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Finally, the Sixers are heading home.

Their flight back to Philadelphia should feel pretty good, too. 

The team wrapped up its six-game road trip Thursday with a 114-94 win over the Cavaliers. The Sixers sit at 33-15 after a 4-2 trip.

“Terrific road trip for us," head coach Doc Rivers said. “It really was. Honest to god, I wanted them all. I’m not lying; I told our guys that. But going 4-2, obviously having Joel (Embiid) out, it’s a heck of a trip for us.”

Shake Milton scored a game-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting (5 for 7 from three-point range), while Dwight Howard had 18 points and 15 rebounds.

Seth Curry had 19 points, four rebounds and four assists. Ben Simmons posted just five points on 2-for-11 shooting, though he had 13 rebounds and five assists. 

Embiid (left knee bone bruise) is expected to return this weekend. The Sixers, who have gone 7-3 since his injury, will host the Timberwolves and Grizzlies in their next two games.

Here are three observations on their win over the Cavs: 

Curry and Love lead the way early 

The Cavs made their first five field goals, three of which came from Kevin Love. This was only the fifth game of the season for Love, who’d been sidelined by right calf soreness. 

Fortunately for the Sixers, he cooled off, scoring 13 points on 4-for-10 shooting in 20 minutes. 

Curry was the Sixers’ best offensive player in the first quarter and ensured Love’s flurry didn’t put the team in a bad position. He drained three early three-pointers and also notched two assists, including one where he found Simmons for an and-one layup off of a side pick-and-roll. Another Curry-Simmons pick-and-roll led to a tic-tac-toe Sixers passing sequence and a layup for Mike Scott. 

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One of the most positive takeaways for the Sixers since Embiid’s injury is the confirmation that Curry and Tobias Harris are fully capable of initiating offense from the pick-and-roll. Both players have been able to develop their chemistry with Simmons in that part of the game (even though Curry missed three contests with a left ankle sprain), and they’ve each had productive stretches as passers and scorers. 

Though Curry didn’t stay in the zone all game, it was encouraging that he kept firing jumpers instead of pump faking, dipping inside of the arc and ultimately squandering opportunities to do what he does best. 

Danny Green was the only other Sixers starter to make a three, hitting a trio of long-range shots in the third quarter. 

Green’s perspective on Simmons 

It’s been clear for a while that lineups in which Simmons and Dwight Howard share the floor don’t typically fare well. After Howard’s start Tuesday in Denver, Rivers turned back to Scott as a starter and minimized the time Howard and Simmons played together. 

Green noted the challenges playing with Howard presents for Simmons in a thoughtful analysis of the 24-year-old’s offensive performance since the All-Star break. 

“Him just figuring it out, picking his spots, especially with guys in and out of who he’s playing with,” Green said after shootaround Thursday. “When teams are double teaming and we have him and Dwight on the floor, him trying to figure out the spacing has been tough. Dwight’s in the (dunker spot). He’s usually used to going to the dunker, so he has to find space and cut from where he’s at to be able to be that outlet when they’re doubling Tobias. Also, I think just taking his time and not making too many fast, quick-speed decisions — learning how to shift gears. 

“He’s very good at getting to the basket strong with his speed, but he’s got to let us have a chance to catch up with him, let the defense flatten out sometimes, and just taking his time. For the most part, the only thing is he’s got to be a little more patient with himself and with the offense and not turn the ball over — that’s the only thing. Other than that, he’s been great at attacking and getting to the rim and putting us in sets. Hopefully he keeps that up but just fixes taking his time, being patient and not turning the ball over.”

Simmons failed to convert several good looks against Cleveland. His overall approach wasn’t terrible in the way his shooting numbers might suggest, and the Sixers will likely see it as a fluky night in that regard. 

The Sixers didn’t commit a turnover until 7:20 remained in the first half, an illegal screen by Harris that forced him to sit with three fouls. As Green said, limiting turnovers and playing at a controlled pace is vital for Simmons regardless of his scoring. 

He wasn’t the sole Sixer to struggle with his shot in the opening half as the team made just 35.7 percent of its field goals. A 55-40 rebounding advantage and 18-10 turnover edge ended up being important factors in the Sixers' victory.

“You know what I told them at halftime? I said we had the perfect game," Rivers said. “We only had one turnover. They had no offensive rebounds. ... We basically took them out of transition. They didn’t have a lot of points in the paint. I said, ‘The only problem is we’re missing wide-open shots.’ And I said, ‘I’m good with that. We all do enough work on our shots. So, if you have them in the second half, keep shooting.’ That’s all we told them at halftime. In the second half, they started going in for us.”

Key bench contributions  

Tyrese Maxey stayed in the Sixers’ rotation, posting six points on 2-for-8 shooting. Furkan Korkmaz also shot 2 for 8 from the floor. 

Neither player seems likely to feature for the Sixers in the playoffs unless injuries or foul trouble arise. Korkmaz hasn’t helped his case during Embiid’s absence.

“I think he’s been inconsistent, honestly,” Rivers said Tuesday. “He’s up and down. Tonight wasn’t one of his better nights on either end, but he’s working at it, and that’s all we can ask guys.” 

The good news for the Sixers is that Milton was self-assured and efficient, while Howard piled up points and rebounds off the bench. 

A one-handed put-back slam off of an attempted Matisse Thybulle floater was the highlight of Howard's night.

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Milton’s minutes with George Hill will be worth monitoring once Hill is healthy. Perhaps Hill can alleviate some of the offensive burden on Milton, increasing his opportunities to take open catch-and-shoot threes and allowing him to play more off the ball in general. 

Milton certainly had no trouble leading the Sixers’ second unit in Cleveland, though. He’s appeared very comfortable all season creating and making mid-range shots in isolation and pick-and-roll situations. Before Thursday’s game, however, he was shooting 30.6 percent from three-point range after recording a 43 percent mark last season. The Sixers would love it if that percentage keeps creeping upwards. 

“I feel like the ball’s just going to find energy," Milton said. “That’s something me and (skill development coach Tyler Lashbrook) talk about all the time. I’ve just been trying to do all the little things — defense, being engaged, being active ... helping the bigs rebound. Just trying to do all the little things outside of scoring. That type of stuff is going to come to me, so I’ve just got to make sure I’m staying focused on all the little details.”

Hill will join the Sixers in Philadelphia this weekend. There’s no firm timeline yet for his return from right thumb surgery.