The Sixers certainly could have envisioned a better start to their three-game road trip.
The Cavs controlled the action on Wednesday night in Cleveland, blowing the Sixers out by a 113-85 score.
Caris LeVert scored a game-high 22 points off the bench. Evan Mobley (18 points on 8-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists) and the Donovan Mitchell-Darius Garland backcourt (39 combined points and 15 assists) were also standouts.
Joel Embiid posted 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting, six rebounds and six assists in his 29 minutes.
Harden is targeting a return during this road trip from his right foot tendon strain, likely on Monday against the Rockets, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported. That's consistent with Harden's comments from two weeks ago, when he'd said his rehab was "on pace."
Now 12-10, the Sixers' next stop is Memphis to face the Grizzlies on Friday night. Here are observations on their loss in Cleveland:
Some unpleasant irony
P.J. Tucker knocked down a corner three-pointer early in the first quarter. His makes have tended to stand out over the past few weeks; over the prior nine games, the 37-year-old had converted just one long-distance shot on seven attempts. Ironically, Tucker's three was the Sixers’ only one in the first period.
Embiid seemed more cognizant than usual of involving Tucker offensively. He committed a turnover trying to capitalize on Tucker slipping an off-ball screen, dished to him for another corner three attempt (this one a miss), and generally adopted a pass-first approach. As for Tucker, at one point he curiously passed to De’Anthony Melton for a contested three with a few seconds left on the shot clock instead of accepting a wide-open look for himself.
His offensive output Wednesday was greater than his recent norm — six points on 2-for-4 shooting — but Tucker certainly didn’t appear eager to fire up jumpers. While sometimes passing up a clean shot is sensible — Draymond Green preferring almost any Stephen Curry jumper over his own, for instance — Tucker has historically been a good corner three shooter and shouldn’t regularly decline those shots.
After jumping out to a 9-2 lead, nearly everything was problematic for the Sixers. They committed the night’s first four turnovers, which helped the Cavs gain confidence in the open floor. Cleveland went on a 14-0 run, scored the game’s first 12 points in the paint, and troubled the Sixers with zone defense.
In truth, the undermanned Sixers were due for a clunker. They entered Wednesday’s game with seven wins in their last nine. The team only had one other double-digit loss in November, a 10-point defeat to the Wizards without Embiid.
Another unexpected note: Tobias Harris, who'd averaged 23 points over his past five games and played very well, scored zero on 0-for-7 shooting. Early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers ruled Harris out for the game because of an illness.
Mobley excellent, Embiid incensed
The Cavs started to fully get rolling early in the second quarter, playing with superior pace and force. They took a 47-32 lead on Mobley’s fast-break slam.
Mobley’s defense was tremendous. He always seemed to be in the perfect spot, leading to lots of Sixers hesitancy. Both ball handlers and big men often were indecisive about everything from whether a pass was really open to whether a drive was worthwhile because of Mobley’s presence. It’s easy to say you should attack the defense and trust yourself, but the 21-year-old made that especially challenging.
Mobley vs. Embiid was not an individual battle. Cleveland doubled hard on many of Embiid's catches and also played its zone for long, effective stretches.
The night soon spiraled downwards for Embiid and the Sixers. He was furious not to receive a call on his missed layup attempt against Robin Lopez and picked up a technical foul with 5:17 left in the second quarter.
Fittingly, the Cavs' last possession of the first half was Mobley getting an uncontested dunk after a pick-and-roll with Mitchell. Though this was not a game where the Sixers should be inclined to simply tip their hat to the opposition, Mobley couldn't have played much better.
Saving their legs
The Cavs shot an incredible 73.0 percent from the field in the first half. They were 8 for 12 from three-point range.
While Cleveland didn't quite sustain that level of efficiency, the Sixers were essentially worse in every meaningful area. They shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) from three in the game.
The "tired legs" excuse is more valid for the Sixers than for most other teams given how long they've been significantly shorthanded. A comeback never appeared realistic, though the Sixers did make minor inroads late in the third quarter. However, Matisse Thybulle missed a layup in transition and Cedi Osman restored the Cavs' lead to 24 points with a lay-in on the final play of the third off of a baseline out-of-bounds play.
Head coach Doc Rivers began the fourth with a Paul Reed-Montrezl Harrell frontcourt and soon emptied the bench as much as he could.
Shake Milton was the only Sixer to exceed 30 minutes. Over the last six games, he'd averaged 38.7.