3 observations after Embiid (44 points) wills Sixers to playoff-clinching win


Appropriately, the Sixers clinched a playoff spot Sunday night behind a tremendous performance from their MVP contender.

Joel Embiid posted 44 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and the Sixers officially secured a postseason berth with a 112-108 win over the Cavs. 

James Harden had a triple-double with 21 points (4-for-13 shooting), 10 assists and 10 rebounds. 

All-Star Cleveland guard Darius Garland recorded 23 points, four assists and four steals. 

The Cavs’ Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, Collin Sexton and Dean Wade were sidelined by injuries. 

The 48-30 Sixers will play the Pacers on Tuesday night in Indiana. Here are observations on their victory Sunday: 

Embiid wills Sixers to victory 

The first half was full of misses for the Sixers’ top offensive players.

Embiid began 1 for 6, Harden 0 for 5, Tobias Harris 1 for 5. Many of the misfires were perfectly reasonable attempts that simply didn’t fall, including two wide-open three-pointers by Embiid in the first quarter against young Cavs big man Moses Brown and a Harris jumper that thudded off the side of the backboard. Harden couldn’t find his touch in the paint.

His luck wasn’t any better from the perimeter. The 32-year-old came up empty on a wing three that he had all day to stare down, failed to convert a step-back try on the Sixers’ final possession of the second quarter, and entered halftime 1 of 9 from the floor. The Sixers only trailed by six points, though. Both Harden and Embiid drew free throws aplenty, and their pick-and-roll game put the 7-foot-2 Brown in challenging positions. Against drop coverage, we’ve seen Embiid is eager to roll and Harden is happy to hit him in stride. 


Embiid began the second half with an especially determined approach, continuing to pile up free throws before displaying a few of the tools in his wide-ranging skill set. He drilled two shot clock-beating threes, assisted a Matisse Thybulle layup after a pick-and-roll with Harden, and batted a volleyball-esque, one-handed pass to the 10-time All-Star, who knocked down a triple. 

Embiid's grit shined in the final minutes. He finished two and-one layups, threw down an emphatic dunk, and grabbed a crucial offensive rebound that eventually led to two Harris free throws.

Harden also made a vital shot, sinking a floater to give the Sixers a 107-104 edge after drawing Lauri Markkanen on a switch, but Embiid was the game's best player by a vast margin and dragged his team to the win.

Thybulle key as a defensive closer 

The Sixers opened the game with good defensive activity, and Thybulle was characteristically a standout.

Thybulle blocked an Isaac Okoro corner three-pointer, picked up a steal in the backcourt, and swatted Markkanen inside. The Cavs started 0 for 5 from the floor and missed their first four long-range shots.

Caris LeVert created much of Cleveland’s offense early on while Garland had a quiet start. LeVert beat Thybulle for a back-door layup, made a mid-range jumper to give the Cavs a 16-10 lead, and nailed his first four field goals. 

Somewhat curiously, Thybulle didn’t appear in the second quarter until 59.3 seconds remained. He closed the game out, though, and was involved in two crucial late plays.

Garland got past Thybulle on a pick-and-roll with Lamar Stevens, but Embiid challenged his potential go-ahead layup and Harden reached a triple-double with a meaningful defensive rebound. Then, with Cleveland down three points, Thybulle intercepted an inbounds pass intended for Garland and threw the ball to Harris for a game-sealing dunk. Thybulle certainly isn't the league's most dependable player, but he's excellent to have on the court when you need a stop.

Working around Maxey foul trouble

Tyrese Maxey charged into Kevin Love and was whistled for his third foul with 3:29 left in the first quarter, which forced the 21-year-old to spectate for the rest of the first half. 

To end the opening quarter, Rivers used Harden alongside four bench players. That turned out fine overall, thanks in part to catch-and-shoot threes by Shake Milton and Danny Green, but the Cavs grabbed momentum early in the second period with Embiid sitting. 

Furkan Korkmaz didn’t capitalize on another opportunity as the 10th man in the Sixers’ rotation. He missed two three-pointers on one possession, played seven minutes, and stayed on the bench for the second half. 

DeAndre Jordan has generally been somewhere between uncomfortable straying from the paint and unable to do so in time to impact the game. He allowed an open three to Love, who scored 11 first-half points. Jordan's also been ineffective protecting the rim and is obviously a limited offensive player. All backup centers have flaws (and strengths, of course), but Jordan has a lot to overcome at this stage of his career and it’s often felt fortunate when the Sixers have survived Embiid’s stints on the bench. In the first half, Cleveland outscored the Sixers by 11 points during Jordan’s six minutes. 


Not coincidentally, Maxey's return in the third quarter coincided with improved pace for the Sixers. Maxey scored baskets after hit-ahead passes from Harden and Harris. He also got into an entertaining mini-duel with Rajon Rondo, whom Maxey has closely worked with the past two offseasons. The much younger former Kentucky point guard immediately answered Rondo's three with one of his own.

Jordan checked in for the start of the fourth quarter with the Sixers ahead 81-80 and checked out with the game tied at 87-87 following a Markkanen three. That stretch could have gone far worse. Garland missed a layup, while Markkanen and Stevens combined to miss three wide-open triples.

In the end, Embiid had a chance to lead the Sixers to victory and wouldn't let the Cavs take it from him.