Since snapping the Bucks' 16-game winning streak, the Sixers have yet to lose.
They built their own streak to six games Wednesday night with a 118-109 victory over the Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in a back-and-forth affair.
Joel Embiid posted 36 points on 12-for-19 shooting, 18 rebounds, four blocks and three assists. He played the final 4:12 thanks to a successful challenge by Sixers head coach Doc Rivers, much to the Cavs' displeasure.
James Harden had 28 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and three steals. Tyrese Maxey added 23 points.
Caris LeVert was Cleveland's top scorer with 24 points off the bench.
At 46-22, the Sixers are four games ahead of the Cavs for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’re one game behind the No. 2 Celtics, who beat the Timberwolves on Wednesday, and 3.5 games back of the top-seeded Bucks.
The Cavs’ Jarrett Allen (right eye contusion) and Sixers’ Jalen McDaniels (right hip contusion) were sidelined.
The Sixers will play a road back-to-back against the Hornets on Friday and the Pacers on Saturday. Here are observations on their win Wednesday:
Exceptionally versatile Embiid
With Allen out, Embiid matched up against Evan Mobley. The Sixers’ All-Star big man drew a foul on each of the team's first two possessions and was thoroughly superior early on to Mobley, who's an outstanding defender.
Embiid, who will turn 29 years old Thursday, only needed two field-goal attempts to score nine of the Sixers’ first 13 points, including a three from the right wing and a smooth jumper over Mobley at the nail. In the first quarter, he posted 15 points on 4-for-5 shooting and seven rebounds. He also moved past Hall of Famer Moses Malone for 12th on the Sixers’ all-time rebounding list. Simply playing Embiid the entire first quarter sometimes feels like enough to give the Sixers a quick lead.
Maxey knocked down a couple of three-pointers in the first and Harden drew five free throws in the opening quarter. The Embiid-Harden-Maxey trio scored every one of the Sixers’ first 31 points.
The Sixers hurt themselves early with turnovers, though. Embiid committed three in the first and Maxey had two that led directly to Cleveland fast-break points. For as fantastic as Embiid is, he’s been right to note that the Sixers can’t afford to relax and have lapses against high-level opponents. No two turnovers are identical, but the Sixers generally seemed a bit too free and easy with their approach. While the Sixers have improved their transition defense following a terrible start in that area, they’re still not a team likely to be just fine when high-level opponents have regular opportunities in the open floor.
Embiid didn’t score quite as much in the second quarter, but he continued to show off his tremendously versatile game. He had impressive answers against Cleveland’s tight double teams, among them a fadeaway jumper late in the shot clock and a spinning layup through serious traffic. The Sixers used Embiid in a roaming role defensively, putting P.J. Tucker on Mobley and Embiid on Lamar Stevens, who doesn’t pose a great offensive threat. Embiid in the first half made a couple of transition blocks, and the Sixers’ interior defense was obviously enhanced with him protecting the paint.
Rough half for supporting cast
The Sixers played a 10-man rotation in Cleveland without McDaniels.
Harden alongside four bench players didn’t look nearly as good as it had in recent games; the Cavs wiped away a 10-point deficit and took their first lead early in the second quarter. Paul Reed caught the ball from Harden on the short roll and charged into Cedi Osman before he could make a kick-out pass to Tobias Harris. Osman’s three gave Cleveland a 35-33 edge and Rivers called timeout. Tucker played at backup center for a little over a minute, and Embiid then checked back in. Tucker again played over Reed at the five in the second half.
Shake Milton scored five of the Sixers’ seven first-half bench points. Meanwhile, the Cavs got 28 second-unit points before intermission, including a four-point play from LeVert when Harden fouled him with 0.7 seconds left in the second quarter.
Clearly, it also hurt that Harris and Tucker totaled two points on 1-for-4 shooting before intermission. And it didn’t help that the light-scoring Stevens-Isaac Okoro duo combined to shoot 4 for 6 from three-point range in the game.
However, the Sixers fell behind by double digits early in the third quarter for reasons beyond outside shooting. After Maxey made a runner, their effort to get back on defense was inexcusably lacking. The Cavs went up 70-57 on an Okoro dunk.
Sixers navigate twists and turns, catch a break
The Sixers responded to that situation perfectly.
Behind a 14-0 run, they briefly pulled in front. While Embiid continued to be special, the run wasn’t all about him; Maxey, Tucker and Harris each chipped in a three. Tucker and Harris can certainly be valuable in many ways besides scoring this postseason, but the Sixers will undoubtedly be a better team if both take open jumpers without hesitation and convert them at a decent rate.
Darius Garland got rolling late in the third quarter and LeVert was red-hot early in the fourth, but the Sixers seemingly had answers whenever the Cavs appeared on the verge of seizing momentum. Georges Niang beat the third-quarter buzzer with a three to put the Sixers up 84-83. Niang and Milton both drilled triples as part of a Harden-led small-ball lineup to begin the fourth, too. Unsurprisingly, neither team struggled to score in that stint. The Sixers ended it with a 100-98 lead after Tucker scored an and-one layup following a nice Milton dump-off pass to him in the dunker spot. Milton finished with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting, two assists and no turnovers in his 21 minutes.
Embiid extended the Sixers' advantage to 108-99 on a step-back, banked-in three as the shot clock expired. It felt at that stage like the night was destined to be his.
That ultimately was the case, although the Sixers sure did not appear optimistic when Embiid initially got whistled for his sixth foul. Mobley hit the floor after absorbing an Embiid forearm as the six-time All-Star looked to create space for a shot at the nail. The overturned call was massive and rather shocking, since Embiid did indeed seem to make substantial contact with Mobley. Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff was understandably infuriated.
Cleveland still ate into the Sixers' lead, but Maxey nailed a big three off of a two-man game with Harden to restore a six-point edge. Soon after, Garland saw a long-range jumper go in and out. Though Embiid and the Sixers did a ton to deserve the win, it's also fair to say they were relatively fortunate.