Cavs Beat 76ers 108-102, Philadelphia Falls to 0-5 on Season
The Philadelphia 76ers once again could not hold off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Similar to Monday’s 107-100 loss to the Cavs, the Sixers were competitive for much of the first half against the defending Eastern Conference Champions, and actually held a 50-49 lead at intermission.
But LeBron James would take control of the game in the third quarter, where he scored 18 points in the frame and helped the Cavs turn a one point half-time deficit into an eight point lead at the end of three.
James’ jumper was on target, he terrorized the Sixers in transition, and operated with surgical precision off the pick and roll. When the night was over James had accumulated 31 points on 22 shots, had 13 assists to only 2 turnovers, and the Cavs had outscored the Sixers by 24 points in his 36 minutes of play. The Sixers outscored the Cavs by 18 in the 12 minutes LeBron sat on the bench.
The Sixers made a couple of runs in the 4th to keep the game respectable but never really threatened after LeBron’s third-quarter outburst.
The loss leaves the 76ers at 0-5 on the season, once again relegated to searching for moral victories. And there were once again positives to take away from the game, even if the angst begins to build as the Sixers remain one of three teams, along with the 0-6 Nets and the 0-5 Pelicans, who remain shut out from the win column.
Jahlil Okafor had perhaps his most polarizing game of his short NBA career. Okafor’s offensive stat line was solid, as he used a late flurry to finish with 18 points on 8-17 shooting from the field. In truth, he probably played a better offensive game than those stats indicate, as Okafor had a number of quality looks at the basket that just barely rolled out.
Okafor spun and twirled his way to the hoop, powered through defenders, and positioned himself to benefit on the rare times his guards got to the hoop off of dribble penetration. The fact that he was able to get such high-percentage looks at the basket against a good defensive team that he was facing for the second time in a week speaks volumes to his long-term potential on the offensive end.
The Cavaliers also threw more double teams Okafor’s way, and he handled them in a calm and collected manner that is normally reserved for grizzled veterans, not 19 year old rookies. Okafor collected three assists on the night, and they all came from when he was double teamed with his back to the basket.
Okafor seemed to rush things during the preseason and first few games of the regular season, but that tendency has faded away quickly. His improvement in recognizing and reacting to double teams has improved on a seemingly game-by-game basis. It was such a huge part of his game at the collegiate level that it’s nice to see it start to translate to the NBA.
It’s that passing, and the ability to make defenders pay for sending help to stop him in the post, that is vital to making post play, something which Brett Brown has been quick to point out isn’t always the most efficient offense to run, viable in today’s NBA. It will be interesting to watch this develop as the Sixers continue to add perimeter shooters to their rotation, and as they learn how to play off of the attention Okafor receives in the post. There are still times when the Sixers perimeter players are too stagnant in moving off the ball when Okafor is operating down low, something which will hopefully improve over time.
For as much promise as Okafor showed offensively, this was easily his worst defensive game as a professional. Okafor looked much more like the player at Duke who many questioned whether he would be able to defend in space in the NBA than the surprisingly competent defender he had been to start the season. His rotations were a step slow, if they were made at all. He failed to cut off ball handlers coming off the pick and roll, was absent contesting shots at the rim, and looked like he was targeted at times by the Cavs because of it.
Okafor continues to play big minutes for the Sixers, as he clocked in at 37 minutes of action last night and is averaging over 34 minutes per game on the season. Those kind of minutes can wear a player down, especially a rookie who isn’t used to those kind of minutes, to playing more frequently than he’s used to in college, and who isn’t yet at an optimal conditioning level. Perhaps some of these issues get resolved just by improving his fitness level. Still, many of these concerns were ones Okafor showed in college, and because of that carry a little more weight than just normal early-season defensive struggles.
Still, despite any defensive concerns that may have been highlighted last night, Okafor’s early season success has been an unqualified success. For him to control a game offensively, force opponents to alter their defensive strategy to contain him, and show signs of being able to use that attention to help generate looks for his teammates is an amazing accomplishment for a 19 year old with five games of NBA experience. Hopefully the rough edges of his game get ironed out over time.
Odds and Ends
* After struggling against Milwaukee, guard Nik Stauskas had a nice bounceback game. Stauskas scored 14 points on 6-10 shooting, which included two three pointers and a number of nice finishes at the hoop off of pick and rolls. Stauskas is scoring efficiently (55.7% true shooting percentage) despite his three point shot not yet falling consistently for him (31.3% from deep on the season). Being able to score off the pick and roll adds a dynamic that the Sixers are sorely lacking.
* Speaking of pick and roll, the Sixers attempt pick and rolls on only 9.3% of their offensive possessions, which is the lowest frequency of any team in the league, per nba.com/stats. This is one area of the game that if the Sixers could improve upon it would really help Okafor. Okafor has such soft hands, with excellent touch around the rim and an ability to gather himself quickly that he has so much potential scoring off of dribble penetration from guards, but the Sixers don’t really have anybody on the roster who can create at a high level from the perimeter. We’re starting to see a little bit more of it with McConnell and Stauskas, and even from Canaan a little bit, but Okafor’s offense could take another jump just by having a legitimate pick and roll threat to play next to.
* One positive aspect on the defensive side of the court for Okafor last night was I thought he boxed out better on the defensive glass. He still only ended the night with 5 defensive rebounds in 37 minutes of play, but for the most part he neutralized his own man, which was a step in the right direction.
* Isaiah Canaan played what was easily his best game of the season, and even made some nice passes off the pick and roll and off of dribble penetration. I still would have liked to have seen T.J. McConnell get more than the 24 minutes he did, but Canaan, who finished with 17 points on 5-8 shooting, made 3 of his 5 three point attempts, and finished with 4 assists to 1 turnover, deserved a bump in playing time with how well he was playing.
* Speaking of McConnell, he executed a couple of brilliant pick and rolls, including a gorgeous lob to Noel and a couple of nice passes to Okafor for easy buckets. He would be so much more effective off the pick and roll if he were a threat to score in those situations, but his feel for navigating them as a passer is incredible.
* Hollis Thompson also had perhaps his best game of the season, despite only finishing with 8 points. He made 2 of his 4 three point attempts, collected 8 rebounds, finished with 3 assists, and generally played in control, something that was much needed after his 5 turnover performance against Milwaukee.
* Jerami Grant has played well as a starter these last two games, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him remain as the starter until Robert Covington is ready to return. He’s played good defense and has played much more in control. His shot still isn’t falling (39.5% from the field, 11.1% from three on the season), but we’ve seen definite progress from Grant over these last two games.
* I went this far in a recap of a game where Nerlens Noel finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 blocks and 2 assists, and I’ve barely even mentioned him. That itself shows how much progress he’s made, as he can have that kind of a performance and almost be an afterthought. Noel’s ability to impact a game defensively, so consistently, is amazing, and his offense continues to make progress, even if he still misses some easy shots.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.