Sixers vs Cavs: Can The Sixers Slow Down LeBron James?

The Philadephia 76ers will take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight at the Wells Fargo Center. Cleveland has already beaten the Sixers three times this year.

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The Sixers will look to stop their two-game losing streak when they take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wells Fargo Center | Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After winning two of their first three games after the Ish Smith trade the Sixers have found the road a little bit tougher of late, losing four of their last five.

Part of those struggles are simply the result of a tougher schedule, as after the Sixers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves to kick off their six game home stand they were left with the unenviable task of taking on the Atlanta Hawks (23-15) and Toronto Raptors (24-15), currently the 4th and 3rd seeds of the Eastern Conference, respectively.

That doesn’t get any easier tonight when the Sixers will take on the 25-9 Cleveland Cavaliers, winners of six straight and playing some of the best basketball in the NBA in recent weeks.

The Details:

What: Sixers (4-35) vs Cavs (25-9)

Where: Wells Fargo Center

When: 6 PM

Watch: Comcast SportsNet

Projected Starting Lineups: 

Sixers: Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, JaKarr Sampson, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

Cavs: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love

(Note: Official starting lineups are released approximately an hour before the game).

Injury Report:

Joel Embiid (out, right foot), Elton Brand (questionable, gray-beard)

About The Opponent:

Kyrie Irving made his season debut when the Cavaliers beat the 76ers 108-86 on December 20th in Cleveland. It took Irving a couple of games to get back up to speed but he’s averaging 20.8 points and 4.5 assists per game, while shooting 55.2% from the field and 40% from three point range, over his last 5 appearances, all Cleveland victories.

Since Irving’s return on December 20th the Cavaliers, at full strength for the first time all season, have gone 8-2, with a +9.9 net rating that’s the 4th best in the NBA over that span, behind only the San Antonio Spurs (+17. Crazy), Los Angeles Clippers (+12.4), and Golden State Warriors (+10.7).

The Cavaliers are led by the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving duo, who are combining for just under 40 points and 9 assists per game over the last 10 Cleveland games, but they also get strong contributions from Kevin Love (13.2 points, 10.2 rebounds over last 10 games), J.R. Smith (13.6), Tristan Thompson (9.1 rebounds in 29 minutes), not to mention the play from roleplayers such as Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov.

One player that the Cavs are still struggling a little bit to integrate is Kevin Love into the big-three offense. The drop in Love’s per-game numbers (from 17.6 points and 2.7 assists per game before Irving returned to 13.2 points and 2.0 assists since) was to be expected as his role decreased. But his drop in efficiency (from 56.4% to 51.4% true shooting percentage) is a little bit concerning for the Cavaliers. Still, while Love is only shooting 34.9% from three point range over his past 10 games, his perimeter shot is something that has caused Nerlens Noel problems in the past.

 Minutes/gamePts/36 min3PT%TS%
Before Dec 20th33.319.037.0%56.4%
Since Dec 20th29.816.034.9%51.4%
(Kevin Love has struggled since the return of Kyrie Irving to the Cavaliers lineup. Data courtesy nba.com/stats and current for games played through January 9th, 2016)

What To Look For:

The Sixers have played the Cavaliers three times already this season, including twice in the first five games of the year, both of which were surprisingly competitive.

In three games against the Sixers this season LeBron James is averaging 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per contest, while only turning the ball over 2.3 times per game. The Sixers have also been burned by Matthew Dellavedova, who is averaging 14.3 points per game, while shooting 55.2% from the field and 54.5% from three point range against the Sixers, despite averaging just 8.5 points per game on the season as a whole.

Rookie big man Jahlil Okafor has had a pair of strong games against the Cavs, including 24 points in his third professional game. He struggled mightily in their most recent encounter, however, scoring just 9 points on 3-11 shooting from the field.

The Sixers and Cavs tend to play at a very different pace, with the Sixers, at 97.5 possessions per game, ranking 6th in the league in pace, and the Cavs’ 93.0 the third slowest. During the previous three contests between these two teams that has drifted more towards the Sixers’ style of play, although that is not necessarily a positive development for the Sixers.

If there’s one positive in tonight’s matchup it’s that the Cavs don’t force many turnovers, ranking just 20th in opponent turnover percentage. That being said, the Sixers haven’t been able to take advantage of this, as they’ve turned the ball over on 17.1% of their possessions in the three previous games against Cleveland. This led to Cavs scoring 26.3 fast break points per game, over double what the Sixers have averaged in those games.

Protecting the ball is one area where the Sixers have done a better of late, turning the ball over on just 13.8% of their possessions over the last 6 games, compared to the 16.5% they previously averaged. No doubt influenced by the addition of Ish Smith, this has done wonders for both the Sixers’ offense and defense, as it has limited the opponents opportunities in transition. Carrying this improvement over to tonight’s game will be key for the Sixers.

With Irving back and playing heavy minutes once again, stopping him on the perimeter, without opening up opportunities for the shooters around Irving and LeBron James, will be a tall task for the Sixers’ overmatched perimeter defenders.

Sixers head coach Brett Brown has started Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in all three prior contests against the Cavs.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.