Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers take another gutsy win over second-seeded Cavs 

The Sixers pulled out a 104-97 victory Friday.

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The Sixers earned their second tight win of the month Friday night over the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed. 

They came away with a 104-97 victory over the Cavs at Wells Fargo Center.

Tyrese Maxey posted 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Cameron Payne scored 16 points off the bench. Tobias Harris had 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

The 36-19 Cavs were led by Jarrett Allen (24 points, nine rebounds) and Darius Garland (20 points, nine assists). All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell was out with an illness. 

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), Kyle Lowry (return to competition reconditioning) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise).

The 33-23 Sixers will complete their three-game homestand when they play the Bucks on Sunday afternoon. Here are observations on their win over Cleveland:

Changing up starters, rotation again  

After starting the Sixers’ loss Thursday to the Knicks, Nicolas Batum began on the bench in his second game back from a left hamstring strain. 

Kelly Oubre Jr. started and was ready to roll from the opening tip. He registered a highlight 20 seconds in with an audacious dunk on Allen.

Maxey nailed a three-pointer on the Sixers’ second possession and Paul Reed put back his own miss on their third. Harris was the last Sixers starter to score with a driving lefty layup a little over four minutes into the night. In general, the Sixers played much more cohesive, decisive offense than they had early in Thursday’s defeat. 

On the other end of the floor, Cleveland scored freely. The Cavs made 7 of their first 8 field goals, including two Max Strus triples. The Sixers’ defensive activity soon improved, however, and Cleveland missed 8 of its last 10 field goals in the first quarter. 

Batum didn't leave the bench until the last minute Friday to handle inbounds passing duties. Up to that point, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse's 10-man rotation did not include the French forward.

Nurse acknowledged after the game that, on the second night of a back-to-back, he requested for Batum to be available in case of inbounding emergency.

“Yeah, he’s our best inbounder,” Nurse said with a chuckle. “They really didn’t want me to do that, but I convinced them to dress him and said, ‘I promise he’ll just throw it in. He won’t step inbounds and we’ll take him right back out.’ So he did his job.”

Payne steps up, Sixers piece together productive bench minutes

De’Anthony Melton, who hadn’t played since Jan. 12 because of a lumbar spine injury, checked in with 5:06 to go in the first period. 

He promptly drained a top-of-the-key three-pointer. Melton then turned the ball over when he drove baseline and threw an off-target lefty pass to the corner. Given how long Melton had been sidelined, those sorts of rhythm-related miscues were not surprising. He got 16 minutes Friday night and posted seven points on 2-for-6 shooting, one rebound and one assist.

“From the time that I got up, I think I was excited to finally be able to suit up with my teammates,” Melton said. “I felt pretty good. Mentally, I was just trying to go out there and do what I can.” 

Before Melton’s entry, Mo Bamba and KJ Martin checked in together. Both players were solid in their initial stint. Martin forced a Craig Porter Jr. miss at the rim and then flung a pass ahead to set up an Oubre slam. Bamba rejected Allen inside on the Cavs’ next trip. 

With Maxey in early foul trouble, Nurse turned to some unconventional lineups. Harris played late in the first quarter alongside four bench players and was more attack-minded in that role, but his recent problems scoring efficiently around the rim continued. Coming off of a 3-for-9 outing vs. the Knicks, Harris shot … 3 for 9 in the first half against the Cavs. Still, Harris had a strong start to the third quarter and absolutely raised his overall level.

“I thought he was excellent tonight,” Nurse said. “I thought he played really tough. We need his nine rebounds. Again, he’s got to use that athleticism, use that size, chase the ball down.

“I thought he did a great job, especially in the first half, he sprayed a few (passes) out. ... That’s almost like an addition to his game that we we need to keep seeing, because I think we’ve got more of that team now where we can get in and if the paint collapses, we’ve got to get it out to the catch-and-shoot guys.”

The Sixers managed to hold a 53-50 edge after an odd first half. Ricky Council IV was the Sixers’ only player to attempt a free throw before intermission (he went 3 for 4) and Payne was their leading scorer. 

Payne sunk three long-range jumpers in his first stint and played with handy pace, constantly looking to push the ball forward and go at the Cavs before their half-court defense was set. His quirky timing also stood out Friday. When he’s rolling, Payne often seems to let jumpers fly or accelerate downhill when defenders don’t expect it. 

While Payne clearly isn’t a lock for rotation minutes when the Sixers are at full strength, he’s a veteran who appears to feel equipped for any situation and has developed confidence through his high-pressure postseason experiences with the Suns.

“He made a lot of shots and a lot of big-time plays in the beginning of that game ... because we got stagnant a couple of times,” Maxey said. “He was able to bail us out a few times with some three-balls, some layups and some big-time passes.”

Maxey gets the job done late  

Friday's third quarter was defined by swings in momentum.

The Sixers grabbed a 68-57 lead with an 11-0 run that included Buddy Hield, Harris and Oubre threes.

The Cavs then responded with an 8-0 spurt back. Maxey was perplexed by a no-call on a driving layup try (and miffed throughout the game at whistles that didn't go his way). Strus intercepted an ill-advised Oubre pass and converted the steal into a fast-break slam.

The Sixers were a tad fortunate that Dean Wade, Georges Niang and Sam Merrill all missed three-point shots that would’ve tied the game at 70-all. Martin was a significant plus on both ends during the Sixers’ Maxey-less run to conclude the third quarter, defending with discipline and charging ahead in the open floor whenever he saw a window.

Maxey's frustrations grew in the fourth quarter as his efforts to earn free throws kept yielding nothing. He still remained aggressive and hit a few timely, essential shots, including a baseline jumper over former teammate Niang.

The game felt destined to go down to the wire. Indeed, the Sixers' advantage was just three points with under three minutes left when Maxey canned a clutch three. He pivoted and found a sliver of space to nail a big mid-range jumper, too.

Just like when when the Sixers beat Cleveland on the road, Maxey didn't shy away from the responsibility of creating and making crunch-time shots. His performance was far from flawless, but Maxey again got the Sixers the buckets they needed late.

And just like in that Feb. 12 win, the Sixers’ execution in the final minute was shaky. Harris turned the ball over in the backcourt and a Strus layup cut the Cavs' deficit to 100-97 with 24.8 seconds left.

However, four Maxey free throws finally iced the game.

“One thing about me is I always trust my work, so I’m not going to deviate from what I know,” Maxey said. “I’m not going to hang my head; I’m always going to be aggressive. I have to do that for this team.

“Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty. … Tonight I had to overcome adversity and make some shots in the fourth quarter, and that’s what I tried to do.”

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