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December 06, 2022

Instant observations: James Harden's return soured by bad Sixers loss to Rockets

The Sixers got the result they deserved in James Harden's return game, dropping a 132-123 loss to the Houston Rockets after 58 minutes of stinky defense and poor decision-making. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The one missing piece for Tobias Harris in the month Harden was out of the lineup was outside shooting — Harris sustained himself with lots of good work inside the arc, but he was below-average from deep in that time without Harden, in part because his shot distribution had changed. After a strong outing in Memphis last Friday, Harris got right back to work from deep against Houston, putting in a perfect 4/4 first half from downtown.

It was an especially huge performance from Harris with Georges Niang out due to injury, the Sixers in desperate need of a lift from three. Harris did much more than that, matching a career-high with seven made threes, and each of those felt like they came in a must-have moment of the game.  James Harden was the guy who ultimately pulled the trigger on the bad possession they had to end regulation, and if anyone had proven worthy of being involved on that play, it was Harris.

Even still, Harris continued to come up with big plays in big moments as the game moved to overtime, including a drive to the hoop for a lefty layup that put them out in front with just under three minutes to go. 

If Harris continues to be an efficient, quick-trigger shooter the rest of the way, the rest of this team should eventually fall into place. He has been a great team player this season, stepping up in shorthanded lineups and blending in with the stars available, and that's all they can really ask him to do.

• Shake Milton's off-ball movement and cutting have been noticeably better lately, and that gives him a great chance to hold onto a role in this rotation even when the Sixers are back at full strength. 

• If nothing else, Harden's return gives these games some sort of meaning for Philadelphia. They're building toward something with both Embiid and Harden on the floor at the same time, rather than playing shorthanded games that tell us little about their ultimate ceiling. Now we get to find out if they can build toward anything threatening to the rest of the league.

• I am fine with Doc Rivers not calling a timeout with the ball in their hands and time running down in the fourth. Harden making a piss-poor decision during a bad shooting night is not something I blame Rivers for, but I generally support attacking a team before they can get set in these situations, so your mileage may vary.

• It will shock you to learn this, but there were enough touches for Embiid to dominate the game even though Harden was back in the lineup. In fact, the Sixers made a concerted effort to get the big man the ball early in this one, an interesting choice given the desire to get Harden back up and running.

You couldn't really argue with the approach, though, with Embiid tossing the Rockets' frontcourt around as if they weren't there in the opening period. After a battle with Steven Adams in Memphis, it had to feel like a relief to draw Alperen Sengun, a younger and much smaller player for him to do battle with. Embiid immediately put Sengun on his back foot, drawing two fouls on the second-year big and immediately forcing Houston to make hard choices about their rotation.

If Embiid had avoided foul trouble of his own, this might have been a monster night. Alas, three first-half fouls and a conservative approach from Doc Rivers moved him to the bench for the closing stretch in the second quarter. To no one's surprise, that was when Houston made a run to get back in the game and take the lead, preying on Montrezl Harrell and some shoddy perimeter defense for Philly.

In stepped Embiid again in the third quarter, clearly confident that no one on the Rockets could guard him. This game showed exactly how difficult it can and should be when you're forced to defend Embiid as an on-ball threat and a pick-and-roll monster, Harden feeding him open looks and creating great opportunities for layups and fouls near the hoop. There was plenty of self-creation from the big man, but he goes to another level when you can spoon-feed him just a few baskets per game, taking the burden of creation off of his shoulders.

Embiid averaging 30+ points last season was a historic event, something that we hadn't seen from a man at his position in decades. He rattles those games off with ease now, to the point that "only" offering 30+ felt like a giant disappointment. And there was plenty of disappointment to stew on after this one, which we will get to below.

The summary of the night: you play with fire, you get burned.

The Bad

• James Harden could not have asked for a better environment for his return to the floor. A road game with a sparse, semi-friendly crowd against a young and bad team? You can ease yourself back into the swing of things that way, not having to jump right back into the mix against a contender.

Immediately, you could see exactly what the Sixers have been missing with Harden on the shelf. He is a slow, deliberate player in halfcourt settings, but he gets Philadelphia moving when they get a stop, making up for whatever he lacks in speed with decisive passing in transition. Harden's hit-ahead passes were on time and on target in the early stages of this game, getting the Sixers some quality looks before Houston could get set.

The backup guards did a fine enough job running the offense in his absence — relative to expectations, anyway — but they were not making plays like this:

Foul-drawing has not come as easily to Harden this year as he adds more midrange shots to his repertoire, but he put a young Rockets team in jail by capitalizing on every reach, every misstep, and every moment of hesitation they had on defense. Harden managed to earn seven free throws by himself in the first quarter and added a tech attempt for good measure, contributing to Philadelphia's scoring before he had an official shot attempt on Monday night.

Unfortunately, Harden's impact on this game dropped off a cliff after halftime, and truthfully, after the first quarter had ended. You can forgive him for not having his best stuff for a full game after a long layoff, but it wasn't anywhere close to the rip-roaring debut anyone would have hoped for. Harden did have one big moment late in the fourth, a huge three to tie the game up in the final two minutes. But he immediately made everyone forget that when he came up small with the ball in his hands and a chance to win the game, his attempt turned away by Kevin Porter Jr. in the closing moments of regulation. Trusted to get the Sixers into their offense by Rivers in that spot, Harden turned in one of his worst possessions of the game, and he didn't do much else to improve on that blemish when the game went to overtime.

He deserves some patience for the next week or so, but they need a ramp-up sooner rather than later. A combination of poor decision-making and poor execution held him back on Monday.

• The whistles are still ringing in my ears after an absolutely brutal first quarter of fouling for the Sixers. Six personal fouls in the first eight minutes of basketball bailed the Rockets out of what should have been a horrific quarter — they made just two shots to score their first 17 points of the ballgame, an absolutely ridiculous number.

There were certainly some questionable fouls they either called or let go, including a moving screen on Embiid that appeared to be more about Jalen Green stumbling than anything Embiid did in the action. I suppose this is what you're in for when the Tony Brothers/Jacyn Goble combination is in charge of a game.

But the Sixers also did themselves no favors with poor decision-making and overaggressive closeouts, the latter of which led to multiple fouls on three-point shooters who had tough, off-balance looks at the basket. Shake Milton and De'Anthony Melton each just ran into shooters in the first half for no real reason, the former bailing Jalen Green out on a shot that had about a 1 percent chance of going down. Stupid decisions got the stupid results they deserved.

Some of their fouls came as a result of poor perimeter defense, which was hard to blame one guy for despite the obvious subplot of Harden's return. Paul Reed was put into some no-win situations around the rim, though he botched those all the same, jumping too far forward instead of trusting his length and getting vertical. Matisse Thybulle basically ushered Jalen Green into an Embiid foul at one point, bumping him slightly and basically causing an unavoidable foul for their best player.

(I genuinely can't believe the reputation Thybulle has on defense at this point. He can make some spectacular plays but gets himself and his team into a ton of trouble.)

By the time the first half was over, the Sixers had put the Rockets on the free-throw line 22 freaking times, which was the biggest reason Houston marched into halftime with a one-point lead. 

• Harden returning and the defense kind of stinking makes it easy to draw a direct connection, and I'm not inclined to tell you he was a good defender in this game. But there were a lot of guilty parties in Monday night's game, so it would be as lazy as their defending was to pin it all on the bearded guy.

I have offered a ton of praise for De'Anthony Melton this year, but dear lord, Jalen Green made him look like he was standing still at times. Green can sometimes get baited into tough shots because of his belief in his natural scoring ability, but the Sixers were rarely able to force him into those situations, with Green either finishing in/around the paint or drawing a foul after getting the corner on his guy. A lot of their problems could be traced to the inability to stop the ball, with Green the most dangerous man with the ball in his hands.

Away from the play, the Sixers continued a worrying trend of letting the opponent hit them with back cuts. I continue to be disappointed with P.J. Tucker specifically — I can live with missed shots and clunky offense, and even with guys making shots over him, but Tucker standing in no man's land while a guy blows past him on the baseline is not okay. You brought him in here in order to be an impactful team defender who gives you all he's got whenever he's on the floor, and he has made too many discipline mistakes for a guy who will let everybody else hear it when they screw up.

The big man at the center of it all certainly isn't blameless, either. His activity level was not where it needed to be in the middle portion of the game, in part because he wanted to avoid fouling out but also because he just did not offer the requisite effort to match a hungry opponent. We can't keep going through this process of saying, "What a great game on offense, BUT" with him if he actually wants this team to reach their potential. If dominating on offense comes at the cost of proper attentiveness on D, then he has to figure out a way to share the ball more so he can offer more on defense. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

• To build off of that last point, it's a bit bizarre that the Sixers were basically completely unprepared or unwilling to deal with two of the league's best offensive-rebounding teams in Memphis and Houston. This wasn't a team that caught them by surprise with a performance that defies the scouting report, it's a young team that came in with a reputation and took advantage of a Sixers group that allowed them to do so.

It's a poor reflection on the group (players and coaches) for that to happen, end of a long road stretch or not. 

• Joel Embiid committing two different jump-pass turnovers in the final two minutes of overtime is just brain-dead nonsense and nobody deserves to be blamed for it except for the big man. 

He is too deep into his career to be doing this nonsense. Making one bad mistake is bad enough, but he made the exact same one from the exact same spot on the floor twice in the span of a minute. For a guy who recently crowed about his ability to playmake from the middle of the floor, it was a brutal showing when they needed him most.

• Paul Reed had three fouls in the first half when Rivers decided to use Montrezl Harrell as the sub for Embiid (also in foul trouble at that point), but to me, you just roll with Reed as the backup in this game until/unless he fouls out. Worst comes to worst, you let Tucker play small-ball minutes if Reed gets knocked out of the game. 

• When a guy on your team is in the midst of a heater and is left unguarded, you have to at least attempt to get him the ball. De'Anthony Melton taking a silly, off-balance three with Harris cooking late in the first half would have infuriated me as a teammate, and it's a good example of Melton's aggressiveness getting the better of him at times. 

The Ugly

• So, uh, how about that minutes restriction Doc Rivers claimed James Harden had before the game? Guess it must have been 40 minutes, which is definitely a normal minutes restriction a guy has when he comes back from an injury that took him out for a month.

• Seriously, the broadcast quality has been an absolute joke recently. Having a Moravia Health logo superimposed on top of Joel Embiid is just one of many recent examples of NBC stinking it up. They showed a replay in the second half in the middle of game action!

• The first quarter took about 45 minutes of real-time. Monday Night Football ended before a basketball game that started before football. Absolutely absurd.

• What in the name of Jesus Shuttlesworth is this?

I'm still not sure what I just watched. And Jalen Green's near turnover at the end of double OT might have been worse!

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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