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December 27, 2022

Instant observations: Joel Embiid scores 48 points, Sixers still lose to Wizards

The Sixers win streak ends despite a monster night from the big man.

Joel Embiid's 48 points were not enough to avoid a 114-111 loss to the Wizards, with apathetic defense and poor shooting ending Philadelphia's eight-game winning streak.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Wizards decided to start two bigs on Tuesday night, evidently hoping to get Kristaps Porzingis off of Joel Embiid. It made some basketball sense in other ways, too, as it pretty much always guaranteed you'd have some weakside rim protection behind whoever was guarding Embiid. The bad news for Washington is that none of their other players have a hope or a prayer against Embiid, which was obvious from the opening tip, let alone after he dumped 16 first-quarter points on them.

Embiid was just too big, too fast, too strong for anyone on the Wizards to deal with. He unleashed a beautiful spin move to beat Daniel Gafford on the baseline, a power move to dislodge Porzingis for a layup, and he mostly just went around Taj Gibson, who was an impactful defender at his peak but doesn't have much left in the tank at 37 years old. You could simply forget it if Embiid ended up with somebody switched on him that the Wizards didn't want — bless Rui Hachimura for trying, but he might need a 2x4 to try to stop Embiid from going over or through him.

The big man was just about all the Sixers had in the early stages of this game, though it's not like they had a lot of reasons to go away from him. And these are the nights where you really see the value in having a superstar — Philadelphia's first-half effort on defense would have earned them an ass-kicking in a lot of instances, but they were still in range at halftime because the Wizards could not stop Embiid.

Embiid was not much better (though he was better) than most of his teammates on defense in the first half, but he was the man leading the charge for Philadelphia there when they finally started to give a damn in the third quarter. The Sixers sat back in a zone for much of this game, and though it led to some open threes that should have been easily avoided, Embiid was able to do some great cleanup work when the Wizards tried to attack the paint, coming up with a few massive blocks in the third quarter as Philadelphia went on their run.

I'll see if I can find a clip of this sequence later, but to me, this was the most telling sequence of the game:

If Embiid wasn't doing it, nobody else on the Sixers was either. There were moments in this game where he legitimately looked like prime Shaquille O'Neal, absolutely bulldozing a team who had no one in his weight class. No matter how many guys were in his way, Embiid found a way to get through or around them, coming away with the basketball and two more points.

• I was not especially enamored with this performance from Harden through three quarters, where the positive contributions he made were nearly all wiped out by his matador defense and lack of effort on the other end. Perhaps you choose to look at it the way Cardale Jones once approached the subject of classes at Ohio State — Harden ain't come here to play defense, and when they needed him on offense the most, he delivered.

Harden's most important contribution early in this game was getting Philadelphia moving when they got stops, often feeding a streaking Tobias Harris as he ran down the wing. But as we moved deeper into the game, those kick outs and hit-ahead passes disappeared, with Harden often opting to go it himself against a shoddy group of Wizards defenders.

Seeing Harden getting to the cup consistently was, even in this great run of form he is in, pretty shocking. It has been such a struggle for him to finish around the basket over the last season and a half, but he made it look as easy as he did at his MVP-level peak in the second half, shrugging off contact and using beautiful footwork to step around Wizards players. When Embiid sat on the bench early in the fourth quarter, it was Harden carrying Philadelphia's offense himself, refusing to be denied as he attacked the bucket on seemingly every possession.

What we've seen the last couple of games is a blueprint for high-level success in the playoffs, at least on offense. If Harden can regularly summon that attacking prowess in the moments when Embiid rests, it'll go a long way toward solving the eternal problem of playing/succeeding without the big man on the floor. 

The Bad

• I just want to leave this up top to make sure nobody misses it — the Sixers' late-game offense was absolutely horrific, and most of that comes down to failures from their top-two players. Harden and Embiid were the only real positives throughout this game, but they turned the ball over a ton in the final few minutes, the Sixers playing scatterbrained, disorganized offense for no real reason.

How do you get the ball with 37 seconds left in the game, down just three points, and spend 17 seconds stepping out of decent looks before turning the ball over? Embiid was the guy who lost the ball in the end, but the whole team has to know the situation there. The worst thing you can do is bleed the clock, because if you shoot quick and miss, you still have a chance to get a stop and score without fouling.

It was braindead basketball late. And the Sixers should save their two-minute offense for when they're actually under two minutes in a game, because aside from the beautiful ATO with about three minutes left, this was a slop fest. 

• Stop me if you've heard this before: the Sixers had a poor first half on the defensive end, allowing the opponent to hurt them with second-chance points. Didn't we just see this on Christmas against the Knicks? I suppose they are feeling themselves a bit, as if they're capable of just climbing out of whatever hole they create for themselves.

Maybe they've earned the right to feel themselves a bit after a sizable winning streak, but there's certainly a middle ground between totally ignoring defense and playing maximum-effort basketball in late December. The Sixers haven't found that sweet spot in the last couple of games, and it has led to wild swings in effectiveness from quarter to quarter, even moment to moment.

Embiid was a target of scorn for a lot of people at halftime, and I'm not going to tell you he has been at his best on the boards. This season has been worse for him on the glass, one of the few areas where that's the case, and a lot of that comes down to basic preparation and fundamentals that he could be sharper on. There's no reason, for example, he should be allowing someone like Porzingis to fly over him for an offensive rebound and another possession for the Wizards. Getting caught out every so often is one thing, but the issues are too prominent to blame it on bad luck.

On the other hand, we can certainly look at all the other guilty parties in the search for the source of the problem. We often see Embiid having to come out and contest a driver or pull-up shooter in order to avoid conceding a wide-open look, only for the rebound to spill to his man (which someone else should be rotating to) on the other side of the rim. There were times in Tuesday's game where Embiid ended up on a switch, made a great play to contest a shot, and his teammates stood around flat-footed in the hope that the basketball would find them. Harden and Harris had a few ugly moments between them, staring up at the ball as if they could will it to themselves with telekinetic powers.

If the Sixers have indeed figured out how to toggle their best play on and off on command, that's great, and it'll be useful over the course of a long season when you have to beat good teams and bad teams alike. But the first half of this game was just comically bad on defense, and they should be able to avoid a half like that through talent alone. Too many of these lately after the team put together a long stretch of tough, connected defense starting in early November.

• Philadelphia's other problem in the first half was an inability to make threes, and weirdly enough, I think that was actually a defensive problem above all else.

Let me explain — the Sixers were able to create high-quality looks for basically the entire half, and I thought they were properly aggressive early in the clock when they had open threes to shoot. If you could simply ignore the percentages (lol) I thought they had a nice blend of slower, paint-heavy basketball and an up-tempo, jump-shooting pace. 

Unfortunately, Philadelphia's decision to fire early and fire often ended up contributing to their defensive issues, those misses sending the Wizards running the other way. When the Sixers had the numbers back to defend, which wasn't a given, they often couldn't help themselves from fouling. The Wizards have a bottom-10 offense in spite of having some big names on the roster, and the Sixers' inability to capitalize on early Washington turnovers allowed the Wiz to hang in and eventually open up a sizable lead.

And yeah, the inability to shoot did eventually become a problem on offense, too. Harris had one of his worst offensive performances of the season in this one, Georges Niang put up brick after brick in extended minutes, only De'Anthony Melton had a semi-respectable night from deep on Tuesday. Hard to win games when you shoot as poorly as the Sixers did on Tuesday.

• This game was a perfect example of why the people want to see Paul Reed get minutes at backup center, or perhaps more accurately, why they don't want to watch Montrezl Harrell at backup center. He did about as much as he could on offense, playing hyper-efficient basketball around the rim, and it basically did not matter because of how bad he was on the other end. Harrell committed every sin you could imagine — too jumpy around the rim, too aggressive on his closeouts, too quick to swipe for the ball after he played himself out of position.

I also wish Harrell's "trying hard" applied to the end of the floor where that actually sort of matters.

• This is an example of a game where you just have to sit Danuel House Jr. and hope somebody else can give you bench wing minutes. He was an absolute disaster on both ends, and he had one of the single-worst sequences of the game, turning the ball over before fouling Corey Kispert as he knocked down a three in transition.

The Ugly

• Look man, we can all see P.J. Tucker dealing with pain in his hand out on the floor. You can see him shaking it constantly while he's out there, trying to play through a pinched nerve to help the team. At some point, if he's insisting that he needs/wants to be out there, you need to protect him from himself.

More importantly, if he's not playing well, you don't have to play him. You can potentially get a more useful current player and help him get his body right. A win-win!

On the other hand, Niang being in basically every action the Wizards ran in the fourth quarter shows you exactly what teams think of him on the defensive end. I like Niang a lot as a role player, but he was a bit overstretched on Tuesday night.

• It got wiped out due to an offensive foul on Harden — probably the right call — but Embiid dunking in transition after a between-the-legs pass from Harden was a nice early highlight. 

Harden appeared to be auditioning for Lane Johnson's job while the Eagles' right tackle is out over the next few weeks. He cleared Porzingis out in a hurry.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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