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March 20, 2023

Instant observations: Harden stinker dooms Sixers in loss to Bulls

The Sixers battled the Bulls for two overtimes but could not overcome Joel Embiid fouling out and a disastrous James Harden performance, falling 109-105 to snap an eight-game winning streak.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• We don't often think of Joel Embiid as the measuring stick for Philadelphia's pace of play, focusing more of our attention on the guards who get the ball up the floor. But speed is among the many reasons he is destroying teams at a historic clip right now, with Embiid making decisions at a faster pace than he ever has before.

Embiid has never played more purposefully than he is right now. As we saw in Saturday's demolition of the Pacers, he is sensing double and triple teams quicker than before, either moving the ball away from pressure or using a hard-charging double to draw a foul if somebody invades his air space. Patrick Beverley learned that the hard way in the first half of this one, reaching in to disrupt an Embiid post-up and not realizing he was going to smack Embiid for a foul until it was too late. Speed against pressure is what powered his dominant outing against the Celtics prior to the All-Star break, and it is increasingly becoming one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

Early in the third quarter, Embiid seemed to sense that the Sixers didn't really have anything going aside from whatever he had going. There was a different level of physicality on display from that point forward — the big man forced the Bulls to reach and grab and jump in his way in order to try to stop him from getting to the basket, and the result was a parade to the free-throw line in the period, with the Bulls in the penalty for the final 7:37 of the quarter. 

Navigating the fourth quarter became tough in a real hurry after a pair of fouls midway through the period put Embiid in danger of fouling out for the rest of the game. It clearly had an impact on his defensive output, with Embiid leery of leaning too hard on Vucevic, much less challenging Chicago's drivers at the rim. They did not run as much through him on offense, either, though Embiid hit some absolutely massive shots when they needed him, including a layup in traffic and a big face-up jumper over Vucevic in the first overtime.

He would eventually bow out in double OT, punished by LaVine for getting a little too aggressive in space against him. Embiid would not offer much of a complaint as he headed to the bench, so that's as clear of a sign as any that it was a good call.

• We haven't talked or thought much about the impact of moving De'Anthony Melton to the bench lately, as there isn't a debate being had about whether Doc Rivers killed his confidence by doing so. But he has given them some real juice in a bench role recently, and this was among the best, with Melton offering a jolt of two-way play that helped keep them in a game they played fairly poorly in.

Not too much to this one aside from Melton getting hot from deep, but when he gets going from downtown, it's damn near impossible to keep him off of the floor. As Harden continued to stink it up, Melton continued to attack, including on an absurd reverse finish in overtime that I would have guessed had a 10 percent chance of going in.

With everybody in this game running up the minute count, Melton was one of the few players still trying to dig out extra possessions, and he chased down LaVine for a steal to give Philly an extra crack at it in double overtime. 

• Whatever you want to say about their offensive woes, this was a stifling defensive effort from Philadelphia. The Bulls played their part in it, which we'll get to eventually, but the Sixers gave the Bulls nowhere to go for most of the evening.

As has been the case for much of this run over the last four months, Embiid's fingerprints were all over their success. Philadelphia mixed up coverages against the Bulls, sprinkling in zone, switching, and some traditional drop coverage, excelling in nearly all of those styles. The common thread was Embiid being able to leverage his considerable length and defensive intelligence to spook (or outright turn away) drivers around the painted area. Several Bulls players appeared to have the angle for a make at the hoop, only for the long arm of the law to scare them into off-balance attempts.

(One point of critique: the Sixers and Embiid probably got a bit too switch-heavy at times, putting Embiid on LaVine/a smaller player on Nic Vucevic and paying for the discrepancy in either side of that matchup. By and large, the approach worked and forced the Bulls into tough shot attempts, but they had to give up a few easy buckets in the process.)

• Aside from some early success for Embiid, the only other first-half positive on offense for Philly was Tobias Harris. He constantly found a way to exploit a weakness in Chicago's rotations — the Bulls were failing to get to anybody who slid into the dunker's spot as they went through their rotations, and Harris picked up on that, sliding into a series of dunks along the baseline. With so little else working, those freebies at the rim were important. 

The deeper we got into this game, though, the more Harris needed to be a self-creator for Philadelphia to get much of anything going. There were some bursts of Harris creating in the third quarter, and though he fell out of the offense as the game wore on, he continued to try to do the little things to keep their hopes alive, battling for offensive rebounds and loose balls deep into a wacky double overtime affair.

The Bad

• Did somebody rub baby oil all over the basketball before the game began on Monday? I'm struggling to think of a reasonable explanation for why the Sixers all forgot how to catch and hold onto basketballs at the same time. In the first half of the game, Philadelphia's defense was more than good enough to carve out a lead, and they probably would have coasted into halftime up by a lot if they had been anywhere close to their usual offensive level.

Routine plays were made to look like seismic events in South Philly. They botched basic dribble handoffs, lost the ball on drives to the basket, gave it away untouched in transition, and did just about everything they could to undermine the good work they did on defense. 

If the turnovers had been the only problem, they still might have been able to shake that off with better execution or shotmaking the rest of the time, but their starting backcourt was dreadful. Tyrese Maxey at least showed a bit of flash off the bounce and came up missing at the rim, which is just sort of unfortunate. At least he was able to pull himself out of that early hole, making some money on the break. Let's turn our attention to his backcourt partner.

• I have admittedly not seen every single game Harden has ever played, but this has to be up there with the worst games he has played as a professional. Harden got skunked from deep, couldn't finish in traffic, didn't have much "impactful" playmaking, and put the ball in jeopardy throughout the evening. Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Harden has been integral to Philadelphia's offensive success all year long — I suppose that goes without saying — particularly as they've leaned more on staggering their stars, with Harden captaining the bench units without Embiid. With the time and space to pick whatever spots he wanted, Harden didn't fare any better than he did in the pick-and-roll with Embiid. While you could argue he might have gotten screwed on a call or two, Harden's ability to play and win through contact was not there on Monday night, with a lot of his trips to the paint leading only to harmless flip shots that caromed off of the rim. 

When the Sixers turned the game over to Harden at the start of the fourth quarter, Philadelphia's offense looked disjointed and out of sorts on any possession where he was the lead ballhandler, to the point that it pretty much always seemed like a smarter idea to give Shake Milton or De'Anthony Melton the ball. With all due respect to those two, that says so much more about Harden's ineptitude than what they were able to do leading the offense. 

Harden is never going to get the treatment of a swing player in that situation, but you could gave made a legitimate case to sit him in crunch time, opting to see if somebody else could get it going in that spot. If he was hurt and that was impacting his play, he should not have been on the floor.  

The Sixers' possession that ended in a Tobias Harris jumper off of the side of the backboard in crunch time was simply a crime against basketball. Too much time wasted, and then a whole lot of timidness at the end of the clock, forcing Harris to take a ridiculous fadeaway three. And on that possession, you could have also pointed the finger at Harden, who didn't appear to want the ball in a critical moment.

Not to point the finger at one guy for a team loss, but this is as bad as it gets from an individual standpoint. It felt fitting that this game effectively ended with Harden getting stonewalled at the rim by Derrick Jones Jr., beating his man on the perimeter only to get rejected so hard the ball nearly flew into the Sixers' bench.

• This game started in pedestrian fashion for Tyrese Maxey, who struggled along with the rest of the non-Embiid group to get anything going in the first half. The difference between his issues and, well, James Harden's issues, is that Maxey looked like a guy who just needed some favorable bounces to go his way. The young guard was penetrating, getting to the hoop, and simply coming up short on the final part of the play.

Everything began to turn in the second half, and some of that just comes down to Maxey showing some guts in the second half, trying to get something going for Philadelphia. The Sixers had to lean on him more and more in the second half and multiple overtimes, with tired legs and shaky performances weighing down Philly's offense for most of the night. 

His three off of movement out of the timeout in overtime is one of the craziest shots he has hit in his career — Maxey does not get many looks as a movement shooter on this team, nor was it something he was ever really expected to do as a pro, but he nailed that shot out of the timeout all the same, breathing life into a game that looked like it was slipping away from Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, he ran out of gas as their lone engine late in the game, air balling multiple jumpers while trying to can daggers over outstretched Bulls defenders. Not much you can do there — he needed Harden to share the burden, and his running mate wasn't up for it. 

• Love Paul Reed to death, but boy, was he not prepared to check into a double overtime s***show after a long time spent on the bench.

The Ugly

• Considering the offensive firepower they have, the Bulls have an absolutely disgusting offense. Philadelphia didn't come out with their best stuff in this game, but Chicago couldn't punish them because their offense was just contested jumper after contested jumper, no action and no movement as Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan took turns dribbling out the clock. It wasn't much better when backup guards like Coby White got chances to initiate, and Chicago basically got the results they deserved from that process.

Credit to the Sixers and all, but yeesh. 

• I did not mind the Sixers/Doc Rivers opting to go no timeout at the end of regulation, trusting his guys to get into an action and punish a scrambling defense with 10 seconds left. Once Philadelphia reset the play and put the ball in Harden's hands with six seconds left, though, that's where I'd draw the line and bring it in for another huddle. With Harden in the midst of a clunker and starting from a total standstill, you basically had nothing to lose and everything to gain by calling a timeout at that point. Missed opportunity.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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