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January 18, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid drops 41 points in national TV win over Clippers

Sixers NBA
Sixers-76ers-Joel-Embiid-Clippers_011822_USAT Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid with yet another monster game.

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey starred in a 120-110 Sixers win over the Clippers, moving to 3-0 to start their road trip out west. Philly's star big man ended with a final line of 41 points, nine rebounds, and three assists against L.A.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Clippers' early plan against Philadelphia's dynamic duo was to switch on pick-and-rolls and initially guard Joel Embiid with someone who wasn't a center. When a team wants to try to live out of a look like that, it is the job of your two best players to prey on it and force the opponent to do something else.

Embiid had 26 freaking points at halftime. Mission accomplished. And then they somehow added two points to his total at the half, as if to underscore how insane his scoring has been. He's even putting points on the board during a stoppage. 

Like a lot of guys on both teams, I thought Embiid came out of the tunnel a tad sluggish, missing some rotations on defense and working his way into the game. Even in that mode, Embiid looked like the kid you grew up with who hit his growth spurt before the rest of your classmates, bulldozing through L.A. in the paint. By the time he came back for his second-quarter minutes, he was ready for full go, and he put together an awe-inspiring stretch that makes his low moments that much more infuriating.

One of my favorite first-half trends was Embiid joining Philadelphia's transition assault of the Clippers, and he almost had to, because L.A. turned the ball over 10 times in the first half. Had Embiid opted to sit back and let his teammates handle fast breaks, he might have been a passenger in the game. Instead, you got a reminder of how devastating it can be if the big man runs the floor with your guards, creating two-on-ones and three-on-ones where the last man back for the opponent is over half of a foot shorter than the scorer. Tyrese Maxey missed a transition layup at one point in the first half, and Embiid slid in for an easy offensive rebound, scoring two of those opening 26 by simply moving at 3/4 speed directly toward the rim.

I thought you could see the evolution of Embiid's game and the impact of playing so much with Harden throughout the first half. While he's still not the high-flying lob target Harden was accustomed to playing with in Houston, his hands in traffic have gotten better, with Embiid plucking a poor pass or two to save teammates, and then immediately getting into scoring moves. The pick-and-roll dominance for these two continued, and they didn't even really need Harden to attack in this game, with the big man overwhelming the Clippers from the elbow and in the painted area.

Even when Embiid made mistakes, he put the effort into erasing them. After misreading the floor on a cross-court turnover in the first half, the big man came rumbling back in transition, coming up with a sensational chase-down block to make up for his error:

Embiid went back to the sort of lethargic effort of the opening stretch in the third quarter, looking every bit like a guy who had carried them to end the previous half, and inspiring questions about how much he had left to close. The answer was, well, quite a bit. After Tyrese Maxey gave Philly a shot in the arm to open the quarter, Embiid re-entered the game on a mission to kill, flying around on both ends once again. He was sharp with his reads, decisive as a rim protector, and money with the midrange, helping the Sixers coast to what ended up being a comfortable win.

A performance like this gives you temporary feelings of awe, and at the same time, it makes you wonder how different Philly's season would look if he played closer to this effort level all of the time. There are definitely games he gets up for more, and while I'm not expecting a Thursday night meeting with OKC to have the stakes of a national TV date vs. Kawhi and PG, there's a middle ground to be found.

Ah well, a sensational outing all the same. When we can look at a game where Embiid scored 40+ and played blinding two-way basketball to close both halves and say, "It felt like he left money on the table," it shows the level of player you're dealing with. 

• Whether Tyrese Maxey is a sixth man or a swing starter moving forward, this game showed some of what you could gain by staggering his minutes to offset Philly's big two. Paired up with Shake Milton in the bench backcourt, the Sixers went on a nice run with the Maxey/Milton combo on the floor in the first half, padding the lead with Harden and Embiid chillin alongside Doc Rivers.

I'm not going to tell you everything about that first-half run was sustainable — the Clippers missed some absolute bunnies that helped fuel Philadelphia — but credit to Maxey and Milton for pushing the tempo and taking advantage of some half-hearted transition defense from the Clippers. Anecdotally, Milton has been the bizarro De'Anthony Melton this year, making a ton of transition layups he really has no business finishing.

But the big story was sixth man Maxey, who was handed the responsibility of leading the Sixers in critical non-star minutes to open the fourth quarter. The Clippers opted to play backup big man Moses Brown in those minutes, apparently hoping they could use his size to crush Montrezl Harrell in the painted area. The side effect of that choice was living with Brown in drop coverage against Maxey, and that's where the game turned in Philadelphia's favor. Philadelphia's No. 0 just crushed that strategy between his palms, canning three triples early in the fourth to create separation between the two clubs:

This is what you envision when moving a score-first guy like Maxey to the bench, and for the time being, he's keeping the right attitude about this situation. Does it last? Who knows, but this was a great night for him on offense.

• Tobias Harris has often called himself the barometer of the Sixers, and while I still believe that honor belongs to Embiid, he has a point if you just watched this game. Combine some tough shotmaking with some of his best defensive work of the year, and you had a tone-setting performance that everyone else was forced to match.

Five first-half steals is impressive for anybody, but it's an even bigger deal for Harris, as even his best nights on defense are mostly just about resistance and standing his ground. Nobody thinks of Harris as a ball hawk, but he was decisive in passing lanes and battled with Paul George effectively, helping the Sixers to slow down George on his first night back after a five-game layoff.

One thing he continues to do, which they would likely lose if they ever traded him for multiple role players on smaller deals, is bail the Sixers out of some tough possessions. They've stopped running a lot of offense for him when they're fully healthy, mostly relying on him to space and run the floor, but he is an asset during an end-of-clock, record-scratch moment. Harris has skill (and confidence) in situations where he only has a few seconds to work with, and he hit some big shots on busted plays in this one, helping the Sixers look better in the box score than on the tape.

• His effort will likely be buried under the starry performances elsewhere, but P.J. Tucker looked better in this game than he has basically all season. I think some of that is due to the matchup — Kawhi Leonard is a devastating player who still got his against Philly, but he plays at a slower, more methodical pace that Tucker is comfortable with. It allows Tucker to do what he does best, and we saw him junking the game up all night in that matchup. He jostled for position, fronted Leonard effectively, dug out some plays with his hands, and generally made Leonard's life more difficult than L.A.'s star would have wanted.

*Checks the box score*

Man, Leonard is really freaking good. Even a pretty good PJ game left Philadelphia shredded by Kawhi. It's as if the guy has a personal vendetta against the Sixers. 

• Georges Niang hit several huge threes to keep Philadelphia in the game and eventually pad a lead in the fourth quarter, Kyle wrote for maybe the 25th time this season.

A free agent after this season, it's my duty to remind you. Putting together a hell of a contract year shooting the rock.

• 3-0 to start the road trip is nothing to sneeze at, and the Sixers now sit just a half game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 2 seed in the East. With a lot of their competition for seeding dealing with injuries, the Sixers have to continue piling up wins and moving closer to the Celtics at the top of the conference.

The Bad

• The Sixers not being up more to end the first half felt like sort of a bad omen, as the Clippers had left a lot of money on the table in the first half. Sure enough, they threw the Sixers off-kilter with a bit of zone — a zone with PG and Kawhi can screw up a lot of teams — and they began eating into Philadelphia's lead as soon as the second half began. From there, it was anyone's guess who'd emerge from this game as the victor.

James Harden has been on a tear as of late, but this felt like a pretty miserable outing for him. Good job of setting the pace with hit-ahead passes and his own ballhandling, but at some point, he had to signal that he was going to do something on offense aside from shooting late-clock threes. Threes that he missed, mind you. Everyone will make all the same, "He looks like he enjoyed his time in L.A.!" jokes but it's fair to point out a third game in four nights was asking a lot from him regardless, especially after two banger outings over the weekend.

The lack of production from Harden started to catch up to them in the second half, as it became clear Embiid had emptied a lot of his clip to push Philly to their halftime lead. A lot of errors, including some brutal third-quarter turnovers, looked like a product of fatigue. Embiid botching a basic handoff with Harden and throwing a pass a foot over Shake Milton's long arms shouldn't happen.

Even with that caveat, I was disappointed with Embiid's second-half effort on defense, where it felt like he hardly even tried to play defense at times. It resembled his efforts when he's in foul trouble, with Embiid sort of just standing around and letting guys get shots off with hardly an arm up to dissuade them. It played a big part in the Clippers chipping away at their lead, and even a tired Embiid can offer token contests. Barely tried on some of them.

• While we're on the subject, I just don't think the Sixers have looked like a cohesive group on defense lately, with some great stretches (like their close to the first half) papering over mental mistakes, lapses in effort, and the addition of more poor defenders to the rotation. Maxey and Harden are often the faces of the problem, and they deserve any venom people have for them on defense after this game, as both were downright awful most of the evening.

At least Maxey turned up on offense. Not trying to kill Harden in the circumstances, but yeesh, brotha. 

• I'm all for Philadelphia's decision to use different starting lineups and include De'Anthony Melton in many of them, but the start of this new "era" or stretch or whatever you want to call it has not been kind to him. He was anonymous in both games during their stay in L.A., and it'll get tougher to sell Maxey on moving to the bench if they guy ostensibly taking his place isn't doing much with the opportunity.

Well, maybe it won't be tough to sell to Maxey, who is a saint of a kid, but there will certainly be people who get in his ear and cloud his judgment. Hopefully, this gold thing can stay, word to Robert Frost.

• He escaped from his first-half minutes with a +3 in the box score, but I'm not sure there has been a worse seven-minute stretch all season than the one Montrezl Harrell played in Tuesday's first half. Harrell was bad at basically everything, and Rivers' decision to go back to him in the second half was genuinely absurd, whatever you think of Paul Reed's ability to impact a basketball game. When a bench player is as clueless and ineffective as Harrell was in the first half of a game, you don't give him another opportunity to play high-leverage minutes in the second half. It's especially bad when you have another option to take those minutes!

The Ugly

• Nobody played defense for the first, I don't know, eight minutes of this game? Pretty impressive, honestly. The Sixers and Clippers just took turns conceding open shots and offensive rebounds. Vibes only. 

• Jim Jackson looked at a Maxey/Milton/Harris/Niang/Harrell lineup late in the first quarter and summed up their defensive chances: "This is where they go 2-3 zone." Hilarious, accurate commentating. Well done.

• I hear your complaints about P.J. Tucker passing up open threes in this one, and they're valid, but also, I'm not sure you want Tucker shooting a non-corner three. It could rip a hole in the space-time continuum, and we just can't have that happening.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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