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February 24, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers dig deep for comeback win over Grizzlies

James Harden had another vintage performance and Joel Embiid brought the defensive heroics.

A heroic defensive effort from Joel Embiid and a tremendous game for James Harden led Philadelphia to a great comeback win against Memphis, with Philadelphia scoring a 110-105 victory on Thursday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid was one of the only guys on Team LeBron who had success bombing away from deep in the All-Star Game. Someone should go retrieve his shooting boots from Salt Lake City, though, because he did not have any touch whatsoever to open this game. It was evident on his very first trip to the free-throw line, with Embiid fighting his mechanics a little bit before clanging one off of the rim.

The Grizzlies certainly played a role in Embiid's horrid showing. Using Jaren Jackson Jr. as the primary roamer, the Grizzlies sent double (and sometimes triple) teams at Embiid on and off of the ball, making it hard to get him the ball in the first place, let alone use him as their offensive fulcrum. And Philadelphia's early response was one of bewilderment — they kept trying to force-feed him the ball at the same spots, and the response from Memphis was the same. They constantly flooded his air space, forcing the ball out of his hands or forcing him into a bad shot.

Embiid probably had opportunities to recycle possessions by firing the ball to the weak side, but Memphis crowded him enough to make that difficult, so his best outlet was often the player closest to him. That made it easy for the Grizzlies to recover and essentially reset the possession. The big man quickly got frustrated with that problem, and instead of looking for the right basketball plays, he forced up a ton of iffy shot attempts on long twos in the first quarter, coming up wanting on all of them.

And yet, he is one of the primary reasons he won this game. And if the Sixers are going to win a title, it's because Embiid remembers games and moments like this, when he was able to lead this team without needing to be an all-world scorer.

Embiid remained locked in despite the horrific shooting night and played some genuinely inspired defense at the rim to prevent Memphis from running the score up. He flew all around the floor against drivers, turning away Ja Morant on multiple occasions, and he stood Jaren Jackson Jr. up a time or two on drives, waiting out the younger, springier player and then swooping upward to inhale the shot once Jackson let it go. Deep into this game, still struggling to get a shot to drop, Embiid was still giving everything he had to stop the Grizzlies, making it near impossible for Memphis to score in the painted area.

His block of Ja Morant in the fourth quarter is going to go down on his all-time highlight reel:

I genuinely believe Embiid's commitment through adversity is the most important part of this game, and if they can drill the importance of it through his head, it could be the catalyst for success in the playoffs. So many of the problems for this team stem from Embiid needing to grow into a championship-caliber leader, a responsibility he has not lived up to all of the time. Everyone watching this game could tell that he did not have it, and yet he kept coming, kept leading, kept blocking shots, even chewing out Tyrese Maxey (hilariously) for failing to block out Jaren Jackson Jr. for a critical defensive rebound in the final few minutes.

Win no matter what it takes. 

• You would have to be blind to miss the progress James Harden has made physically since last season. In the series against the Toronto Raptors last spring, there were tons of moments where he struggled to create proper separation or maintain it once it was there, with Harden stuck under the rim or blocked emphatically by his defender. With his legs back under him, his ability to dislodge the opponent is trending toward his Houston days, or at least the early days in Brooklyn. Watching him shrug off a defender like Jaren Jackson Jr. before finishing at the rim is a wonderful sight after watching him struggle against the likes of Precious Achiuwa.

You have seen that progress show up in how Philadelphia sets up on offense, with Joel Embiid willing to defer to Harden and clear out when he gets a favorable matchup on the perimeter. Letting Harden mismatch hunt was one of Philadelphia's best options all night long, and frankly, you could argue it was their only good option.

But maybe I'm burying the lede on Harden — it's mostly just good that he has the shooting touch from outside again. On a blend of stepback threes and catch-and-shoot jumpers, Harden is trending toward a career-best season from deep when you combine efficiency and volume. He has shown increased comfort as an off-ball player while maintaining the skills that made him a ball-dominant star, and that combination of traits was basically all that kept Philadelphia from falling out of this game entirely in the first half.

Harden was an awesome counterpuncher all throughout this game. Every time it felt like the Grizzlies were about to land a killing blow, he somehow managed to can a big three or get by somebody, finishing himself or finding somebody for an open shot on the perimeter. His stepback three in the corner in the final two minutes is one of the most improbable buckets I can recall from this season, Harden bailing out a record-scratch moment from Harris with one of the most absurd shots of his Sixers tenure.

If his partner in crime in the pick-and-roll had it going, he might have been trending toward a 30-15 game, but he was plenty good in the role of table setter anyway. These two are slowly starting to figure out the ins and outs of their partnership, and I am much more confident in them as a playoff duo than I was last season.

• There are a lot of people in pro sports who believe you learn more about a team during their off nights and down performances than you do from the good times. This game felt like a great example of why — Philadelphia didn't really have anybody playing well through three quarters of basketball, with the fanbase ready to throw the team out entirely early in the second quarter. Slowly but surely, they crawled their way back into this game, and had everything to play for down just six points heading into the fourth.

The only real reason they had a chance was that they all bought in on the defensive end of the floor. After letting Desmond Bane torch them for most of the first half, the Sixers finally noticed that somebody was running down the floor with his hair on fire and committed bodies in his direction accordingly. Life got a lot tougher for the Grizzlies from there, and with the Sixers able to get stops, the complexion of the game changed.

Philadelphia also at least tried to do things differently, even if it didn't all work. Rivers abandoned his all-bench unit in favor of getting Harden on the floor with the reserves to open the second quarter, which was a good change and one we should see for the playoffs. They played small ball for a stretch early in the fourth quarter, and Maxey was able to get a bucket at the rim with Memphis a little wary of leaving shooters open.

• Big-time shotmaking from Tobias Harris down the stretch of this game. 

The Bad

• The Sixers desperately needed one of their guards to rise to the occasion with Embiid off the pace in this game. De'Anthony Melton picked up five fouls before the third quarter had ended, and Tyrese Maxey was brutal on both ends basically all evening. Not exactly an inspiring effort from either player.

A matchup with Memphis showcases the problems with Melton and Maxey in any playoff-caliber matchup. Melton gave Philadelphia essentially nothing on the offensive end, unable to break Philadelphia out of their slow, stagnant pace in the halfcourt, and he was unable to corral Ja Morant without committing silly fouls. Maxey was even more hopeless on the defensive end, where Morant was penetrating at will whenever Maxey was the defender in front of him. Young Maxey did have some good moments on offense late in the game, and he did hold up when it matters, so perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh.

• If I see P.J. Tucker pass up another open three from the corner, I am going to snap, I swear. And I don't even get invested in the results of these games!

• I would have advised covering Desmond Bane the entire game, but I suppose I am simply built different. 

The Ugly

• Dillon Brooks and James Harden were jawing at one another less than four minutes into this game, and somehow both managed to avoid technical fouls despite being chin-to-chin before being separated by their teammates. Love to see some animosity in the regular season.

• James Harden passing Allen Iverson on the all-time scoring list is something my brain can't really comprehend.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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