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January 15, 2023

Instant observations: Harden carries Sixers late in roller-coaster win over Jazz

The Sixers barfed away all of a 20-point lead and still managed to come up with a victory, squeaking a 118-117 win out over the Jazz thanks to a brilliant James Harden game and a Joel Embiid game-winner.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I don't know if you can play better offense than the Sixers did to start this game. They showed off some new wrinkles, they shared the basketball, and they absolutely tore the Jazz apart, soaring to a 20-point lead in the opening quarter and never looking back.

Look no further than the two-man star combination at the center of everything for Philadelphia. Embiid came out looking prepared to drop another 50-bomb on the Jazz after a masterclass against them earlier this season. There was a concerted effort from Embiid to get into the chest of Utah rookie Walker Kessler, establishing early position and putting the Jazz on the back foot early in the shot clock. James Harden was all too happy to capitalize — if the Jazz skewed toward Embiid's side of the floor, it was right to the rim for No. 1. But when they shaded two men in his direction, Harden had a field day, dropping dimes off for guys all over the floor.

In the first quarter, the Sixers used the same basic alignment for a few plays — Embiid at the right nail, Harden a few feet away at the free-throw line extended, and another ballhandler initiating the set. One of those possessions produced a dazzling assist to Tyrese Maxey, Harden tossing one over his head as Maxey dashed through the paint for two:

Their pace was excellent as a group, with Maxey and Melton hitting transition threes on shots that Harden put on a platter for them. Even Embiid made a concerted effort to run, and Harden rewarded one early seal with a deep touchdown throw that the big man finished for a layup plus a free throw on the other end.

There have been a lot of debates about who is responsible for "setting the tone" when the Sixers barf all over themselves against a bad team, with one faction laying all the blame at the feet of Doc Rivers. This start was an excellent example of why you should always look at the stars first. Embiid and Harden came out ready to rock and roll, and the rest of the group had no choice but to follow.

• When people write and say things suggesting that Harden and Embiid aren't a great fit, I wonder what exactly they expect a pair of star players to look like together. If there are personal issues most of us are unaware of, sure, but on the floor, it's impossible to miss the synergy.

One of the underrated storylines of this season and this partnership is Harden being willing to play setup man and secondary figure to Embiid's No. 1. You could argue some of that is about self-preservation, as Harden knows his limits better than anyone else could. But it's not exactly a guarantee that a former MVP and future first-ballot Hall of Famer will defer to another star. That hasn't been much of a debate or discussion, with Harden allowing Embiid to star in their shared minutes. So much of Harden's time is spent poking and prodding the defense, easing the creation burden on the big man.

Harden did an excellent job of waiting until the last moment to release passes on Saturday night, waiting and waiting until Embiid got free to hit him with the highest-value pass possible. The threat of Harden scoring clearly spooked the Jazz, and Harden used that to their advantage, hitting the big man with some beautiful feeds:

They have another half of a season to get reps together and prepare for the playoffs, which is an exciting thought.

But there was more than enough time for a frontline star performance for Harden. Quiet for the middle quarters of this game, Harden came alive at the start of the fourth quarter, which has been a source of great production for him recently. During that stretch on Saturday night, Harden scored a few of Philadelphia's biggest buckets of the game, keeping the Jazz at an arm's length after Utah had battled all the way back to tie the game. Three different pull-up threes for Harden were all that kept the Sixers in front before Embiid returned to the game, buying their star just enough rest to put together a closing kick.

(I'm not sure if Harden has a hard limit of pull-up threes he can hit in a night and he's just stowing them away until they need them in the fourth, but dating back to their Christmas Day win over the Knicks, he has had a number of these moments to open fourth quarters recently. )

Even when Embiid came back into the game, it was clear that this game was going to be decided by No. 1. With the stepback jumper working, Harden was an absolute bear for the Jazz to deal with, and he was able to set up Utah defenders for some bad reach-in fouls or clear space for a good look at a midrange jumper.

And despite the fact that Embiid had been ice cold all fourth, Harden trusted his running mate to get it done on the biggest possession of the game. From the elbow, with a fadeaway reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki, Embiid sent the Sixers home with a win:

Maybe not how they wanted this game to play out overall, but a crunch-time win is sure better than a crunch-time loss.

• Awesome Shake Milton game off of the bench in a season filled with a lot of those. He felt like their only guard with a chance to make a layup, and he sprinkled in some made threes to tie it all together. He got a chance to play late, in both multi-guard lineups and after Maxey left due to some sort of injury, and Milton had earned that opportunity.

The Bad

• If the first quarter was an example of Philadelphia at their best, it all came crashing back to Earth in the second period, which is why this team has failed to produce much joy for the locals this year. There haven't been a ton of comprehensive, wire-to-wire performances, and they frequently get in their own way.

There were a few frustrating moments for Embiid in that quarter, with the MVP candidate taking rookie Walker Kessler a tad less seriously than he should have. In one sequence, Kessler beat him to an entry pass, won his team a turnover, and then ran right down the floor for a dunk as Embiid loafed behind, uninterested in trying to prevent his man from scoring. There were some flat-footed moments on rebounds, too, with Embiid not helping much with their eternal defensive rebounding problem.

(Embiid has been way too casual about catching entry passes this week. He's doing good early work and then failing to keep the seal through the catch, which defenders have taken advantage of.)

None of the Kessler plays loomed larger than his tip-in with 33 seconds to play. There are times when Embiid can be excused for an offensive rebound being surrendered, as he's often pulled up to contest a shot when a guard gets beat. But he put himself in a bad position with De'Anthony Melton offering a good contest of Jordan Clarkson, and Kessler snuck in behind him for the go-ahead basket.

I didn't think this was a great second half for Embiid even though the final line was absurd. The Sixers' offense kept running through him in crunch time, and he was well off the pace. Embiid probably needed to afford Harden the latitude the guard often affords him, and while I'm not going to say it's Embiid's "fault" that Harden passed to him a bunch late, he is smart enough to recognize who is rolling and who isn't, and they should have worked out a better plan than the one they offered late. At least he hit the game-winner!

• Transition defense was a problem at times during this one, though that was harder to pin on one guy, much less pin on Embiid. Philadelphia was able to avoid that problem altogether by putting the ball in the hoop on offense and giving themselves chances to get set, but it felt like they used a ton of excuses to justify a death march back in transition, and the Jazz scored enough points there to help dent their league.

Honestly, Philadelphia's transition offense was downright ugly at times in this game, in spite of a very good start. There were numerous 2-on-1 opportunities that turned into the ballhandler careening into the lone defender and failing to score, which would have been funny if it didn't keep happening over and over again.

Giving up a 20-point lead is easier than ever in today's NBA, and I'm not one to get especially angry if a lead of that size dwindles because of swings in three-point shooting. I'm much less forgiving with self-inflicted wounds, and there were far too many of those.

• De'Anthony Melton make a layup challenge (impossible).

Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen a guard good at so many things while simultaneously being unable to make a contested layup. Melton gets his hands on so many steals and deflections and gets himself in a good spot to score on the ensuing fast break. And then the layup that comes out of his hands looks like it was launched from a trebuchet, pinging off of the backboard and never coming close to going down. He missed four different layups in the first half of Saturday night's game, and it felt like more than that in the moment.

It seems he has the catch-and-shoot jumper down on offense, so the next offseason should be several months of finishing school.

I should be fair to Melton and mention that Philadelphia's finishing at the rim as a team was absolutely horrendous, aided in part by one of his backcourt partners.

• Tyrese Maxey finally found the shooting touch from deep in the first game of their trip out west, and that has to be quite a relief for the young guard, who has been fighting it from beyond the arc recently. There were a few made threes in this game where Maxey's shots barely hit the net while dropping, the sign of a locked-in shooter.

With Utah needing to play him out to the line, Maxey was able to make some quick scoring moves toward the hoop, creating separation in ways we haven't seen lately. Unfortunately for Maxey (and the Sixers), his success from deep didn't translate to better results from other spots on the floor, and he continues to search for the three-level scoring he was showing off consistently to start the year. There were a lot of missed layups and runners in this one, and though he might have deserved an extra foul call or two, he needed to get a few more shots to drop.

It feels like he might have a genuine breakthrough performance any day now, but the wait gets more painful every game. 

• I should have given Matisse Thybulle an F in my midseason report card article. He just runs around doing nothing most of the time, and he did nothing to stop any of Utah's hot scorers in the second half.

• Montrezl Harrell could have pulled out a matador cape and yelled "Ole!" on some of these Jazz drives. Good grief.

The Ugly

• Were any of you watching that Chargers-Jags game during/before this one? The Chargers should have to fold the franchise. Shout out Doug Pederson.

• This is the first time I've seen Talen Horton-Tucker have a good game, which confounded me because I saw him play plenty with the Lakers and their fanbase seemed to love him. Big lift for Utah off of the bench in this game.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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