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March 18, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers earn good win vs. Mavs behind star duo

The Sixers rode Joel Embiid and James Harden to a big win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 111-101 win. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It almost feels hard to believe that people were concerned about Joel Embiid's ability to play off of James Harden in a pick-and-roll heavy attack. The second quarter of Friday night's game was all about that two-man attack in the middle of the floor, and the Mavericks — who have been much improved on defense this season — were basically powerless to stop it.

Embiid not being a high-flying dunker doesn't mean, it turns out, that he can't make things happen if he sets a screen and has space in front of him. With the Mavs sending two players toward Harden for much of the game, it was up to Embiid to read the positioning and intent of the low man for Dallas, attacking as a scorer or finding the opening created by the rotation. I'm not sure he's ever done it as well as he did in the second quarter on Friday night.

Each time Embiid found success from that spot, Dallas would overreact and expect the same approach again, with Embiid reading that in real time and winning a different way. When they came hard toward him rolling, Embiid found Tobias Harris for a dunk underneath the basket. When Spencer Dinwiddie expected another pass a possession later, Embiid took the open space and threw down an emphatic dunk, bringing the home crowd to their feet.

Embiid has adapted to this new style quicker than most expected. The Sixers certainly haven't abandoned his bread-and-butter looks out of the post, and they're happy to let him attack guys in one-on-one situations when they can, but it's a blessing for Embiid and his team that he no longer has to continuously create from a standstill for them to score.

The other half of that partnership was critical to that success, obviously. I get that Harden has a long and storied track record as a scorer to account for, but I'm honestly unsure why teams are committing two players toward Harden on basically any possession. That's a written invitation for Harden to create a wide-open look for a shooter, or for him to get the ball to Embiid with space in front of him. Bounce passes, behind-the-back passes, lobs, it doesn't really matter how he has to get the ball there. He's finding his guys in space, and all that's left to do is finish.

For most of the game, Harden's individual efficiency wasn't great, the stepback threes not falling and his rim attacks not ultra-successful unless he was able to draw fouls with them. But with the game hanging in the balance to open the fourth quarter, Harden was the tip of the spear for Philadelphia as they broke this game wide open. Between trips to the rim and stepback jumpers, Harden had it working, sending Wells Fargo Center into a frenzy:

Whether the scoring droughts matter much is ultimately going to be determined by how teams choose to defend him in the postseason. If they continue to show him the respect he is getting at basically all times, it almost doesn't matter whether he's an efficient or effective scorer. Fear is the NBA's greatest currency, and the Mavs were petrified of Harden on Friday. Everyone around him was able to capitalize on the attention he drew even before he got rolling, including DeAndre Jordan, who I have roasted in this column repeatedly up to this point.

Philadelphia's one-two punch was more than enough to overwhelm the Mavericks on Friday night, and this game shows you why they wanted to go out and get a guy like Harden in the first place. He can set up the big guy, hunt the weakest defender on the floor, and create open look after open look for the rest of the guys on the team. 

• Aggressive Harris has been a welcome sight recently, even when his aggression doesn't immediately lead to results. Perhaps the reality of this situation has set in — if Harris isn't going to take the opportunities that are there for him, he might not get another one for a while. Whatever the reason(s) for it, Harris' increased interest in shooting catch-and-shoot threes is a huge deal for Philly, so long as he makes a good chunk of them.

The Sixers are getting just enough from Harris in the best possible way. When he is going down to the block and attacking, it has been when he has pretty obvious mismatches against the opponent, as when he drew Jalen Brunson on his hip on a possession in the first half. Broadly speaking, Harris has been doing damage by simply blending in and being where he needs to be, and the team's two lead stars have been sure to get him the ball exactly when and where he should have it.

There was a play in the fourth quarter that I think exemplifies the difference between this version of Harris and the more passive shooter that has frustrated fans. After getting a cross-court pass from Embiid that he had to fight to keep from sailing out of bounds, Harris never second-guessed what the right decision was. As soon as he was able to get his feet back on the ground, the shot went up, and he canned an open-ish corner three. 

I would argue Harris deserves as much, if not more credit for his defensive commitment lately, especially when you consider how disjointed and uninterested the Sixers have looked there as a general rule. He had his low moments like anyone else against Dallas, but he has been surprisingly stout as an on-ball defender recently, taking on assignments ranging from Luka Doncic to Brunson to Dwight Powell on Friday night. Off-ball defense can be an adventure, but he's finding ways to contribute, and they need everyone else on the roster to come with the same approach.

• The Sixers have frequently been victimized by zone defense, but it's rare that we see them play it themselves for any extended period of time. They decided to bust it out against the Dallas Mavericks, unenthused with the idea of anyone aside from Matisse Thybulle single-covering Doncic.

For a team that doesn't use zone much, they didn't look half bad in it, though they admittedly conceded some open threes to Dallas early in this game because of it. Embiid was able to come away with a steal on one first-quarter possession by roaming around the painted area, translating his instincts in their traditional coverage into a defensive style he has professed not to like very much in the past.

There were some possessions where they simply got away with playing zone, and some that were encouraging due to their ability to force a result they wanted. When you can end a possession with Powell shooting a jumper from the free-throw line, for example, that's a big win against this Dallas team. 

When you consider how many potential weak links are in Philadelphia's defensive chain, it's not hard to imagine a playoff run that relies heavily on zone effectiveness to win at the highest levels. If they can keep certain guys playable by minimizing the impact of their poor individual defense, they might just be able to get away with lineups that will supercharge their offense.

• Fair is fair — if I'm going to kill Jordan for playing poorly, he deserves his credit when he's a positive contributor. One thing that separates Jordan from many backup centers in the league is that he understands what he is and is not supposed to do on offense, and if he finds himself in a place where he shouldn't be shooting or passing from, he is quick to get the ball the heck out of his hands.

That suits Harden just fine because all he needs Jordan to do is get near the rim with enough runway to go up and dunk the ball. Jordan's activity was better in this game, he had more success finishing around the rim, and he looked like the guy I'm sure the Sixers were hoping for when they snagged him after his departure from the Lakers.

• Thybulle having a perfect night from the field with two of his three shots coming from deep is something you're not going to see often, so savor that feeling. Dallas outright ignored him, and he made them pay.

The Bad

• Broadly speaking, I thought the Sixers did a good job against Doncic for roughly 90 percent of most of the possessions where he was on the floor. Unfortunately, in the final moment on a lot of those plays, they bailed him out by taking silly fouls and gambling for no reason, allowing him to sustain his offense at the free-throw line while his jumper struggled to catch up.

Taking bad fouls has been a common theme of Philadelphia's defense lately, and that bad habit has wasted a lot of their best work. If you play good defense for 20 seconds of the shot clock, you have to trust that your good positioning is going to be enough to win the possession.

A good example from the Dallas game — Harris did a terrific job to stay in front of Doncic and force the Mavericks to burn almost the entire shot clock during a first-half possession, and I thought he was hard done by the foul call that came when he reached in as the shot clock was set to expire. But that reach wasn't necessary in the first place, and had Harris simply let Doncic take a midrange look while falling away from the basket, it would have been a moment for him to hang his hat on.

• I think we may be at the point where someone has to have a sitdown conversation with Embiid about his transition play. Embiid's ability to handle the ball and push the pace himself was a nice boost early this season, and it remains delightful to watch when he can actually pull it off. But there have been a few too many headless chicken attempts lately, and they no longer have the same need for him to do it all by himself.

When Furkan Korkmaz was the guy playing point guard some nights, you let the big man do what he wants. With one of Maxey or Harden on the floor at all times, just fire the ball to your lead perimeter guy and start running toward the rim. 

The Ugly

• One of the Sixers' "Squad 76" that runs on the court during TV timeouts got proposed to during the game, and appeared thrilled to have the question asked judging by the tears streaming down her face. I'm not an arena proposal guy, and I certainly question the idea behind proposing to someone who is in the middle of doing their job, but salutations to the couple despite my Scrooge-like tendencies. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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