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February 11, 2023

Instant observations: Late Embiid heroics save Sixers in win over Nets

The Sixers escaped the second half of their back-to-back with a 101-98 win over the Nets, shrugging off a sluggish start thanks to a dominant Joel Embiid night in the paint.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• They committed plenty of crimes against basketball in this game, but when they put their minds to it, Joel Embiid and James Harden are a simply devastating combo on offense. We've known that Embiid is a matchup nightmare for quite some time, but Harden proving capable of beating good defenders on switches is a big deal, something that has to be kept in mind as we evaluate the Sixers as a playoff threat.

First, Embiid. While Nic Claxton made him work hard for many of his points, in the end, the big man was just too big to be kept down for long. Brooklyn is suddenly loaded with long, athletic dudes to double Embiid from all over the floor, but his patience and reads and footwork are better than ever. You might think you have him walled off, or that you're on the verge of poking a ball loose for a steal, and then he hits you with a feint in one direction, and he glides between two defenders for an easy layup. Failing that, he is making you take a foul for reaching in because you're confident he's not ready for it. Bzzt, wrong!

On a night that I genuinely thought was disappointing for him (more on that later), Embiid still managed to come up with 31 points through three quarters while rarely looking bothered by Brooklyn. Maybe we've reached the point where the big scoring totals don't impress anyone, but it's still remarkable watching him shred waves of good defenders, basically making it impossible for the other team to stop him. Brooklyn did all sorts of funky stuff in this game, doubling him off-ball and showing him Inspector Gadget arms wherever he turned, yet he was still too big and too good to be stopped.

Some of the shots Embiid put in the basket during this game were genuinely absurd. Fadeaways from 30 feet out, hook shots over two defenders, he pulled every trick in the bag out on Saturday night. 

And when Embiid was dialed in on defense, the game would immediately tilt in Philadelphia's direction. Tasked with chasing a bunch of smaller guys around on switches, Embiid did well to turn possessions for Cam Thomas or Spencer Dinwiddie into tough, heavily-contested shots, either as a late helper or the primary defender.

With the game hanging in the balance in the final 20 seconds, Embiid and Harden ran one last pick-and-roll, a play that led to Harden missing a layup at the rim after burning Claxton in space. But with Claxton putting all his effort into chasing Harden, nobody was there to block out the big man, who came away with the offensive rebound and the foul drawn a moment later.

Two made free throws later, the Sixers were in the lead, running away from the scene of the robbery with a win. If Embiid was a disappointment early in the game, he was the only reason they had a chance to win it in the end. Hell of a player.

• Jalen McDaniels' first basket with the Sixers was a memorable one, with the long and springy wing climbing the ladder to throw down a Tyrese Maxey lob:

He is not actually that much longer than Matisse Thybulle, who has a huge wingspan for his height, but McDaniels' contests of three-point shooters look like a pterodactyl closing out on guys because of how skinny he still is. Beyond closing out hard on shooters, McDaniels also added some nice defensive rotations to force extra passes from the Nets, with one late contest at the rim causing a Patty Mills turnover. 

McDaniels missed a couple of bunnies on lob attempts in this game that could have been difference-making points, but he also hit a three so cleanly it barely touched the net, so let's call that a wash. For a guy still learning his surroundings, McDaniels looked surprisingly at home in the rotation. Looking forward to seeing more of him.

• At some point, James Harden is going to have to find the happy medium between hunting a favorable matchup and bringing their offense to a standstill, because he has struggled to balance those priorities when he looks to score. But the silver lining is that Harden is far better equipped to switch hunt and attack than he was last year when he looked like a shell of himself physically.

Exhibit A: Harden spent a period of Saturday night's game forcing Joe Harris to guard him over and over again. Waiving away other potential screeners until he got who he wanted, Harden would get his switch and then get to work, making Brooklyn's shaky defender chase him at any one of the three levels.

But Harden beating up on Harris isn't exactly front-page news. Harden proving capable of going by Claxton on an island? That's a different story, and we saw him absolutely dust Claxton on his way to two points in this game, the same as we saw him torch Dorian Finney-Smith in space.

Those are not inconsequential things to see in the second half of a back-to-back. He would not have been capable of this in the same spot last season.

The Bad

• Broadly speaking, I think the Sixers are more fun to watch play than they have been given credit for this year, either by fans or outside observers of the team. But I definitely understand why many are reluctant to buy in, because they have far too many stretches where they carry themselves as above the moment. This is not a group that has earned that right, and they could be in for a rude awakening when the playoffs begin.

They very clearly have the talent to play with the best teams in the league, and when they are dialed in, the Sixers look like a well-oiled machine. Those moments don't come often enough, though, and they give away far too many possessions with lazy turnovers, poor rebounding, and a lack of effort in transition. That was all on display early in this game, with the Nets racing out to an early double-digit lead by simply outworking Philadelphia.

Embiid often plays in the second half of a back-to-back as if simply putting the uniform on is enough for him to get credit for showing up, and that was his attitude early in this game. This might be the worst play of the season for this team:

Look, I get it, Harden not looking for the inbounds pass is annoying and frustrating, and you have a right to be upset. Your job as a leader, though, is to get back into the play and make any sort of attempt to prevent the opponent from scoring. Instead, Embiid watches two straight attempts in front of his face, and the Nets score.

The problem is that it is the whole damn team. Harden's habits on the defensive end are generally deplorable. Harris spent multiple transition possessions crying to the officials about calls instead of trying to get back in the play. Melton allows rebounding opportunities to hit the ground. The bench guys are largely apathetic or unequipped to play defense. It's infuriating to watch.

If I'm looking to point the finger at anyone specifically, it's the two stars. They are the guys with the ability to set the culture night-to-night. When Embiid shares the ball and turns it up on defense, you can see everyone else raising their level around him. It's what you saw down the stretch of this game. When he gets outworked and outrun by somebody like Nic Claxton, everyone else on the floor is made to feel like a half-hearted effort is meeting the required level. We don't need to go through Harden's nightly defensive crimes, because there are plenty of lowlight tapes throughout his career to sort through.

The period leading into the All-Star break is always a slog, I get it, but they simply aren't as good as they think they are. Here's another great example of the problem at hand, with Embiid getting blocked by Claxton and the hungrier player simply running past him en route to a lobbed finish in transition:

They 100 percent have the talent to win their conference, and perhaps the title. Do they have the 48-minute, seven-game commitment to outlast the other teams for whom that is the case? That's the million-dollar question.

• If Doc Rivers was earnest when he said the Sixers would have three different starting lineups, it might be time to give a different one a try. The current version has hit a lull, and while I understand going with a bigger, more athletic group against this new-look Nets team, you do have to actually make use of that additional size for it to matter.

For whatever issues there are with starting Maxey in the backcourt next to Harden, at least you know you're getting some form of dynamism by sticking him on the floor. He's a threat to beat the other team down the floor in transition, beat somebody off of the dribble, or punish you as a catch-and-shoot guy. Maxey offers a level of movement and tempo the other guys do not, and while I think this team can win playing fairly slow, you don't want to come to a complete stop. At halftime of Saturday night's game, the Sixers had just one made basket from the three "others" in their starting five, a three-point shot from Tobias Harris canned with 45 seconds left in the half.

• Perhaps we need to start looking closer at Harris' recent downturn — some of his old habits have come roaring back since he proclaimed himself a sharpshooter, with too many possessions ending on mid-post misses. I am growing tired of watching Harris ignore/step out of open-three opportunities, so I can only imagine how the other guys feel.

What happened to his offensive confidence, the groove that he was in as a catch-and-shoot player? The tendency to drift in toward the basket cramps the floor and makes it easier to help on their money players, and he hasn't had the scoring effectiveness to justify cramping their style.

Frankly, he and Tucker had an argument to sit on the bench in crunch time, but Rivers was never going to play that card here.

• I mentioned this in the recap of Friday night's win over the Knicks, but there is a difference between zone defense leading to a stop and good zone defense being played. The Sixers play a lot of zone these days, which is terrible to watch as a product, but they're not even very good at it. Sometimes, I don't even think they agree that they're supposed to be playing it.

The Ugly

• I actually want to correct myself within the article — I wish Rivers was a coach who would "play that card" and leave a guy like Harris on the bench for all of crunch time if he's in the midst of a stinkbomb performance. If we're going to play up his leadership and character qualities when he has it going, pointing to him as a source of strength in the locker room, he should be able to accept taking a seat next to Rivers late in a game if it's what's best for the team.

Anyway, they won the game, I suppose that's what counts.

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