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December 23, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers make massive comeback to overcome Clippers

The Sixers picked up one of their best wins of the season in a 119-114 victory over the loaded Clippers, overcoming a significant first-half deficit to pick up their seventh straight win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• What a joy the start of this game was after watching the Sixers battle a bunch of undermanned and outgunned teams for most of this homestand. I'm sure the fans have been loving comfortable wins for the home team, but these are the games everybody lives for, matchups with elite talent showing out from the opening tip onward.

Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard weren't matched up against one another in this game, but it was clear that they were going to establish the terms of engagement. They are two of the only players in the league who have the green light (and the skill) to make a living from midrange, and the two went blow-for-blow in the opening quarter, raining jumpers on the opponent.

Only Embiid would sustain that early pace. The Clippers stretched their early lead with Embiid on the bench and would continue to pad it even after he returned to the floor, but the big man put on an absolute clinic from midrange. Battling in the post with Zubac is what a few fans near the front row wanted, but making him play in space was a much more effective strategy. On top of the damage he did as a jump shooter, Embiid was able to score a few easy ones at the rim while rolling after screening for James Harden's man.

Sprinkle in some duck-ins and early seal-offs, and Embiid had already stormed to a 23-point outing by halftime, almost singlehandedly keeping the Sixers in the game. Taking him out of the game was basically not an option if they wanted to compete.

This was one of the more complete offensive games Embiid has played this season, and that's in a year where he has had a couple of the best games he has ever played. It never felt like the Clippers were able to settle into a defensive rhythm against him. Every time they tried to overplay or anticipate him setting up at one spot on the floor, Embiid managed to hurt them from somewhere else.

44 points later, Embiid has another game to add to his case for the MVP award. They're creeping ever closer to the top of the conference, and he's the guy driving them forward.

• This had the look of a game where James Harden might put up a big stat line that overstated his impact on the game. His first half was filled with too many missed layups and botched attempts to attack the rim, the Clippers punishing him for failing to get too far off of the ground. But it was hard to ignore his superb passing even during those cold stretches, and Harden hit enough big threes to make up for what he lacked in the paint.

Here's the important thing — Harden continued to probe and attack in the paint even after that discouraging start. By making sure the Clippers had to respect his willingness to attack them, Harden sucked pressure in from all over the floor, creating threes and layups seemingly at will. And the gaudy assist total Harden ended up with will not necessarily show how difficult some of those passes and reads were, No. 1 threading passes through traffic and all around the floor even with Clippers players hanging all over him.

No real complaints to make about him in this game. Loved his effort, loved the commitment to attacking, loved seeing a couple of catch-and-shoot attempts. Set aside the field goal percentage — this is the sort of game you've been hoping to get out of Harden against elite competition since you acquired him. Resilient, versatile, and above all else, ultra-productive. Great performance.

• It was a different style of game than their recent battle against the Raptors, but the common thread between the two performances was Philadelphia's willingness to fight on defense to hang in this game. It felt like the Clippers simply could not miss for a while on Friday night, rendering even the best Sixers possessions meaningless, and that can be used as an excuse to check out and let a game go. There has been no letup in these Sixers lately, and they are living up to the big man's desire to compete for the league's very best defense.

We talked this morning about the arguments for and against starting De'Anthony Melton or Tyrese Maxey with the rest of this five-man group, and I think you saw some of both in this game. Maxey probably cashes in more looks on offense if he gets the same quality of looks, but he also would have been a problematic inclusion on the defensive end, somebody the Clippers would have targeted often. Melton was outstanding on the defensive end for Philly, pestering Paul George all night and ultimately holding him to a merely okay game.

The average give-a-damn level for Philadelphia was pretty damn high, including for guys like Harden who are notorious for saving their energy on defense. 

• This is the sort of opponent you need to get creative against, which is not exactly how Doc Rivers tends to coach. For better or for worse, he likes to settle into a routine and trusts his guys to get things done, leading to some frustrating moments when that works against them.

There was nothing exotic about Philadelphia's gameplan or the reaction to the halftime deficit, but Rivers made the changes they needed to see this one out. The most important was simply not playing Montrezl Harrell after terrible first-half minutes. 

• The blueprint for a three-guard lineup when Maxey returns is there. Doc Rivers called Shake Milton's number in crunch time, sticking him next to the pairing of Harden and Melton with Embiid and Tobias Harris in the frontcourt. Keep your eye on that.

• The Sixers played a "real" team for the first time in a while, and it showed. You could see the difference between role players who look good against the dregs of the league, and role players who can actually hang on defense when the opponent methodically forces switches and preys on your worst players.

Georges Niang stood out the most, and this is just a nightmare matchup for him. The Clippers come at you in waves with a seemingly endless supply of at least decent players, and Niang couldn't seem to find a guy to stay in front of, dusted by the likes of Luke Kennard and Norman Powell and Nic Batum and, well, you get the point. Philadelphia was put into scramble mode quite often, and the Clippers were ruthless when the Sixers missed a rotation, finding the open shooter nearly every time. The same rang true, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, for Shake Milton, and it hurt just as bad on the offensive end. L.A.'s ability to switch most matchups left him without many driving lanes, Milton often coming up way short on forced-up attempts.

To their credit, both guys came out of the halftime tunnel and flipped the script. They were not a whole lot better on the defensive end, but each guy justified their minutes on the floor with huge lifts in the scoring department. Milton was one of a group of Sixers players who hunted Luke Kennard in the second half, returning the courtesy the Clippers had shown him through the first 24 minutes. And Niang continued his habit of hitting basically every momentum three he shoots on their home floor, sending the home crowd into hysterics with some monster makes in the fourth quarter.

Trusting your guys and the things that put you on a winning streak isn't always a bad thing! And sometimes, good offense can overcome defensive concerns. 

• I somehow got all the way down here before getting to Tobias Harris, who continues to cement his status as the unsung hero of this team. It wasn't his best night from deep, but Harris helped to slow Kawhi down in the second half and made a lot of little gritty plays in the second half. He had some huge putbacks on offensive rebounds and looked right at home in the four spot with Tucker sitting for much of the second half. 

The Bad

• Montrezl Harrell was a disaster, and Rivers rightly sat him for the second half.

• All-bench lineups against a team that has Paul George on the floor? No bueno. You don't have the luxury to give minutes away against a team with this level of talent.

The Ugly

• No complaints. Hell of a basketball game.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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