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January 16, 2023

Instant observations: Embiid, Harden drag Sixers to close win over Lakers

Behind double-doubles from both Joel Embiid and James Harden, the Sixers pulled out a win in Los Angeles.

The Sixers hung on for another nail-biting win on the road, outlasting the Lakers 113-112 on the second half of a back-to-back.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers did not have a solution for LeBron James early, nor did they ever really find one. Thankfully, the Lakers didn't have answers for James Harden and Joel Embiid, and having two unstoppable guys working at once is better than one, obviously.

Watching Harden and Embiid in the pick-and-roll continues to delight, and they are finding new ways to win seemingly every day. We got all the normal looks for these two, with a gaggle of free-throw line catches for Embiid and plenty of paint trips for Harden, who continues to look like a younger, fresher guy than he did last season. Harden looking as spry as he did on the second half of a back-to-back, having played a blinder the previous night in Utah, is one of the most encouraging signs of the season to date.

We also saw Embiid and Harden capitalize on some early offense situations, plays where you normally might only see one of them involved. With a few minutes to go in the first quarter, Embiid and Harden rumbled down the floor on the break, immediately got into a pick-and-roll, and Embiid dug out a tough Harden pass deep in the paint while being fouled by an undersized Lakers frontline.

That's the sort of danger these two should pose on every possession, whether it's a halfcourt trip or a transition opportunity. It takes commitment from the big fella and the veteran guard, who don't always want to get up the floor at a sizzling pace, but you can see the difference it makes when they do.

• It feels necessary to dwell on the play of Harden this weekend because I'm not sure we've seen him play two more complete games back-to-back since he arrived in Philadelphia. Hell, it should be celebrated that he looked even decent in the second half of a back-to-back, let alone as good as he was against L.A.

A lot of my beef with Harden last year was his inability/unwillingness to get all the way to the rim as an attacker. There are still times when he pulls up too soon rather than trying to finish in the middle of a traffic jam, but that is starting to fade a bit, and Harden did a great job this weekend of getting a step or two further to finish off a play.

This is the sort of shot Harden can get for Embiid if he continues pushing and probing, rather than trying to bait people into fouls from 10 feet out:

It's what Sixers fans dreamed of for years — a player who could spoonfeed Embiid quality shots and ease the burden he carries on offense. And by rediscovering his scoring form, Harden has only become a more dangerous playmaker for Embiid, because teams suddenly need to account for Harden hunting his own shot throughout games.

We're seeing a little bit of everything out of Harden on the offensive end right now: stepback threes, pull-up jumpers from midrange, pace-mixing on drives to the hoop, and the head-on-a-swivel playmaking that was there prior to Harden finding his shooting touch. This version of Harden boosts Philadelphia's floor and ceiling, and if it's who they have for the rest of this year, it might be time to take them a bit more seriously as a playoff threat.

• On the other side of the partnership, it has to feel delightful for Embiid that he can get probably six points per game that are absolute freebies because of Harden's work. It's part of why he's putting together his best scoring season ever, because when you add those "free" points to all the work he does as an individual scorer, Embiid is going to bully his way to 30+ without even breaking a sweat.

Even with Anthony Davis, the Lakers are powerless to stop him, but they are especially screwed if Thomas Bryant and Wenyen Gabriel are the guys who have to try to slow him down. Embiid put these guys in the mixer all night, and while I respect Gabriel going up to challenge him at the summit, this was only going to end one way for poor Gabriel:

With Harden gift-wrapping him opportunities on that end, Embiid had a bit more energy to exert on defense, where he looked like one of the only guys with the ability to come up with a stop in this game. Embiid had several out-of-nowhere plays at the rim, flashing across the paint for blocks or contests he had no business getting to, and each one of those felt like a massive swing with their defense in shambles all night.

He missed the potential kill shot in the final 30 seconds, but he hit some big ones late, and they squeaked out another road win.

• Wasn't expecting much from Tobias Harris in this game, given the night off in Utah and the knee pain he was dealing with as a result of a collision vs. OKC. But he was arguably their best player in the early stages of the third quarter, carrying the offense with what we can broadly call "Tobias things" from the mid-post area.

Guarded by Troy Brown Jr., Harris basically forced the Lakers to send his counterpart to the bench, using a size advantage to lean into Brown, shoot over him in the mid-post, and draw fouls on entry passes, personally keeping the Sixers rolling to open the second half. 

With the game hanging in the balance and Embiid on the bench early in the fourth, Harris came up with some monster buckets midway through the period, bailing the Sixers out of poor possessions with nothing more than midrange mastery. It wasn't a big night, but Harris was critical to this win.

• Georges Niang had a big three in a game where he had nothing going up to that point, and the most important defensive play of the game. Chaos reigns.

The Bad

• Philadelphia's defense has been pretty brutal lately. Their season-long numbers are still really good, and their slippage has coincided with big-time improvements on offense, but it's hard to ignore how hopeless they can look while trying to get stops right now.

In this specific game, I put at least part of the blame on the coaching staff. Embiid doesn't need to spend the game guarding Thomas Bryant, as Bryant is not on the floor to do "big man things." Leaving Embiid on Bryant in this matchup often left the Sixers without rim protection, as Embiid was forced to hug closer to the three-point line to avoid Bryant raining threes on Philly throughout the game. It would have been a good game to use Tobias Harris on the nominal big for the Lakers, as he's a fine enough cover on Bryant and Wenyen Gabriel and at least theoretically capable of picking up LeBron on a switch.

As a result of the choice they did make, LeBron and Russell Westbrook had an absolute field day attacking Philadelphia off of the dribble. On some level, you give credit to LeBron for being an absolute superhuman at this stage of his career, but the Sixers offered little-to-no resistance for James' 22-point half to open the game, and they didn't identify the problem (or at least one of the problems) that made his life so easy. An adjustment needed to be made at some point.

The Lakers being able to score at will in the paint is atrocious specifically because they are not a team that can shoot threes. Philadelphia easily could have shrunk the floor and dared L.A. to bomb away, Bryant aside, and they likely would have come out of the game with a comfortable victory. They ended up in a barnburner instead, a victim of their own inability to read a scouting report.

(Second time in a week I've watched them play and thought, "Do they know who they're playing and guarding?" Not exactly a badge of honor for the club.)

The other problem is that Philadelphia's "defensive-minded" players aren't really living up to their billing right now. P.J. Tucker has been the face of that problem for Philly, and while he had some excellent games against stars (e.g. Giannis) earlier this season, he was hopeless to stop LeBron in this one. He does not look like a guy who generally understands what he needs to do or where to be, which is jarring for a player who has made a career out of that exact mental edge. Tucker was never an impact defender because he was a physical marvel, and it's hard to believe he suddenly fell off a cliff as a basketball thinker.

Philadelphia is playing a ton of zone — well, a ton of zone by this zone hater's standards — to work around the problem, often when they have a group of poor defenders on the floor. A second unit with Tyrese Maxey/Shake Milton/Georges Niang/Montrezl Harrell all on the floor at the same time would need a 12-foot tall athletic robot to make up for their combined issues, and Matisse Thybulle is certainly not that, for whatever his gifts are on defense.

• The elephant in the room is that Maxey has been one of their worst defenders, perhaps their outright worst defender on the team since returning to the lineup. He has a ton of issues on that end which all start with his size — he's liable to get picked on by switch-hunters, but he's also a bit too jumpy, even a bit "too active" if that makes sense. Maxey seems to know he has to overcompensate for his limitations there, and it leads to him overcommitting in a direction, giving his guy a lane to go the other way.

Those problems can be ignored when he's rolling on offense, and while he had some nice moments as one of their second-unit leaders, Maxey had another rough night shooting the ball, missing some clean looks at the basket from deep that you'd expect him to make 8/10 times. He's just adrift right now, and that leaves him in a tough spot as both a starter and a potential sixth man. 

• Second game in three outings where Joel Embiid jumped at a much smaller player's pump fake in the paint and picked up a foul. Not often you see him make that mistake, and it's a bad recent habit he needs to kick.

He committed an even worse foul in crunch time on Sunday night, fouling LeBron on a three and giving the Lakers a chance to tie the game with four minutes left. Again, one of many examples of the Sixers not understanding that this Lakers team can't shoot. LeBron is going to become the all-time leading scorer this year as long as he's healthy, but he's laying bricks from deep. Let him!

• Montrezl Harrell's awareness in space on defense has been absolutely horrendous lately, offsetting whatever production he has been offering at the other end. And since the scoring dried up in this one, it was just a whole lot of negative for Philly's backup center.

The Ugly

• Tucker did not play in crunch time despite this being one of the obvious matchups where you theoretically "need" him to defend someone like LeBron. That is, what's the word I'm searching for? Bad.

• Rivers deciding to start Melton over Maxey is interesting as a general concept, and it goes to another level when you consider that Maxey had just had one of his better outside shooting performances since returning from injury. Eyebrow raiser for me.

• Thybulle getting crossed into Dimension X by Russell Westbrook only for Joel Embiid to save him with spectacular rim defense is a great snapshot of why I do not care about what the on/off numbers say for him. He got leveled by a screen moments later, giving Westbrook an easy assist opportunity to LeBron in the paint (at least on that one, he wasn't the only guy who screwed up).

He saved his worst blunder to end the first half. Rivers subbed him in for a defensive possession to end the first half, and Thybulle committed an absolutely egregious foul on a Westbrook midrange jumper, sending the Lakers into halftime with a lead on the ensuing free throws. He's just not a trustworthy player no matter what the on/off numbers say, and while you're all entitled to your own belief, I can't see that changing in the pressure-packed moments during the playoffs. 

The shame of it is, they do need some help on the defensive end right now, which is ostensibly why you have him on the roster. But you're basically rolling the dice on every possession to see if you get good Thybulle or bad Thybulle. 

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