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December 13, 2022

Instant observations: Embiid, Harden lead Sixers' beatdown of Kings

The Sixers smacked the Kings around to move to 3-0 to start their homestand, picking up an easy 123-103 win after an 80-point first half.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Boiled down to the simplest terms, Sixers-Kings was the unstoppable force against a movable object. Joel Embiid is on a rampage right now, and Sacramento has nobody who can deal with him. It was the recipe for another huge game for the big man.

Even knowing this coming into the game, it was still jarring to watch him absolutely blow them off of the floor in the opening quarter. This was a purposeful, forceful attack of Sacramento's interior, Embiid putting pressure on the Kings every single possession. The best part about the opening quarter was how early he did his work — whether the Sixers got a stop or simply played with pace after a made basket, you looked up and he was already in a position to seal off whoever had picked him up. Philadelphia's entry passers (mostly James Harden) didn't even have to be that accurate, Embiid holding his position so well that the Kings had no chance to get their hands on the ball.

If his recent run of success has been a product of his modern skills, the start of this one was about Embiid exemplifying traditional big-man dominance. It felt like he scored or got fouled on about six consecutive duck-ins, Embiid exiting the game with 16 points at the end of his first quarter minutes.

The ass-kicking spree slowed down after that, but it was mostly for the right reasons. Sacramento tried to get the ball out of his hands, and Embiid made smart choices with the basketball, rising up for the occasional hero ball shot but mostly making the "correct" read and looking for his open teammates. Following his lead, Philadelphia played cohesive, damn near eye-catching offense, which is not something we've been able to say often this year. Even at their best, they've relied on a lot of individual talent and one-man execution to get over the line.

Being able to spend most of the fourth quarter in victory cigar mode is a blessing for this group, whose stars have played a metric ton of minutes lately. A comfortable win is good for the mind, body, and soul.

• James Harden had complete control of this game from the very start, and he showed there are many ways for the Sixers to play with "pace" (a constant Doc Rivers demand) without needing a speed demon to lead the attack. The Sixers did not rest for a moment, sending a relentless attack at the Kings that they simply were not prepared for.

As soon as the Sixers got their hands on the ball, Harden was looking up the floor and figuring out just how quickly they could get an open layup or three. There were hit-ahead passes galore, Harden only holding the ball until he could draw a defender to his chest and fire the ball elsewhere. Sacramento looked completely overwhelmed in transition, struggling to deal with Philadelphia even when they (theoretically) had the bodies back to cope with Philly's numbers.

And Harden didn't just need to get Philly running to succeed in this one. This was about as good as it gets for him in terms of halfcourt efficiency this season, Harden absolutely carving the Kings up out of pick-and-rolls no matter what sort of coverage they threw at him. As his own shot began to fall — Harden finished the first half with 17 points and four made threes — the Kings started to hard hedge to force the ball out of his hands. They got okay-ish results out of it, but it didn't really change Philadelphia's shot quality. Against that style, Harden had no trouble throwing behind-the-back passes through traffic to hit Embiid on the roll, and the big man either got a layup attempt or an easy kick-out pass for three from there.

There is a clear difference on offense just having him out on the floor. They still fall into slow, lethargic possessions from time to time, but their average shot quality has risen and ineffective players have seen their stock rise while Harden is out there. P.J. Tucker got a couple of threes to drop in Tuesday's first half, and Matisse Thybulle managed to score on multiple cuts with Harden in control of the offense. I'm not expecting him to be this good on a nightly basis, but this is closer to the guy many people hoped the Sixers were getting when they made the trade with Brooklyn. 

(An additional note: we don't get many chances to praise James Harden's defense, so we might as well take this one. I thought his positioning was good throughout this one, and simply being in the right place is what allowed him to break up a couple of Kings plays and get the Sixers running the other way. While he doesn't need to be a stopper, the Sixers' floor would raise just a bit if he can consistently be attentive and engaged like he was against the Kings.)

• Co-starring alongside Embiid at the beginning of this game, at least in the scoring department, was Tobias Harris. It was yet another great example of all he can do by simply popping up within the flow of the offense, Harris getting things going with good spot-up shooting and some nifty work along the baseline. There were several occasions where it looked like the Kings might recover after Harris beat a closeout, only for the veteran forward to freeze the defense with a quick look off or hesitation move, finding the space he needed to finish at the rim.

With Thybulle in early foul trouble, I thought Harris also did a great job (relatively speaking) of stepping up in a pinch to defend De'Aaron Fox. Harris was a big defensive contributor at the tail end of last season, but it's rare for him to chase around a guard with the speed of Fox, and he did well to stay in front of him. Stopping Fox from getting to the paint is a huge part of the battle, and with Harris able to wall him off a good amount of the time, he kept Philadelphia's structure intact and allowed them to get stops.

Also in the positive column — the synergy he has shown with Embiid in transition over the last few games. Not often do you get to see a big man running your fast break, but this was the second game in a row we saw Embiid feed Harris on the move, turning a block into easy points on the other end.

I continue to think Harris' contributions have been underrated this year. He's doing a little something different basically every night, buying into a secondary role to help their stars be the best versions of themselves. 

• Georges Niang is the guy you need in these types of games, the bench player who will basically always hit the threes you need to stop opponent runs from spiraling into something worse. He has been one of their best backups all year, and he had another nice outing in this one. 

• Shake Milton did a nice job of attacking Sacramento in early offense on Tuesday night, preying on defenders who played up on him by going for the paint the second the ball hit his hands. Milton isn't a speed demon by any means, but it didn't matter against Sacramento because of how quick his decision-making was. 

The Bad

• A little too much effing around in the third quarter. I get it, human nature during a blowout, but this is a game the Sixers should have had well in hand when the fourth quarter started. Embiid should have been on the bench waving towels for the entire fourth quarter, whooping and hollering as bench guys got to work. But these guys were feeling themselves a bit, and they let the Kings waltz right down the middle of the lane far too often in the second half. 

(As it was, we didn't see Embiid play for much of the fourth, so we're nitpicking here.)

If we're only talking about the first half, I thought the Sixers had more than earned their comfortable lead over the Kings. They were connected and engaged on defense, using zone sparingly but mostly just executing their base concepts and rotating as necessary. Getting one of those on the books with Harden on the floor is a good step for the group.

The Ugly

• Nothing says, "I deserve a chance to play more minutes" like committing two fouls in the first 37 seconds of the game. Even for Matisse Thybulle, that was an impressive feat.

(This was mostly a pretty good game for Thybulle, for the record. Just a hilariously on-brand thing.)

• Joel Embiid's foul late in the first half is your "LOL TONY BROTHERS" moment of the game. You always get at least one.

• I play my music louder than most people I know, but it is honestly ridiculous how loud the Sixers' speaker system is. I'm going to be deaf by the time I'm 40 because of these jokers. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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