February 24, 2023
Mental fortitude has not exactly been the calling card of the Sixers in the days since the Process ended. This is the team that has watched multiple No. 1 overall picks unravel on the floor, one that has buckled under the bright lights in the playoffs, led by a head coach whose checkered playoff history has the fans ready to throw him out of town at any given moment. The history has overshadowed that this has been — by some measures — one of the more resilient teams in the league this season.
Thursday night, Joel Embiid was the face of that fight. The man once meme'd for crying after a playoff loss was down on his luck as a jump-shooter, making just seven of his 25 attempts from the field after starting the day battling an illness. Rather than check out of the game under the assumption that it was just one of those nights, Embiid turned in one of the defensive performances of the year, blocking six shots and altering far more, controlling the game by any means necessary.
"That's what it's about," James Harden said on Thursday night, "We got enough, we're going to score the basketball. We've got enough guys that can score the basketball. Bad shooting nights are going to happen, it's what can you do to impact the game?"
"Defensively, I thought I had to be Bill Russell tonight to be able to kind of balance it out," Embiid joked at his locker following the game.
The battle has been as much about the mental side of the game as the physical wear and tear. The play-to-play, game-to-game consistency of the all-time great defenders has eluded Embiid on the defensive end, even if his best games there are as good as anyone's in the sport. Getting to that level has hinged on so many factors. Is he saving some energy for offense? Is he avoiding fouls? And critically, has he had it going on offense? Embiid hasn't had many off nights this season, but in the early years, he struggled mightily to avoid poor offensive outings bleeding into the other side of the ball.
It doesn't get much worse than this on offense for Embiid, and it doesn't get better on defense. Late in the game, four blocks and countless contests into a brick wall outing at the rim, Embiid was stopping three different Grizzlies players on one possession. Embiid met Ja Morant at the level to force a kick out, stationed himself in Dillon Brooks' driving lane, and then swooped in to reject Xavier Tillman at the summit, sending Philly the other way in the process:
"I like to think I'm a great defender because I just know how to position myself, and I know how to place myself on the court," Embiid said. "I don't chase after blocks. I think most of the great defenders, those are the great defenders. Guys that chase blocks, those are not great defenders...I just knew I had to do a good job of just protecting the paint, just not allowing easy baskets, and I think we did that as a team."
Indeed. Tobias Harris spent most of the important minutes of the fourth quarter guarding Ja Morant, a player smaller and much quicker than he is. P.J. Tucker was thrust into action as a small-ball five to open the final period, with the Sixers managing to cut into the lead against a big, athletic Grizzlies team. There was a level of pride we haven't often seen on that end — Embiid chewed out Tyrese Maxey for failing to box out a guy a foot taller than him in the fourth quarter — and in some ways, it is a good sign that they are tough on themselves internally, aware of the work left to do.
"It's still pretty shitty," Tucker said of their defense on Thursday. "We have glimpses where we're really good, we're really bad a lot, but we don't stop, that's the beauty of it, the relentlessness, not stopping. Yeah, that was terrible this quarter, next quarter we start taking stuff personal. Everybody starts picking up, playing harder, boxing out, being physical, it's like little things, and it kind of triggers everybody."
Thursday's game marks the fifth time the Sixers have erased a lead of 15 points or more to win the game, the most victories of that kind in the league this season. What's noteworthy about those wins is that a few of those rank as signature wins of the season, between this victory over Memphis, a December victory over the Clippers, and Embiid's MVP showdown with Nikola Jokic. Overcoming self-inflicted wounds against bad opponents is one thing, but this is different, with the Sixers finding ways to overcome elite-level talent and hot opponent shooting to grind out tough wins in crunch time.
Much of this can be chalked up to the resurgent year for James Harden. Lauded as a co-star for Embiid upon his arrival, the impact of hamstring injuries clearly held back Harden during the stretch run last season. Big games were within him, but certainly not on command, with Harden struggling to maintain any semblance of consistency.
He has come roaring back this year. Embiid's MVP-level play is the primary driver of Philly's success, but Harden's all-around brilliance has been a close second. Harden has found a way to balance both parts that made him special at his peak, feeding Embiid a stream of quality shots while carrying the load and winning important stretches as a scorer.
Harden has been so important, in fact, that Doc Rivers essentially went to a playoff-style rotation against Memphis. Down 15 after the first quarter, Harden joined what is typically an all-bench unit to open the second period. Rivers admitted that he had planned to perhaps expand the rotation, holding off on more Embiid/Harden staggering until the playoffs, but his plans changed based on how the game played out at that point.
And Harden did enough, in the four minutes and change with Paul Reed in at center, to play the Grizzlies to a standstill, buying valuable time and preventing the lead from ballooning. There he was at the top of the key, sizing up John Konchar as long as he needed before bating a reach in and going right past him for the bucket. And perhaps more importantly, it was Harden hitting the floor for a loose ball in the dying moments of the game, hitting a streaking Embiid for the dunk that blew the roof off of the Wells Fargo Center.
"James was unbelievable," Rivers noted after the game.
Consider this — in Ben Simmons' last season in Philadelphia, Embiid-less lineups led by Simmons lost by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, and in Harden-led lineups without Embiid last season, the Sixers lost those minutes by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, playing ninth percentile basketball. In 900+ possessions with Harden on the floor and Embiid on the pine this year, the Sixers are winning by two points per 100 possessions. We know Embiid and Harden work together. But Harden being good enough to carry bench-heavy groups is a huge deal for a team that has always gotten their teeth kicked in when Embiid sits.
And Philadelphia saved some interesting stuff for the final period, perhaps previewing what we might see in the playoff pressure cooker. The Sixers relied on a Horns set (Rivers referred to it as "V Out") late in the game that leveraged Harden's size as a screener. Philadelphia wanted to take advantage of Dillon Brooks' unwillingness to switch, and with Harden clearing the way for Tyrese Maxey, Maxey was able to set up one of Tobias Harris' big crunch-time threes in the fourth on this beautifully executed play:
The biggest skeptics of this Sixers team may very well reside in Philadelphia, with the scars of playoffs past hard to shake off for many who follow this team. If you're able to get past those, the outline of a tougher, better team is there.
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