More Sports:

March 10, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid game-winner caps Sixers comeback vs. Blazers

Sixers MVP candidate Joel Embiid hit a game-winning jumper with 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock to give the Sixers' a 21-point comeback win.

Joel Embiid's game-winning jumper pushed the Sixers to a heart-stopping 120-119 victory over the Blazers on Friday night, as Philadelphia erased another huge lead for a win. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid was not at his sharpest to open this game, stuck in the mud with all of the rest to begin the game. There were some ugly turnovers from the big man in the first quarter, which undid plenty of good work he did scoring the basketball. But even during a "rough stretch" for Embiid he was essentially scoring at will, and throughout the evening he was basically their only hope to hang around in this game.

With James Harden bricking everything from deep, Tobias Harris lost at sea, and nothing really going for the rest of the group, it was up for the king of the elbow jumper to shoot the Sixers into a game they had no business being in. He opened this game 10/13 from the field, absolutely torturing the Blazers from midrange on top of dominating them around the rim.

He had plenty of ammo left as this game neared crunch time, abusing poor Drew Eubanks in a series of one-on-one matchups in the fourth quarter. Clearing out anyone who might clog up his space in the middle of the floor, Embiid was hitting Eubanks with power and speed at the same time, leaving the backup big man in the dust on his way to some powerful finishes at the hoop.

On a lot of nights when the defense is struggling, you would say that Embiid is at the heart of their issues, not taking an opponent seriously and creating a domino effect that impacts the rest of the team. But when he was put in a position to impact this game, I think Embiid was quite good there, and using him as an off-ball roamer helped change the course of this game. 

On Philadelphia's final offensive possession of the game, it looked as though Joel Embiid had run out of answers for the Blazers, stuck in the midrange and fumbling his handle a little bit. Doc Rivers called a timeout to settle things down, and the great curiosity coming out of the timeout is not who was getting the ball, but where Embiid would get it and when. With multiple defenders hanging all over him, Embiid turned and fired from midrange, carrying Philadelphia on his back one last time for the night.

The Sixers have had alligator blood this season, launching countless big comebacks to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If they possess an it factor they have lacked in the past, it's because of this guy, who has done all he can to lift them as high as he can.

• Sometimes, your best players are going to struggle for most of 48 minutes and then have to find a way to make winning plays out of nothing in crunch time. That's exactly what happened for James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, who were passengers for most of this game.

Harden inching himself to a decent box score game felt damn near impossible in the middle of this game, with Harden struggling to find the range and unable to get downhill against the Blazers. Naturally, he hit a giant stepback jumper with three minutes and change to play, a pivotal part of their big comeback.

Maxey was even less involved in the game through the first three and a half quarters, but on top of some important points down the stretch, he forced a critical Blazers turnover in the final two minutes.

• De'Anthony Melton was kind of a mess on the defensive end in this game, along with basically every other perimeter player, but he hit some big time shots in this game, and that was basically the reason to keep him on the floor in crunch time.

While we're on the subject, this was absolutely the right thing to do, but I was pretty stunned that Doc Rivers opted to bench Tobias Harris in crunch time. Harris only ended up logging 25 minutes in this game.

• Danuel House Jr. has not had many opportunities to play since struggling out of the gate this season, but credit to the veteran wing for staying ready for his opportunity late in the season. The Sixers have needed to mix up the rotation a bit for different matchups recently — and to look at something different with Georges Niang in a shooting funk — and House has provided that. He's a little bit chaotic on the defensive end, but he's got some switchability there, and his shot has started to come on a bit recently. Add on some transition value, and you have the base of a useful player.

His transition dunk on a Melton lob in the second half was a thing of beauty:

That's about it for the positives.

The Bad

• Doc Rivers spent part of practice on Thursday noting that the first game after a road trip tends to be a tough one, and he may have been onto something. The Sixers came out on Friday missing any sense of urgency or purpose, allowing the Blazers to work themselves into a rhythm by playing what we'll call "disinterested" defense.

There's been far too much of that lately, as I'm sure most of you reading this know. Philadelphia is routinely giving up hot shooting nights to the opponent, and there are only so many times you can surrender a big night to the opponent on offense before you look in the mirror and blame yourselves.

This game was a failure of a different variety than usual. Philadelphia did not want to let Damian Lillard beat them frequently sending two at the ballhandler in an effort to force it out of his hands. The only problem with that is they didn't seem prepared to do the rest of what was required to execute that strategy. When Embiid comes up high and doubles Lillard, there needs to be someone making an effort to at least tag the initial screener. There were times when the Sixers couldn't even do that on time, leaving them to scramble in late rotations to contest at the rim, which led to fouls, layups, dunks, or kick-outs for open threes. Even when they got into position, Jusuf Nurkic had an easy enough time dealing with James Harden sliding in front of him.

Philadelphia did have to deal with some hot shooting performances from the Blazers, most notable with Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant, each of whom nailed some ridiculous makes from beyond the arc with hands in their face. The process was simply not good, though, and so that compounded the problems they had to deal with as Portland's shooters got hot.

• From a strategy/scheme perspective, the Sixers very clearly came into this game with the wrong plan on defense. The very moment Rivers switched Embiid onto Matisse Thybulle to open the second half, the tenor of this game changed. Philadelphia began to crawl back into the game, forcing the Blazers to hit pull-up threes in order to pad or maintain their lead the rest of the game.

Tip your hat to Simons, who was absolutely out of his mind for most of the game, but he should have had to shoot that well just for Portland to hang in this game. Instead, it was the Sixers who spotted the opponent a needless advantage, and they struggled to pull themselves out of the hole all night long. 

• On the other end of the floor, the Sixers played okay but certainly didn't shoot it well enough to run with a team shooting fireballs out of their eyes. Portland was able to sit in a 2-3 zone for a good portion of this game, and although the Sixers were able to get clean looks against it, they did not cash in enough to turn the tide in this game.

We are on the bad end of the Tobias Harris spectrum right now, and really, we've been there for quite a bit now, clutch moments against Memphis aside. He could not find the touch from any spot on the floor in this game, and it wasn't because he was starved for quality opportunities. The Sixers would go through their paces, swing the ball to Harris or hit him over the top, and then watch him clang one of off the iron, with Harris jogging back in transition disinterested in following the play much from there.

It's that latter part that really stuck with you — it's one thing to miss shots, as even the league's best players are going to ride the rollercoaster shooting the ball at this level. Hitting a rough patch of form can't bleed into everything else, though, and Harris was the picture of all of their problems in this game. He made late rotations or never made them at all, he didn't get back in transition, and he offered little-to-no resistance at the point of attack, getting blown by as the Blazers kept the Sixers spinning in circles all night.

During a first half where they managed to go on a couple of runs to battle back in this game, it was Harris who was the biggest indicator of struggle, logging a -25 in 14 first-half minutes. Even when he was on the floor for positive stretches, it felt like he was just a passenger hanging onto the coattails of the rest of the group. Rough outing for him.

• I gave Matisse Thybulle hell in this space for years of overaggressive defense, and as if to channel his spirit in this game, De'Anthony Melton and Jalen McDaniels simply couldn't stop fouling when they were on the floor. Those two combined to commit three separate fouls in about 11 seconds in the first half, a staggering achievement even for two guys who skew toward fouling a lot.

Melton has been the bigger disappointment there recently, mostly because there are higher expectations for him. His defense on ball has been mediocre at best for a while now, and his off-ball disruptiveness has been spotty. At least he picked it up elsewhere. 

That's not to say McDaniels has been better, as he has seemingly taken up Thybulle's mantle as the "silly foul" guy, only that Melton should be expected to clear a higher bar. McDaniels was the worse player by far on Friday night, running into Blazers drivers over and over again en route to five fouls in 10 minutes. Not going to get it done.

The Ugly

• I wonder if Matisse Thybulle will give a quote about "fear-based play" after Chauncey Billups pulled him with the Sixers using Joel Embiid to roam off of him. Much to consider. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports