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March 12, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers coast past Wizards behind 34 from Embiid

With 34 points, Joel Embiid kept his MVP-level pace going, sitting out the entire fourth quarter in a blowout Sixers win over the Wizards.

The Sixers only needed three quarters from Joel Embiid to put the Wizards to rest, coasting to a 112-93 win to close out the weekend and a brief homestand.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There have been plenty of occasions where Joel Embiid's performance inspires hyperbole, flowery prose, and an eye on what the game meant within his career or the history of the league. Embiid has done some special things and played some special games this season. This was not one of them.

And honestly, there has to be something comforting for fans that Embiid marched like a robot toward a giant stat line, finding his spots on the floor and just tearing the Wizards apart. Sometimes, you need to summon greatness to pull a win out of the fire. Embiid didn't need to do anything of the sort on Sunday.

A couple of days after the Blazers had periods of success sitting in zone, the Wizards tried to disrupt Philadelphia with a similar approach, looking to cut down the impact of Embiid/James Harden pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. That put an emphasis on taking advantage of Washington misses, setting up in early offense, and attacking cross-matches as viciously as they could.

Even when the Wizards loaded up on the perimeter and tried to stop the initial dribble penetration, Harden found ways to wait Washington out, hesitating and leaning until his opening was there to get downhill. There weren't a ton of times when he needed to go all the way to the basket, because Harden's No. 1 job on Sunday night was dropping off pocket passes to the big man. They came in different flavors — behind the back, wraparound, in the air or off of the bounce — but it was the same sort of play all throughout the game.

(And while we're on the subject, I do hope Harden ends up getting his proper due for this season from the basketball public, as Embiid's big year is at least partially a credit to his running mate. The work Embiid has put in to dominate from the elbows is his and his alone, but having a guy who can get him the ball where he wants basically whenever he wants is a luxury he has never had before.)

Washington all but gave up on the idea of single-covering Embiid at some point in the second half, right around when he scored his 33rd point on yet another midrange jumper. The Wizards began converging on him quicker, forcing the big man to swing the ball elsewhere if he wanted his team to get a quality shot. And Embiid adapted splendidly, starting swing-pass sequences around the perimeter that provided Philadelphia's role players with open threes, even when they couldn't get them to drop.

On the defensive end, I thought Embiid was nearly as good, flying around the floor and walling off Wizards players at the rim even after having to rotate hard to get there. It helped that he spent much of the night matched up with Daniel Gafford, a non-shooting threat who allowed him to roam a bit without fearing he was going to get stretched out to the perimeter. This was all-around dominance, and with the luxury of turning the game over to Harden to open the fourth quarter, Embiid was able to save some milage on his legs in the final frame. He had earned it.

(34-8-4-4 in just 31 minutes is a heck of a night. Could have been a 50-ball in a tight one.)

• I thought this was a great example of a game where Harden not scoring much said absolutely nothing about how valuable he was to the Sixers. Embiid may have been the guy scoring over and over again, but it felt like Harden had total control of this game whenever he was on the floor. He picked his spots beautifully, seeing the gaps in the defense to get to the rim and only dialing it up when those openings were there.

This deep in the year, Harden continues to look good physically on his way to the basket, which feels like a positive omen for Philly in the month leading up to the playoffs. On one first-half possession, Harden got the step on Kyle Kuzma, leaned into him to maintain space, and then finished over Daniel Gafford at the rim, tying everything together in one possession in a way he rarely did (or could) last season.

He also sent Monte Morris into the shadow realm with this move in the fourth quarter:

We will choose to ignore that there looked to be a push-off here. Whatever.

The rest of the night, it was all about pace-setting and getting everyone — well, mostly Embiid — involved. For what feels like the 100th time in 60+ games this season, Harden entered the game with a bench group to open the fourth quarter and padded the Sixers' lead, giving them enough cushion that Embiid got to watch from the sidelines as the fourth quarter played out. That's another giant piece of Harden's value. 

• It took a bit for De'Anthony Melton to settle back into his role as a super sub off of the bench, but he has been back on his game and fits beautifully into what the Sixers want to do with the reserves. Although they lost Jalen McDaniels to a hip injury in the first half, the Sixers were able to put together a decent blend of size, shooting, and athleticism with a Harden/Melton/Milton/Niang/Reed lineup, spreading the floor around their lead playmaker and switching a bulk of their actions on the defensive end.

Melton's length was bothersome for the Wiz all night, with the backup guard coming up with some downright cartoonish rejections on jumpers in this one.

• Tyrese Maxey's ability to juice up a game in transition is perhaps the best case for starting him and playing him maximum minutes with Embiid and Harden. Well, as long as you set aside the basic "He's one of their best and most important" players style of argument.

This was not exactly a good game for him overall, with Maxey struggling to make shots from deep, but he gave Philly a jolt to open the second half and they never really looked back from there.

• I can't really make a joke about P.J. Tucker relishing a Sunday game at 6 p.m. as a result of being old, because he's not that much older than I am. That said, he came out for the first quarter of this game with the energy of a guy ready to compete in a playoff series, and I thought that went a long way toward setting the tone for the evening.

There were a lot of little energy plays made by Tucker early on — tip-outs for offensive rebounds, a strip of Kristaps Porzingis as he tried to rise and fire over him, even a sequence where Tucker dove to the floor for a loose ball, springing Joel Embiid for an uncontested dunk in transition.

This is the sort of game that just screams let-down outing, Philadelphia up against a substandard opponent on a Sunday night in mid-March. Making it through these games is no less important than their marquee matchups upcoming on the road, and Tucker was part of keeping them on the right track.

• The Sixers beat these guys up so bad that Furkan Korkmaz, Dewayne Dedmon, and Jaden Springer all played in the fourth quarter. That about says it all.

The Bad

• Philadelphia's layup shooting was almost impossibly bad for periods of this game. The Sixers probably squandered several assist opportunities for Harden in the first half alone, with their point guard diming guys up only to watch them smoke shots at the hoop.

Tobias Harris was the biggest culprit early in the game, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched the Sixers lately. Harris is in the midst of a pretty rough patch of form, and Kristaps Porzingis gave him fits around the basket, altering or outright blocking several shots as Harris tried to figure out how to deal with the Latvian's length at the hoop.

Considering how good he has looked at times this year, it speaks to how good their top talent has been that they've continued to march to victory after victory even when Harris is struggling. They will need a better version of him to be at their best in the playoffs.

• As I'm writing this, there was a 50/50 chance somebody was getting back cut by Corey Kispert for a clean look at the rim. These guys were not at their sharpest away from the play, and with Embiid often switching or meeting Wizards players at the level, Philadelphia's attentiveness problems off-ball became that much clearer. If the big man isn't home to help, every perimeter mistake has a chance to get punished immediately. 

The Ugly

• Jalen McDaniels was shaken up on a play in the first half, grabbing at his hip before stepping up to the free-throw line and calmly sinking a pair of free-throws. It looked for a moment that he might shake off the knock, and then you saw him running back on defense, and McDaniels almost immediately realized something was wrong. He took a quick foul and marched slowly to the locker room.

He has ridden the roller coaster during his Sixers tenure so far, but McDaniels is an important boost of athleticism for the reserves and needs further time to find his spot within Philly's rotation. We'll see what the prognosis is, but losing him for any stretch of time would be a blow.

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