The Sixers (15-12) hosted the Golden State Warriors (14-15) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to win for the fourth time in a row. Golden State planned to snap a two-game losing streak. Joel Embiid and James Harden combined for 61 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists to propel the Sixers past the short Warriors, 118-106.
Before we get to the game, a few notes.
The Warriors were without Stephen Curry, who has a sore left shoulder. Draymond Green missed the game with a right quadriceps contusion. Andrew Wiggins has a pulled right adductor and was unavailable.
Andre Iguodala is struggling with a left hip injury and was out.
Steve Kerr started Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Donte DiVincenzo, Jonathan Kuminga and Kevon Looney.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a minor fracture in his left foot. Doc Rivers told reporters after a workout earlier this week that Maxey was still weeks away from returning and that he had a long way to go before he was ready. The original timeline focused on games leading up to Philadelphia’s visit to the Knicks in New York on Christmas Day. There is no recalibrated timeline at this time.
Tobias Harris missed the game with back pain.
Furkan Korkmaz has a non-Covid disease and was out. Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were out.
Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid.
Embiid struggled to find his balance. But Harden was ready for the Sixers in the first quarter. He rained down three triples in the frame to do his part in matching Golden State’s deep hit. A certain triple, a step back from the deepest part of the corner, was an unusual effort for the bearded man. It seemed like a sign that he really felt it and trusted his jersey. Since returning from the foot injury, Harden is going 17-for-39 from deep. That is an increase of 44 percent over a period of five games. Not a definitive sign, but a good indication of what Harden’s legs feel like. It’s at least somewhat surprising given how quickly he went from an out-to-playing high-30s minute charge.
The one thing the Sixers did right on defense in the first quarter was forcing the drive. Their hands were fast and strong, reaching in for strokes or leg slap-downs, and wouldn’t even let the Warriors get all the way to the rim or get the ball to the rim when they tried to drift off the bounce. And while Philadelphia got off to a slow start on offense, those live-ball wraps sent the Sixers into transition, chasing easy shots.
Once Embiid realized that he had yet to dominate the game on offense and that his team desperately needed someone to take control of the defense, he increased his efforts to protect the rim. And man, did he dominate in that department. It started with Poole’s emphatic rejection of a shot on the rim and continued into the third quarter. Even when he couldn’t get his hands on the ball, his presence nearby bothered the Warriors.
From DiVincenzo to Looney, the Warriors smoked a number of cans to the brim simply because Embiid was on the field. When Montrezl Harrell is on the field you feel like even his best efforts to protect the rim don’t matter, the opponent throwing every shot at the Cup they can elevate there. Paul Reed makes you feel like you get a block, an accidental good game for missing the block or staying planted just enough not to commit an offense, an accidental violent foul or a putback for chasing the block and giving up the ball offensive rebound .
When Embiid is on the ground, you don’t know exactly what he’s going to do defensively. But when he turns it on, his impact has a radius that extends beyond just his wingspan and height. The shear ability that he could skip three footsteps to lunge in a late rotation deters the opponent from rushing when they’re close or throwing shots that don’t have prayer. And when he gets there, he devours the ball, sends it into the stands and shocks the life of the building’s guests that night.
The balance between Harden and Embiid went beyond their nearly identical scoring attempts. Harden did his damage both through dribbling penetration and manipulating shadow helpers all over the floor. But Golden State adapted and assigned the young and svelte Kuminga to Harden to try and contain the ball. And instead of scratching his own ego, Harden matched himself and threw the keys to Embiid to handle the ball.
That ended up being a resounding success for the Sixers as the third quarter progressed, with Embiid facilitating the offense as the ball-handler. His teammates ran around him and ran with him, taking advantage of Embiid’s aggression by getting Golden State to stop him. The Sixers got three really good looks in a row. A balanced attack is just harder to defend when the two focal points work together. But balance also ensures continuity when styles, tempo and lineups change. For what felt like one of the first times all season, Embiid and Harden balanced only their respective weights in the box score.
I think one of the best features of Harden’s game is his ability to see shadows as they happen – or anticipate them in advance – and execute against them. He doesn’t always get trapped or ambushed; teams don’t always double him either. Instead of giving him an aggressive deployment, they’ll shade helpers to tease him a bit. “We challenge you to drive,” the strategy effectively says.
It’s all the same for Harden, who will bring the hatch closer by pulling away in the opposite direction or attacking towards them. And just as they step or lean an inch too far, he fires at the teammate they’ve left alone to provide shade. He’ll even see shaders an attacking player ahead, feel the helper on the weak side step a little too far down the lane in case he hits the roll, and shoot to the opposite corner for an open three or drive the dribble away.
Even when he’s not shooting well, making bad decisions, or turning the ball, Harden’s experience with so many different defensive strategies and the gravity of the shoot-pass make his teammates look good. It is another offense if he is on the ground.
I know the standard thinking is that the star-studded team should flatten the opposition when they run out of stars of their own. This can be especially true when the team with more of its talent is available on their home court. But it’s just not an automatic win. We saw the distorted version of that a few weeks ago, when the Sixers ran the nearly full Nets without their top three players and beat them by double digits. There are elements of pride, random shots, and gently rolling confidence that determine how resistant the low-handed team is to getting blown out. The Warriors, the reigning champions trying to slow down the back end of their dynastic run atop the NBA, will come out with confidence and pride no matter who is available. But the Sixers didn’t show them that respect in the first quarter.
DiVincenzo led the offense for Golden State in the opening frame, hitting five triples. The quality of the shot is more important than the shooting itself because of the randomness of the shot mentioned above. But the Sixers used those first 12 minutes to test him. However, the risk in testing a player is that he warms up.
They moved toward him under shields, showing no urgency to even pretend to go to the shooter. Even as they got a little more playful on defense and challenged the Warriors’ play and cohesion, Philadelphia fell short of motivation when Golden State proved intelligent enough to find the hot man, slowing to an uninspiring walk to contest DiVincenzo . They challenged the Villanova product to miss open threes all quarter, from different depths and angles. He accepted the challenge.
The problem then multiplied. DiVincenzo’s fever spread to his teammates. The whole time, the Sixers didn’t really seem to care or even consider tightening up. I’m not going to say there wasn’t luck in the series of torrid shootings. At least one Warrior three-pointer popped off the rim with just enough touch to eventually find the inside of the basket in some sort of twisted homage to the Kawhi shot. But the Sixers generally had to put out a fast-spreading fire early because they slept through the first quarter.
Even when offended, the Sixers were sleepy. Embiid in particular looked out early on. He lost the ball a few times on his way to the basket in the first frame. The big guy didn’t aggressively get in the way of Looney or any other Warriors unless James Wiseman was on the field. Maybe it’s the recent 20-point streak in the first quarters, but it didn’t feel like Embiid was trying to assert itself early on. As such, the Sixers got off to an uninspiring start on both sides. Perhaps the biggest sign that he wasn’t quite in the game was some weird dribbles. He just randomly stopped dribbling while on the move, got stuck in bizarre places and lost his dribble.
The Sixers didn’t learn their lesson at halftime, at least not in the beginning. The Warriors simply traded the DiVincenzo cooking for Poole which caught fire. He batted in a handful of triples that curled off the ball or twisted long around the ball screen. Poole defeated the Sixers in much the same fashion during his run. He reached the deepest point of the left wing before sending it flying.
The Poole party continued for the rest of the game, even as the Sixers took control and drove off. Philadelphia was in drop coverage, allowing him and any other ball handler with dynamic scoring abilities to peel away from screens in the middle of the floor for undisputed floaters, pull-up jumpers, and dribble penetration. Capitalizing on the drop was really how the Warriors offense stayed in the game as long as they did.
Georges Niang’s shot has been one of the most consistent staples of the Sixers’ offense this season, as far as the supporting cast is concerned. But I didn’t like his shot selection in this game. It felt like he shot down any catch no matter how much space or time he had. Maybe I only noticed because tonight he wasn’t quite feeling it. But it felt like he was rushing and forcing a bit.
The Sixers (16-12) will host the Toronto Raptors (13-16) on Monday. The tip is set at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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