The Sixers (13-12) hosted the Charlotte Hornets (7-19) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to build on Friday’s win over the Lakers. Charlotte wanted to break a four-game losing streak. Joel Embiid dominated for his second 50-plus game of the season, leading the Sixers in a 131–113 win.
Before we get to the action, allow me to set the scene.
The Hornets were without the services of LaMelo Ball, who has a sprained left ankle. Gordon Hayward was out with a broken scapula in his left shoulder.
Cody Martin missed the game due to surgery on his left knee. Dennis Smith Jr. has a sprained left ankle and was out.
Mark Williams sprained his left ankle and was unavailable.
Steve Clifford started Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., PJ Washington, Jalen McDaniels and Mason Plumlee.
The Sixers were without the services of Tyrese Maxey, who is slowly returning from a minor fracture in his left foot.
Daniel House Jr. missed the game with a cut to his left foot.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid.
Not much fell for the Sixers early on, shooting 3-for-12 before Rivers called a timeout around 6 minutes into the first quarter, but the process was at least a little encouraging. Philadelphia made an effort to get into the paint with their feet, whether it was through the Harden crossover and burst into the hole or a shot fake from a swing pass and attacked the closeout. That’s ultimately what you want from sharp ball moves, and you’re betting on the outcomes that will ultimately be in your favor over a large sample size.
When the Sixers woke up, they put pressure on Charlotte’s neck with some zone defense to close out the first quarter and start the second quarter. The added pressure on Charlotte’s ballhandlers, whether it was Rozier or anyone else, caused the Hornets to make poor decisions with the ball. Smart bet, the Sixers pushing the ball away or intercepting ill-advised passes only to flee themselves. The eye test says the Sixers have used the zone pretty well to stop the bleeding when their man coverage has failed them in recent games. And it worked much the same to silence the Hornets when they felt down early in the game.
Say what you will about Embiid’s degree of involvement, style of play, or deviation from the model old-school tough guy big. 28 points at halftime against Charlotte after 25 points at halftime on Friday. Pull-up jumpers, attack the edge in seclusion against heavy-footed matchups, and take the ball upfield like a guard for authoritative, cunning finishes. The man gets 30 in his sleep. Some fans who have been around a few times will note that the team will never win with Embiid. Well, without him you won’t win easily either.
Perhaps the Hornets missed the memo, but Melton hit eight triples against the Lakers. Maybe not lose him off-ball six times in the third quarter? The off-season trade takeover spawned four triples in the frame, interrupting a stretch in which the Sixers took a 19-point lead.
Shake Milton has cooled off quite a bit after Harden’s return and has had two productive games in a row from the bench. The best he did in both games was play with control and power when the ball hit his hands, hit to the edge of the catch on swing plays, or take his command to the middle of the floor for his bread-and-butter shots in the middle class. I think the aim of Melton’s role should be to limit the passes and score efficiently. That all comes from confidence, and right now he believes in his ability to win battles in paint. He shrinks the floor with his reluctance to launch threes, but it ends up producing effective results. So you take what you can get.
Another reserve player, Montrezl Harrell, just brought energy to a game that lacked such a variable. He got the minutes in this one after Paul Reed seemingly won the backup job last month. Any expectation that he can be trusted for stops should be gone by this point. The same can be said of his rebound. But if you need someone who will go straight for bigger guys inside, play through contact and agitate the crowd with thunderous fringe action, he’s your man. Understanding that his shortcomings won’t change or improve much, he gave the Sixers good minutes on offense on Sunday.
Each story of this game begins and ends with Embiid and Harden. The first didn’t stop snoring through the first 30 points he scored. He was wonderfully aggressive in feasting on defenders who had no chance of stopping him – and they were all defenders, really. Still, he played with control, navigating traffic to slide to the edge for buckets. He also did a fantastic job playing contact, taking down midrange and short jumpers all night as the Hornets ran into him in their frantic efforts to stop his charge. 53 more points for the big guy.
The idea that someone his size can push the limits of what should be possible is incredible. Embiid does it regularly. He won’t do it every night, but he’s clearly taken it upon himself to rise to the challenge of setting the tone. He’s done that remarkably in the past two games, period. The quality of the competition is not a reservation.
Harden, on the other hand, followed suit on the Embiid parade whether he wanted to or not. The ball did not stick in his hands, the isolations were rare, the shots organically entered the flow of the game. Forget about the 19 points and 9 rebounds (which, by the way, was a good shot from him on the defense glass in this one). He had 16 assists against four lost possessions, on point playmaking all night.
Harden’s timing in fitting was almost flawless in this writer’s eyes. He waited for help defenders to shadow him before passing ropes across the floor to hit gunners and slashers. He stretched the pick-and-roll, waiting for Embiid to open out of the screen and roll into the pocket of space that resulted. If not, he would shoot the ball to the weak side of the floor to stop a shooter or facilitate a swing play.
It was the kind of effort that reminds you how important the nature of Harden’s game is to any offense, even if his shots don’t fall. The vision makes up for the difference on those nights. If the timing of those passes is right, he’s a deadly weapon no matter what his own shot does.
Speaking of the pick-and-roll game, Embiid and Harden flashed signs of the cohesion that made them so unstoppable last season. They went into coastal mode during that game, which made Embiid easy jumpers in the paint come out of the screen more often than not. Nice to see some pick and roll instead of Elbow-5 and Elbow flat.
I know the coach is the first person on the chopping block every time there’s something to complain about, but the players have to bear the market share of the blame at some point when things go bad. The starters came in looking as disjointed as ever, seemingly almost blind to the height and athleticism of Charlotte’s immature roster. They made one pass too many. One particular episode that stood out was Matisse Thybulle passing a dunk to pass the ball to Embiid, who was in the same position as he was on the other side of the court, but with a defender close by, only for that pass to be deflected for a live ball turnover.
This kind of play – where you force passes that aren’t there or make extra, unnecessary passes for a snappy ball movement – is frustrating on several levels. On the one hand, the basic principle is that you are selfless through an error, passing open shots to get the ball to teammates who are not in a good position to take advantage of having the rock in their hands. It’s called being so selfless that you’re actually selfish. On the other hand, there is such a thing as shot quality, and you don’t want to discourage ball movement when your team has such heavily used players that lack of ball movement is a common downfall when they play poorly.
This all comes back to making decisions and appreciating basketball. There’s no excuse for being so incoherent in attack. If you overlook the ways your opponent could potentially cause you problems, then you either sleep or ignore the recon report. Both are bad, but sleep deprivation may be worse for this group. They have done nothing to earn the ability to just play through games on autopilot and still win. That’s reserved for very good teams, which the Sixers have yet to establish this season.
Another thing you have to blame the players for is the transition defense. Things got better and better until Harden returned. Not a shock when you consider that one of its biggest drawbacks is the number of live-ball turnovers. It wasn’t just him in the first half, Harden contributed just one of the innings before the break. But you can forget about getting any effort from him during the transition. He might as well get under the Sixers’ basket when the opposing team goes on break. Whether it’s communication or understanding where they need to be, the entire team just doesn’t seem to care about coming back when the opponent runs out.
You could say that falls on Rivers. In a way you would be right. Except they don’t have a chance to make stops in the transition anyway because sometimes their efforts to come back are so bad. This mainly falls on the boys in the uniforms. What could help is some awareness and communication about violation. But that’s also effort and commitment, which the Sixers didn’t want to offer much of in the first quarter. Again, that comes back to playing competition.
The Sixers (14-12) will host the Sacramento Kings (14-11) on Tuesday. The tip is set at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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