The Sixers (21-14) hosted the New Orleans Pelicans (23-13) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to avenge Friday’s loss to the Pelicans and start 2023 with a win. New Orleans wanted to right its wrongs after Saturday’s loss to the Grizzlies. Joel Embiid dropped 42 points to lead the Sixers to their 10th straight home win, 120-111.
Before we get to the action, a few notes.
The Pelicans were without Brandon Ingram, who has a bruise on his left big toe.
Larry Nancy Jr. missed the game with neck cramps.
EJ Liddell is out for the season as he recovers from a torn right cruciate ligament. Dereon Seabron was on a two-way assignment at the G-League affiliate in New Orleans and was unavailable.
Willie Green started CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas.
The Sixers were without Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who have two-way assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid.
His status uncertain, leading to the official announcement of Philadelphia’s starting lineup due to back pain, Embiid wasted no time establishing himself and the Sixers’ intensity level in the first few minutes of the game. He won the physical battle on Philadelphia’s first game and claimed the offensive rebound on his own miss on a drive to the rim and went back up with the ball to score from close range. Embiid then stroked a midrange jumper and threw in a triple from the left elbow and wing, respectively, to score the Sixers’ first seven runs of the game.
He did not shy away from Valanciunas or any other pelican that dared to stand between him and the basket. The big guy was happy to draw contact in his attack on the basket. Embiid hit the charity streak a few times in the first quarter. He slowed the game down to his pace. Embiid forced the Pelicans to downsize as he logged foul after foul on them. And, of course, he collected his usual share of scores in the process.
McCollum didn’t completely shut up after firing Philadelphia for 11 threes in their first game of the season. But the Sixers did a much better job of giving him a hard time. First and foremost, the majority of Philadelphia’s first half sales were of the lethal type. Right call or not, the umpires pinged the Sixers for a handful of offensive fouls in the first 24 minutes. So if nothing else, at least the Pelicans weren’t able to get McCollum in transition like they did on Friday. That is also a credit to Harden. He had a handful of live-ball flips in the first game between these two teams, allowing New Orleans to jump the floor without much resistance. This time nothing happened in the first half.
Beyond that, Melton did a much better job navigating off-ball screens meant for McCollum. He found the most efficient way to reconnect to his assignment was to cut off the screener and go down to meet McCollum on the other side. When Melton failed to do so, he tried to anticipate McCollum’s move, betting against his fake steps in any direction to get ahead of him on the possible location of the pass. McCollum still got his and scored 26 points that night. But the Sixers were much better at limiting his spurts so he couldn’t take over the game on his own all at once.
Speaking of defensive strategy, I thought the Sixers did a much better job of slowing down Williamson as well. It certainly felt like he really dominated the game, but most of the impact came at the end of the second quarter and into the third quarter. He eventually left the game with a pulled right hamstring and did not return. In the first half, Philadelphia made it a point to put two defenders on Zion as he drove, walling the interior and taking away lanes to drive to the Cup. He still did his job. It’s inevitable when the player is faster and stronger than pretty much anyone else in the sport. But there were a few possessions in New Orleans in which Zion seemingly admitted he couldn’t reach the rim and settled for short jumpers who had no chance of getting in.
Individual defense assignments aside, the Sixers did a really good job protecting the rim when all else failed. Six different Sixers each took a block, with Embiid and Harrell getting full hands on their respective rejections. Melton made a timely rotation to deter a shot close to the basket that a teammate was already contesting. Matisse Thybulle denied McCollum on a short jumper late in the game. Even when they didn’t pile up the blocks, the Sixers collectively made games on some high-quality potential attempts that missed the mark for New Orleans.
I thought Embiid brought the ball up himself quite often in this game, even with Harden on the ground. I don’t have a solid theory why. But it was interesting to see the outcome of some of those assets. Embiid would take the ball to the side of the floor and work his way to the post. The double team would come and Harden would be left alone at the top or move to the strong side in the shadows. Embiid was in time with his kickout to beat the double and shoot the ball to Harden.
The man with the beard had a few candid looks from deep. He didn’t take them all, opting instead to swing a few to the next guy on the weak side to keep the ball moving. But Harden did let a few fly off the catch. I wonder if that was Embiid pushing Harden to at least try more as a catch-and-shoot player. If so, the more interesting question is whether they agreed with that idea or whether Embiid was subtly trying to remind Harden that he needs to be a more willing and flexible off-ball guard. Or it could be nothing. It just didn’t seem like the kind of game that called for more Embiid ball handling than usual.
There were some good things from the reserves in this game, whether it was a specific line-up or individual play. First, the two-man game between Harden and Georges Niang was on point from the moment the attacker checked into the game. I understand the concerns that arise when Harden, in all his offensive dynamism, comes off the screen. But it’s practically free money for Philadelphia every time.
Niang pops, Harden’s man and the screener’s defender chase the ball. The gunner is wide open on the edge. And Harden makes the pass – a bounce pass behind the back, to be exact – basically every time. It’s an automatic open three every time they run it, and defenses are fine living by it. But when Niang plays, it’s a great game. And he was definitely on target in this game. The pick-and-pop generated points for Philadelphia as Embiid charged throughout the game.
Harden also had one of his best games this season controlling the offense without Embiid. In its simplest form, the idea is that Embiid and Harden do what they want while the other is on the couch, and then they come together for magic in crunch time. Except Harden struggled to take over when he was tasked with leading four role-players. That was not the case in this game. Harden cooked with the second unit all game long.
I thought the best thing he did was to violently attack downhill once he got the switch he wanted on the perimeter. Harden often plays on contact and immediately resorts to selling the contact when he feels it instead of playing it through. Or he subtly fades from contact as he attacks the cup. None of that was the case against New Orleans. The man with the beard went straight for the chest of several pelicans, working his way through contact to convert layups or finish devious baskets through fouls.
Tyrese Maxey looked a lot more comfortable in this game than in his first game back. He gave everyone numerous hints that he was starting to feel like himself, using his speed to burst to the basket for a few line drives. He also had his usual body control and power, getting to the line a few times on contact for the bonus free throw. There were some signature moments for the young guard, even in a short time of getting used to the game again.
With the game on the line at the end of the fourth quarter, Philadelphia really punished New Orleans as they double-teamed Harden. The Pelicans would send the double from the strong side. It drew the corner helper on the weak side to fall to the basket. Harden countered the move by getting off the ball. He swung it to the weak side to facilitate the pass to the left-open Sixer in the corner. The Sixers got an open three from Niang and a signature baseline drive for a cunning layup from Maxey due to the late rotation back to the corner.
I just don’t see much reason to play Zion with one man. Especially when he’s on the edge. Zion is a non-shooter from the outside. He may have the most resilient first step in the game. You just aren’t going to win isolations with consistency if you put one defender in space on him.
I think the idea is to encourage him to help. You bet on your helpers to take the ball away from him. But you’ll live with him who opens threes if you beat him. I would just double team him on the drive and drop closer to the lanes if he catches the ball on the rim. Force him to run you over. It’s easy to see why he’s so good. But it’s not like he’s going to beat you in different ways.
Speaking of defending Williamson, the Sixers got away from what worked in the first quarter. Part of it was definitely that he just woke up and stood up for himself. But the Sixers stopped by putting two on the ball. Instead, they went with single cover and let Tucker defend him in space. It made no sense. Zion absolutely enjoyed the Philadelphia interior between the end of the second quarter and his exit with a second half injury.
Harris hesitated on a few good looks from deep as the ball made its way to him. He’s been hesitating more often lately. Those catch-and-shoot looks are quickly disappearing. Need to rediscover that rhythm. It would probably help if the Sixers didn’t let him go a few minutes without touching the ball before shooting at him for quick shots off the catch.
The Sixers (22-14) will host the Indiana Pacers (21-17) on Wednesday. The tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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