The Sixers (22-14) hosted the Indiana Pacers (21-17) on Wednesday. Philadelphia planned to win for the third time in a row. Indiana wanted to win for the fifth time in a row. James Harden made some huge defensive plays down the stretch to secure a victory in overtime, 129-126.
Before we get to the game, there needs to be some context.
The Pacers were without Kendall Brown, who is out with a stress reaction in his right shin.
Daniel Theis is recovering from surgery on his right knee and was unavailable.
Isaiah Jackson is on assignment at Indiana’s G-League affiliate and was absent. Trevelin Queen has a two-way assignment with Indiana’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Rick Carlisle started Tyrese Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith and Myles Turner.
The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who missed the game with a sore left foot.
Louis King and Julian Champagnie have two-way assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker.
The Sixers kept this game close despite some early battery drains on offense with their defense. I thought, given that Embiid was unavailable, they pretty much did exactly what you’d want them to do. Without their safety blanket edge protector and a small-ball lineup to begin with, Philadelphia did a great job removing the dribble penetration. I actually didn’t notice as much switching on the perimeter as I thought I would have, some blue jerseys sticking to their assignments through picks.
There were only a handful of times Indiana got the ball in, whether it was through a drive-and-kick or a ball contact. Thanks to the Sixers for defending and denying passes inside and good positioning on the inside. That is especially difficult when the opposition can switch between Turner and Jalen Smith. That’s two more traditionally big bigs with vertical athleticism than what the Sixers had to offer, and yet Indiana couldn’t make a theme of rim shots.
Even as the ball made its way in, the Sixers’ first line of defense didn’t freeze as usual when Embiid is there to clean up their mess. There was a helper in the right place to make sure the Pacers still felt resistance. A lane helper, the designated low man, and the weak side helper who turned to the box were all there to take away the advantage Indiana thought to find. It could just have been one of those nights where the home defense was like butter. But Philadelphia really put in an excellent team effort not to give away easy buckets inside.
And then, as became a theme in the month of December, the Sixers unleashed their zone defense. That made life even more challenging for Indiana. The Pacers immediately became shy from outside the arc, moving the ball like a hot potato instead of operating patiently. They forced passes to try and beat the Philadelphia zone in rotation to their places.
Whether it was too tight a window, too hard a close range pass, or too little time, Indiana gave the ball away against the Philadelphia zone with regularity. The Sixers struggled to find rhythm on offense. But they used the extra assets they had created for themselves to come up with the right formula. After crawling out of an early hole with their defense, they created some separation with the same equation.
When the Sixers finally found their rhythm on offense, it was because they floored Indiana with speed. Usually they move relatively slowly when Embiid is available. The first pass is often to Embiid at the left block or at the elbow, and things flow from there. On Wednesday, the Sixers got the ball on the ground within the first three or four seconds of the shot clock for pulling the ball forward out of the backcourt.
The ball movement didn’t stop there. Philadelphia was not satisfied with the shot that always came from the first pass. The Sixers whizzed the ball across the floor creating a north-south movement. There were a few possessions where the Sixers made two or three passes before the shot clock even counted down to 19 seconds. That pace allowed Philadelphia to work its way to the rim when the jumpers failed to fall early.
It wasn’t Harden’s best night shooting the ball, but he didn’t let a rough night from the perimeter make him useless as a goalscorer. The man with the beard was aggressive all night chasing the edge. Even with Turner playing level or assisting on a double team, Harden found angles. He split the gap and charged through the middle of the floor to force his way into Indiana’s interior, looking for what was to come next.
If Turner didn’t show up and Harden was tasked with being the last man on an island, no big deal. He found the rim and changed speed, making his way in to challenge Turner at the rim. He fought through contact for scores at close range and finished with manual dexterity. Harden also didn’t allow himself to be a one-trick pony on the edge. He stopped briefly to dangle floats when Turner was in position to rebuff him if he dared to meet the Pacers big man all the way to the basket. Harden showed a good combination of bursting and upper body strength at the rim throughout the match.
With the game on the line, Indiana tried to do what all star teams try to do against substitution schedules. They brought Harden’s man into action on screen for Haliburton, targeting the older guard in isolation on their own star. That strategy is usually successful if your worst defender is simply smaller than the attacking player. It turns out that Harden and Haliburton are the same size. So it essentially came down to will and pride. And the Sixers point guard took the disrespect personally. It wasn’t easy, but Harden managed to get ahead of Haliburton more often than not.
He did not allow the Pacers point guard to create leverage, forcing other Pacers to play. Harden had to count on his teammates to recover and stay strong in their matchups. But he refused to be devoured on his home field. He even made the game-saving play in overtime by recording a block on the rim after missing a pair of free throws that would have given Philadelphia three points. For a man known for helping out, putting in minimal effort on his individual assignments, and being out of position on the defense glass, Harden won numerous critical one-on-one battles with his defense down the stretch to a victory to secure. for Philadelphia.
The downside to Philadelphia’s urgency to stop paint leaks was that they relied a little too much on three-point luck to begin with. Indiana started the game relatively hot off the arc, creating an early advantage with three-point shooting. There was still some degree of favorable three-point luck for Philadelphia as the game progressed. But the Sixers certainly paid a little more attention to the perimeter after the Pacers burned them from deep in the first quarter.
The momentum flowed to the Sixers in the second quarter. But after putting some distance between themselves and the Pacers, the Sixers lost which made them successful early on. Indiana was able to run in transition, which is even more problematic than usual since the Pacers play at one of the 10 fastest paces in the league. You’re going to miss shots and teams will run on those misses. But the Sixers could have done more to send players back to defend as the shots went up. Plus, the live-ball wraps hurt. That’s sloppiness, and of course it doesn’t have to be as inevitable as missing shots.
There were also a few miscommunications about switches that gave Indiana naked looks. The Pacers were effective in using staggered screens for Haliburton, forcing Philadelphia to shift gears quickly and dig deep into the shift lines. This of course causes some confusion. And the Sixers put in some good looks at threes before halftime as a result.
Harden finished the game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1, which is a very efficient number. But some of his turnovers were terrible. There were moments in the second half when he tried to read passes ahead two or three times. But because he sees things very differently from his underplayed teammates, Harden ended up making the absolute worst passes he could have made.
One was a shotgun straight into a Pacer, similar to Gardner Minshew’s pick-six against the Saints on Sunday. Another was a bad pass picked mid-floor with only one Sixer in front of the ball. Harden makes some incredible passes and has put up some downright comical double-doubles this season. But if he flips the ball, so be it ugly.
Some of those sales came later, adding gasoline to a broader trend of sales problems for Philadelphia in the fourth quarter. Live-ball errors ended a double-digit lead heading into the final quarter of the game, the Pacers even taking a four-point lead into the final minute of regulation.
The perfect sum of both the Sixers’ turnover problems and general mind-boggling execution in holding late leads was an eight-second offense despite having three guards on the field. How do you do that?
To compound the problem, the Sixers’ defense was not as strong as it had been in the first three quarters. Loved became particularly problematic. The Sixers faked Hield’s quick shot several times, allowing the Pacers wing to reset for open threes as the future defender scrambled to recover. When they failed to bite the counterfeit, the Sixers lost it around the perimeter. Held connected on a handful of triples along the stretch to bring the Pacers closer and even take the lead.
Somewhat a by-product of Harden’s turnover, but beyond that, I thought the Sixers’ offense really fell apart in crisis time when no. 1 slowed down the game with his overdribbles. That wasn’t a problem in the first half, which coincided with the time frame the Sixers were humming. The more he slowed down the game, the less the ball moved, the better Indiana could set up his defense, and the more the Sixers started working against the shot clock.
There was even an extended stretch between the fourth quarter and overtime where Maxey barely touched the ball except for one strike when swing passes came his way. He has grown into one elite catch-and-shoot three-point sniper, so it’s fine that he plays more off the ball. But sometimes it’s both good and necessary to let your backcourt partner take over some of the ball-handling duties so that the opposing defense can’t just anticipate what you’re going to do and be comfortable with a schedule. In fact, the suddenly spluttering Sixers offense finally threw the game out in the extra session when Philadelphia decided to put the ball in Maxey’s hands.
The Sixers (23-14) will host the Chicago Bulls (17-21) on Friday. The tip is set at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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