The Sixers (23-15) visited the Detroit Pistons (11-31) on Sunday afternoon. Philadelphia wanted to make amends after losing to the Chicago Bulls on Friday. Detroit wanted to get back on track after Friday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. James Harden recorded a triple-double to lead the Sixers to victory in Detroit, 123-111.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who missed his third straight game with a sore left foot.
PJ Tucker was absent with a non-Covid illness.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Julian Champagnie and Louis King are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris and Montrezl Harrell.
The Pistons were without the services of Cade Cunningham, who is out this season with a stress fracture in his left tibia.
Marvin Bagley III has metacarpal fractures in his right hand and was out. Jalen Duren missed the game with a sore right ankle.
Isaiah Livers has a sprained right shoulder and was unavailable. Rodney McGruder missed the game with a non-Covid illness.
Buddy Boeheim and Jared Rhoden have two-way assignments at Detroit’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Dwane Casey started Killian Hayes, Jaden Ivey, Saddiq Bey, Bojan Bogdanovic and Isaiah Stewart.
A good summary of the first quarter was Harden-Harrell’s two-man play that penalized the Pistons, and then the Sixers held their own as the duo made their respective exits. Philadelphia jumped out to an early 8-point lead, almost purely thanks to the chemistry the point guard and center have. It was as simple as taking what Detroit showed on defense and responding accordingly. There was nothing forced, no misjudgment of risk within the action, nothing special except the spice Harden added to his passes to Harrell.
If Harden didn’t like his options on the edge and didn’t want to reduce the attack to his one-on-one dancing, he called his big man in front of a screen. Playing high in cover, Detroit was unwilling to sacrifice dribbling penetration to really open up Philadelphia’s offense. That was fine with Harden, who waited until he pulled the big one up just far enough to clear the lane for Harrell before delivering the ball to his teammate for rim shots. If Detroit didn’t fully give in to its threats to go downhill, Harden fought his way to the rim before throwing the ball to Harrell on the rim, who leaked behind the big while focused on Harden.
Harden posted a handful of dimes on his own in his first stint run in the two-man game with Harrell. And the hot start built Harrell up for his run in the second quarter. At the check-in, Harden and Harrell jointly restored order after the Pistons cut Philadelphia’s double-digit lead to four points. Harrell took mismatches out of the dribble and made his patented quick flip shot in the center of the court. He collected offensive rebounds for putbacks, and he bulldozed his way into the basket for finishes around the cup. He was the game’s leading scorer at halftime and the Sixers led by 17 at halftime.
Harrell has been just amazing the past three games. The biggest difference is that he plays with a lot of control. His footwork and balance have been excellent as of late, eliminating the tricky passes that caused failed layups and missed catches on pocket passes. He’s making those tough catches on the go now, with enough momentum to the edge to just push his way through traffic for authoritative finishes. That didn’t happen during the first 35 or so games.
We can’t praise Harrell without returning to Harden. The man with the beard played with the Pistons for 28 minutes. If they made the mistake of going down on ball screens, he’d stop behind the pickaxe and down a three. If his defender disrespected him with shooting range, Harden would rock him to sleep before hitting a stepback triple. It wasn’t just a party from beyond the arc, though. Harden called screeners to get the mismatch he wanted on the perimeter. He then danced his new defender out of position before bursting to the cup for layups.
He kept the ball on a string throughout the game, using his own gravity to dim his shooters and cutters if a Detroit helper were to shadow him. Harden did what he wanted on the field, barely sweating on his way to a triple-double on the Sixers’ first possession in the third quarter. It was a far cry from what he was capable of when the Sixers lost to the Pistons last spring when Harden couldn’t muster enough power to get around Isaiah Stewart on substitutions in Detroit.
Paul Reed was just fantastic, recording more minutes as Harrell’s backup than the starting center. He battled all night for offensive rebounds and generated eight (!) additional offensive plays for Philadelphia by calling in his team’s misses. Sometimes it was simply bigger and longer than the Piston that stood in his way. He simply tapped the ball up and out of their reach before claiming it himself. Other times it was Reed flying around a frozen Piston to grab the ball as it fell off the rim or punch one out to position inside as the shot went up.
Reed’s defense was also excellent. In its simplest form, any dialogue on that front begins with a look at the number of offenses he’s committed. Only two in over 24 minutes of playing time. Excellent. But Reed showed great discipline in contesting shots. He held his hands back and arms up. But Reed still used his body to keep Detroit away from the rim no matter how close they got to the basket.
He even remained disciplined in space, usually keeping his feet on the ground on fake shots and not using his hips to make contact when he felt a Piston closing in on him. Reed practiced his best techniques both on perimeter defenses near switches and in the paint protecting the perimeter. I suspect Harrell is totally entrenched in the rotation right behind Embiid, and I don’t think this game has changed that at all. But this was arguably Reed’s best performance of the season.
Maxey was Philadelphia’s leading scorer in the game, but he had a particularly superb stretch late in the third quarter. The young guard stepped on the gas in transition and converted a few layups (one and -1). He then closed out the quarter by dusting off Hayes in isolation before strapping on a pull-up midrange jersey. Maxey’s three-point shot was short all game, but he hit some tough midrange jumpers from the dribble. It was the burst, the element that takes him from picture perfect to total blur, that came back in a big way. With each passing game, he gets closer to being back all the way.
We can’t finish the “Like” part of the column without applauding Matisse Thybulle. Six steals in this game for the defensive specialist. He chased errant, lazy passes around the field all game long. The long wing’s gamble paid off pretty much every time, Thybulle sprinting for his brief to intercept the ball on the open field. He absolutely terrorized Detroit with the live ball covers all game long.
Philadelphia kicked off some really sloppy turnovers in the first quarter. There were some bad passes Detroit picked, and one inexplicably bad dribbling from Harden. It didn’t feel like much of it was a result of Detroit’s defense. The Sixers just came out bored against an awful team on a Sunday afternoon on the road.
In the end, there was never really any doubt about this game. But it took the Sixers a while to finally put this game away. They seemed ready to hit the nail in the coffin a few times, only for the Pistons to make a small run to get him back within striking distance. The Sixers do that often and rarely pick up a wire-to-wire smackdown. Drop the hammer, boys.
The Sixers (24-15) will host the Detroit Pistons (11-32) on Tuesday. The tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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