The Sixers (18-12) hosted the Los Angeles Clippers (19-14) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to sweep the seven-game home standings. Los Angeles aimed to win for the third straight time. James Harden went for 20 points, 21 assists and 11 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a huge comeback victory over the Clippers, 119-114.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Clippers were without Brandon Boston Jr. and Jason Preston, who have assignments at the G-League affiliate in Los Angeles. Moussa Diabate has a two-way assignment with the Clippers’ G-League partner and was unavailable.
John Wall missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Tyronn Lue started Reggie Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who continues to move up for a return from a minor fracture in his left foot.
Before the game, Doc Rivers expressed doubt that Maxey would be ready in time for the Christmas Day game against the Knicks. But he claimed that Maxey is almost right for the Sixers.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers rode some rollercoasters to get to 6-0 on this seven-game home standings. But there weren’t many impressive performances because the opponent was either not that good or left their best players behind. The Clippers, with both Leonard and George available – something that has become increasingly unusual – made for a bigger task. It could have been a rough awakening from the jump, the Sixers thought a little too highly of themselves in the middle of a hot stretch only to come out and get punched in the face.
But Embiid was ready to go from the start. He scored 15 points in his first run, setting the tone in his team’s early stages. But just talking about it loses the point. Embiid and Leonard went back and forth throughout the quarter, with George picking up the slack as the two checked out for their respective teams. A great display of star shots in the first quarter, a nice change of pace from the imbalance favoring the Sixers on this home run.
Embiid’s early heating made Harden’s job quite easy. Find the big guy early and often. And that’s what he did. Embiid did well, beating the Clippers down the field and gaining an early advantage on the inside so that Harden could throw touchdown passes for him to get easy baskets on the rim. One of the best things you can do for Embiid is get him to within 15 feet of the basket early on the shot clock, and Harden did that on their opening stint together. Possibly the easiest six assists he ever gets in a quarter.
I have to give credit to the Sixers, as the entire team, for what they did after going down 20. the New York Knicks. On the contrary, they slowly went away, trying to win every remaining minute in the first half. And then suddenly the deficit was only 12 points heading into the break.
The Sixers were a completely different team after halftime. The Clippers delivered a quick blow early in the quarter, cutting the deficit to 16 points. But the Sixers weren’t bothered. They just fought back. Embiid couldn’t always get all the way to the basket against the very strong Zubac. But Harden and other teammates found him by the elbows. Zubac got him a few times and sent his jumpers back to where they came from to force the Sixers to reset. But Embiid’s jumper worked pretty well otherwise.
Among other mechanisms of offensive success was the pick-and-roll partnership between the big man and his point guard. Just as the Clippers did against the Sixers’ second unit in the first half, Philadelphia attacked mismatches. And when the Sixers liked what a switch would do if Embiid screened for Harden, they went for it. The big man slid to the rim when he received the bearded’s ball from a throw, and made easy, high-quality shots at the cup without having to work too hard. Even when Embiid popped, it wasn’t always a jumper. He found space on the catch and drove into the slot when he saw opportunities to get to the edge.
It wasn’t just Embiid who had a blip on Harden’s radar. He used his creative gravity like a magician, shooting the ball to teammates when Los Angeles helped to the nail. Harden also challenged himself to use his blowout more, aggressively pursuing opportunities to get his feet in the paint when he liked his matchup on isolation plays. Between punishing shades or hard assists approaching the nail and working his way into the paint to converge Los Angeles on the ball, Harden’s style of play was absolutely phenomenal throughout the game.
He catalyzed the Sixers and turned a 20-point deficit into a tie in less than fifteen minutes, spitting the ball across the floor to open shooters. Harden orchestrated the attack by controlling the pace the situation called for. He sped up his team when the Clippers missed shots or flipped the ball into the open floor. If Los Angeles got a chance to defend itself, no problem. He slowed things down and found ways to break the dribble’s first line of defense before speeding up or putting Los Angeles into a break before firing the ball across the floor.
It wasn’t the cleanest night of shooting for the bearded man, but the Sixers won’t come close to winning on Friday without him conducting the chorus. It was the point guard game of Harden’s life. Not only were his 21 assists a career best, but they also tied Mo Cheeks and Wilt Chamberlain for the franchise’s individual record for most in a game.
I don’t know how much credit Rivers deserves for simply doing the opposite of the mistake he made in the first half, going to Paul Reed to open the fourth quarter instead of Harrell. The players need to play better. But they are also just who they are, especially if your eyes wander further down the couch. Rivers should never have involved Harrell in this matchup and then compounded the problem with an all-bank unity. So even though he corrected himself as Philadelphia found new life, heading into the fourth quarter with a tie, he deserves some criticism for the hole they were in initially.
Nevertheless, the head coach made the right decision. Acknowledging that Harrell’s minutes were a disaster, Rivers turned to Reed for meaningful play for the first time since December 9. Most important of all, the Sixers were plus-4 in his minutes. After being overwhelmed by the storm without Embiid in the first half, they kept their heads above water as he rested to begin the deciding frame of the match.
The Clippers weren’t done even as the Sixers pushed the lead to nine points. You’re never done when you have Leonard and George. They threatened and traded threes with the Sixers for a few possessions to eventually recapture the lead. But the Sixers decided that Leonard would no longer beat them alone in isolation.
They trapped him high, forced the ball out of his hands, and bet against other Clippers making plays. To the Clippers’ credit, they ended up cashing in on the Sixers’ defensive imbalance a few times. But Zubac playing from the short pitch will only be effective so many times. And after a blistering first half, the perimeter shots that once found the target in the final few minutes went to the Clippers to secure the Sixers’ comeback win.
Everything good in the first half came to a dramatic halt once Rivers made his first big rotation decision. The Sixers would never repeat Embiid’s production (15 of his 23 first-half points in the first quarter), but they fell off a cliff when Montrezl Harrell checked in on the game.
Drop coverage, poor edge protection and terrible rebounding – great traits against good teams. The default coverage when Harrell is on the floor has to be lowered because he can’t move his feet well enough to play on screen. Even as Los Angeles declined the option to run in pull-up midrange shots, they reached the rim and challenged Harrell to protect the basket. They didn’t just kill the Sixers’ defenses there. The other problem was that Los Angeles got Philadelphia into rotation with swing passes. The Clippers were torrid from three-point range in the first half. But even when they missed, Harrell was not winning any fights on the glass. Zubac absolutely ate him alive for that matter. So Los Angeles got extra chances to take advantage of possession.
Things really started to slip when Rivers rolled with an all-bench unit towards the end of the first quarter. Simply put, the Sixers are limited in making shots as they are. They can win the lottery on any given night, with one player coming forward to supply the gas needed to contain the fortress. But on the nights when it doesn’t, going all the benches takes away any attack. Going on the defensive with your worst inner presence and stripping your offense of every hub is not a recipe for a well-cooked meal, especially against a good team. So Philadelphia fell nine points before Harden returned, and more after that, as Leonard charged on the bench.
Ed Malloy must be high on the list of the NBA’s worst umpires. His whistle constantly stinks, and this game was no different.
On Christmas Day, the Sixers visit the New York Knicks. The tip is scheduled for noon Eastern time. You can catch up on the action on ABC and ESPN.
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