Almost exactly 11 months ago, the Sixers were the ones sent back to the drawing board after giving away a 20-point lead in the second half to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
This time, it was George who found the target on a high-catch, no-dip three-pointer just off the Sixers’ bench to give the Clippers a 20-point lead with three minutes and 37 seconds left in the first half. . Los Angeles’ 20-point lead lasted a whopping 19 seconds. They had threatened to break up a few more times as the Sixers made their league slump.
Everything the Sixers could do from the moment the basketball ripped through the nylon was demolished. Win action every minute. They wouldn’t do it without Joel Embiid and James Harden. But it had to start with an offensive rhythm. Who better to generate that than the Philadelphia central duo?
“As I said the other day, leads are being given away all the time in this league, and you just have to hang in there,” head coach Doc Rivers said after Friday’s comeback victory over the Clippers.
Embiid dominated the scoring column for Philadelphia, with 44 points on effective field goal and true shooting percentages both above 60.
But it was Harden who conducted the orchestra. Even before the Sixers fell behind by 20 points, he set the pace for the Philadelphia offense. First, Harden established his big man, who built a 15-point lead in the first quarter. Harden got off the ball quickly as Los Angeles was slow to set up its defense, making sweeping passes for Embiid to score inside against mismatches.
And if the Clippers could set up their defense, no problem. Harden liked to slow things down. He waited for his teammates to move or for a screen to appear. When the time was right, Harden changed direction and slightly increased his speed, synchronizing his movements through traffic with his partner’s in the actions so that the pass would be at just the right time and place.
It’s not just that Harden’s timing or decision-making was excellent on Friday. It’s that he used one aspect of his game to feed another.
He’s been squeezing the Clippers’ internal defenses all night. Harden challenged Clippers center Ivica Zubac to sit back on the rim as he, a 56 percent shooter on jumpers between 14 feet and the three-point line this season, slid across fencing. If the game of chicken was too much for Zubac, he would even slow down his kicking backwards or lean in to Harden to lift something. The man with the beard had it right where he wanted it.
“Teams that drop games and also switch, it’s all about the timing. Once Zubac was in, I knew I could get that pocket pass every time. I knew if I started posting they would just double all the time. But the pocket pass midrange jumper, that’s my chance. So I’d rather have that than being double-teamed at the post and getting beaten up down there. So we just knew how to execute,” Embiid said after the game.
“And once they went to the switch, I think we just got better on the timing. Knowing when he gets the iso will I get the ball at the elbow or go to the post. That’s where we got it, and just the timing, us working together, always talking. He’s been great. He talked about more catch-and-shoot, and he did.
The Sixers still trailed by 12 points at halftime, leaving the second half behind most of their turnaround.
Embiid scored 21 points after the break. But it was Harden who again conducted the symphony. He recorded 11 of his 21 assists in the second half. Everyone was involved.
It wasn’t just that he got into the arc or used his gravity to get the Clippers into trouble. It was that he was fast and used pace to get assistant defenders a bit out of position. The more Harden purposefully attacked downhill, the more the Clippers either dwarfed him or helped him hard.
Harden wasn’t looking for much. All he wanted was an extra white jersey to lean an inch towards him during the ride. Take a moment to think about what to do with the approaching ball and the actual command stationed in the corner ready to shoot. That split second, that extra half-step toward the lock and away from the shooter, was all Harden needed. He used that gravity he has, that extra attention his ability demands, to create space for his teammates. And it wasn’t until his presence forced the Clippers into irreparable positions that he blasted the ball out of the drive-and-kick play to his teammates for threes.
After a 4-for-14 showing from the perimeter in the first half, the Sixers finished the final 24 minutes 8-for-15 past the arc. They went 5-for-9 in the third quarter, turning a 12-point deficit into a three-point lead. Harden had six assists in the frame.
“I think it’s more just reading, you just kind of read it. He’s just a talented offensive player. So you know he’s either moving into a position where he can score or he’s going to look for his teammates. If he controls the slot, let’s say, then you know that if you’re in the corner, there’s a good chance you’ll get the ball. It’s just about keeping your distance and really knowing basketball,” Shake Milton said after the game about how to know when a Harden pass is coming.
“James is so selfless and he does a good job just orchestrating the attack that the ball just flies around.”
Symbolic of that selflessness, Harden led the Sixers with 69 passes in the game. The next closest was De’Anthony Melton, who made 46.
It symbolizes more than Harden’s selflessness. Friday’s victory to top the home score 7-0 was the culmination of Harden’s willingness to reinvent himself as more of a point guard than a central scorer to achieve a team-oriented goal.
“This is a generation of player, scorer, who chose and decided to be a point guard – still score – but to be a point guard for this team. That’s hard to do; most people can’t, or won’t not do it is a better way to put it,” Rivers said after the game.
“The fact that he’s doing it voluntarily, leading the team and organizing us is huge for us.”
On Friday, just under a year after taking a 24-point lead over the short-handed Clippers in Philadelphia, Harden’s generalship led the short-handed Sixers back from a 20-point deficit against the Clippers on a frigid night in South Philadelphia.
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