James Harden steps to the free throw line in Sixers-Warriors game, December 2022

The Sixers (15-12) hosted the Golden State Warriors (14-15) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to win its fourth game in a row. Golden State intended to snap a two-game losing streak. Joel Embiid and James Harden combined for 61 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists to power the Sixers past the short-handed Warriors, 118-106.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Warriors were without Stephen Curry, who has a sore left shoulder. Draymond Green missed the game with a right quadriceps contusion. Andrew Wiggins has a strained right adductor and was unavailable.

Andre Iguodala is managing a left hip injury and was out. 

Steve Kerr started Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Donte DiVincenzo, Jonathan Kuminga, and Kevon Looney.

The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a small fracture in his left foot. Doc Rivers told reporters after a practice earlier in the week that Maxey was still weeks away from returning and that he had a long way to go before he was ready. The original timeline targeted games leading up to Philadelphia’s visit with the Knicks in New York on Christmas Day. There is no recalibrated timeline as of now.

Tobias Harris missed the game with back pain.

Furkan Korkmaz has a non-Covid illness and was out. Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. 

Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were out.

Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.


Embiid struggled to find his footing. But, Harden was up to the task for the Sixers in the first quarter. He rained down three triples in the frame to do his part in matching Golden State’s stroke from deep. One particular triple, a step-back from the deepest part of the corner, was an unusual attempt for the bearded guy. It seemed like a sign that he was really feeling it and trusting his jumper. Since returning from the foot injury, Harden is 17-for-39 from deep. That’s pushing 44 percent over a five-game stretch. Not a definitive sign of any sort, but a good indicator of how Harden’s legs feel. It’s at least somewhat surprising given that he went from being out to playing a high-30s minute load so rapidly. 

The one thing the Sixers did well on defense in the first quarter was force turnovers on the drive. Their hands were fast and strong, reaching in for strips or slap-downs on the leg, not even letting the Warriors get all the way to the rim or get the ball up to the rim when they tried to drive off the bounce. And while Philadelphia was slow to get going on offense, those live-ball turnovers sent the Sixers out in transition, hunting for easy shots.

Once Embiid realized he had yet to dominate the game on offense and that his team desperately needed someone to take control on defense, he ratcheted up his effort in protecting the rim. And, man, did he dominate in that department. It started with the emphatic rejection of a Poole shot at the rim, and carried into the third quarter. Even if he didn’t get his hands on the ball, his existence in the vicinity bothered the Warriors.

From DiVincenzo to Looney, the Warriors smoked a bunch of looks at the rim just on the virtue of Embiid being on the court. When Montrezl Harrell is on the court, you feel like even his best efforts to protect the rim don’t matter, the opposition throwing in every shot at the cup they can loft up there. Paul Reed makes you feel like you’re getting a block, an accidental good contest because he misses the block or stays planted just enough to not commit a foul, an unintentionally violent foul, or a putback because he chases the block and gives up the offensive rebound. 

When Embiid is on the floor, you don’t exactly know what he’s going to do defensively. But, when he turns it on, his impact has a radius that spreads beyond just his wingspan and height. The shear possibility that he could skip three footsteps to lunge in a late rotation scares the opposing offense into rushing when they’re up close or tossing up shots that don’t have a prayer. And when he gets there, he devours the ball, sending it into the stands and shocking life into the building’s guests that night.

The balance between Harden and Embiid went beyond their nearly-identical scoring efforts. Harden did his damage both in dribble penetration and manipulating shading helpers all over the floor. But Golden State adjusted, assigning the young and rangy Kuminga to Harden to try to contain the ball. And rather than scratch his own ego, Harden adjusted on his own, tossing the keys to Embiid to handle the ball.

That ended up being a smashing success for the Sixers as the third quarter wore on, Embiid facilitating the offense as the ball-handler. His teammates ran around him and ran with him, benefitting from Embiid’s aggression in making Golden State commit to stopping him. The Sixers got three really good looks in a row. A balanced attack is just harder to defend when the two focal points work together. But, balance also allows for continuity when the styles, pace, and lineups change. For what felt like one of the first times all season, Embiid and Harden achieved a balance between just their respective weights in the box score.

I think one of the best qualities of Harden’s game is his ability to see shading when it’s happening — or anticipate it ahead of time — and execute against it. He doesn’t always get trapped or blitzed; teams don’t always double-team him, either. Rather than giving him an aggressive commitment, they’ll shade helpers his way ever so slightly to tease him a bit. “We dare you to drive”, the strategy effectively says.

It’s all the same to Harden, who will draw the shader closer by pulling away in the opposite direction or attacking towards them. And just when they step or lean one inch too far, he fires to the teammate they left alone to shade. He’ll even see shaders one offensive player away, sensing the weak-side helper stepping towards the lane a bit too far in case he hits the roller, and fire to the opposite corner for an open three or drive off the dribble.

Even when he doesn’t shoot well, makes poor decisions, or turns the ball over, Harden’s experience in facing so many different defensive strategies and shoot-pass gravity bring a surplus of decent-to-good looks for his teammates. It’s a different offense when he’s on the floor.


I know the default thought is that the star-studded team should bulldoze the opposition when they’re without their own stars. It can especially be the case when the team with more of its talent available is on their home court. But, it just isn’t an automatic victory. We saw the distorted version of that a few weeks ago, when the Sixers sans their three best players hosted the nearly-full Nets and beat them by double-digits. There are elements of pride, random shotmaking, and gently-sloping confidence that factor into how resistant the short-handed team is to being blown out. The Warriors, the reigning champs trying to slow the back-end of their dynastic run atop the NBA, are going to come out with confidence and pride no matter who’s available. But, the Sixers didn’t show them that respect in the first quarter.

DiVincenzo led the charge for Golden State in the opening frame, knocking down five triples. The quality of the shot matters more than the make itself because of that randomness in shotmaking mentioned above. But, the Sixers used those first 12 minutes to test him. The risk in testing a player, though, is letting him heat up.

They went under screens on him, showing no urgency in even faking like they were getting out to the shooter. Even when they got a bit more frisky on defense and challenged the Warriors’ playmaking and cohesion, Philadelphia fell short on motivation when Golden State proved intelligent enough to find the hot man, slowing to an uninspiring walk short of contesting DiVincenzo. They dared the Villanova product to miss open threes all quarter, from a variety of depths and angles. He took them up on the challenge.

The problem then multiplied. DiVincenzo’s fever spread to his teammates. The whole time, the Sixers didn’t really seem to care or even consider tightening up. I’m not going to say there wasn’t some luck to the run of torrid shooting. At least one Warrior three-pointer popped off the rim with just enough touch to eventually find the inside of the basket as some sort of twisted homage to the Kawhi shot. But, the Sixers by and large found themselves having to put out a rapidly-spreading fire early because they slept through the first quarter.

Even on offense, the Sixers were sleepy. Embiid, in particular, looked out of it early on. He lost the ball a couple times on the way to the basket in the first frame. The big fella didn’t go right at Looney or other Warriors in his way aggressively unless James Wiseman was on the court. Maybe it’s the recent string of 20-point first quarters, but it didn’t feel like Embiid tried to assert himself early on. As such, the Sixers got off to an uninspiring start on both ends. Perhaps the biggest sign that he wasn’t all the way in the game was a pair of weird dribbling turnovers. He just randomly stopped dribbling while on the move, trapping himself in bizarre spots and losing his dribble. 

The Sixers didn’t learn their lesson at halftime, at least not at first. The Warriors simply swapped out DiVincenzo cooking for Poole catching fire. He knocked in a handful of triples curling off the ball or snaking long around the ball screen. Poole beat the Sixers in pretty much the same way throughout his run. He got to the deepest spot of the left wing before letting it fly.

The Poole party continued through the rest of the game, even when the Sixers took control and pulled away. Philadelphia sat in drop coverage, letting him and any other ball-handler with dynamic scoring traits peel away from screens in the middle of the floor for uncontested floaters, pull-up jumpers, and dribble penetration. Taking advantage of the drop was really how the Warriors’ offense stayed in the game for as long as they did.

Georges Niang’s shot has been one of the most consistent staples of the Sixers’ offense as far as supporting cast goes this season. But, I didn’t love his shot selection in this game. Felt like he was shooting off every catch, regardless of how much space or time he had. Maybe I only noticed it because he didn’t quite have his touch tonight. But, it felt like he was rushing and forcing a bit.

The Sixers (16-12) will host the Toronto Raptors (13-16) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 


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