The Sixers (49-31) hosted the Indiana Pacers (25-55) on Saturday afternoon. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Raptors on Thursday. Indiana hoped to get revenge on the Sixers from a loss earlier in the week. The Sixers got monster double-doubles from Joel Embiid and James Harden to capture their 50th victory of the season, 133-117.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
The Pacers were without Malcolm Brogdon, who was nursing a sore lower back.
Chris Duarte was out with a sore left big toe. Goga Bitadze missed the game with a sore right foot.
Ricky Rubio was out with a torn left ACL. Myles Turner is healing from a stress reaction in his left foot and was unavailable.
TJ Warren is recovering from a fractured left Navicular bone and was out.
Jalen Smith missed the game with a sore left groin. Nate Hinton entered the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and was unavailable.
Rick Carlisle started TJ McConnell, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Oshae Brissett, and Isaiah Jackson.
The Sixes were without Georges Niang, who missed the game with a patella tendinopathy in his left knee.
Jaden Springer, Charles Bassey, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were all on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats. Bassey is also battling right shoulder pain.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers did a professional job of not falling asleep when TJ McConnell Nash’d his way around the basket in Indiana’s first few possessions of the game. Nashing, for those who don’t know, was popularized by Steve Nash as probing the interior for a play by attacking the basket from one side and curling back around towards the lane after emerging from the side opposite of where you first attacked. If you catch an interior defense sleeping on you as a ball-handler, you can get a reverse layup from the under rim. If the defense pays too much attention to the ball-handler, a screening big can dive or a wing can cut. The Sixers didn’t fall for the probe, stuffing McConnell on a layup and thwarting any options out of another Nash attempt early in the game.
Paul Reed was the recipient of the backup center minutes, once again. And again, I mostly liked what I saw. The Sixers outscored the Pacers by 6 points with Reed on the floor in the first half. Much of that positive was thanks to his play on offense. Reed used his athleticism and strength to work around obstacles in the paint for finishes around the rim. There were instances in which teammates couldn’t turn the corner and passed out to Reed, who bulldozed his way to the cup to clean up the nothingness that they had going. His mobility gets him into trouble with decision-making on both ends of the floor, but it also allows him to correct his own miscues on the fly.
On the defensive end, Reed rushed to the right corner of the rim to make a weak-side block. He was whistled for a foul because he hit the shooter in the face, but those flashes show his ability to recover from spot to spot. On this particular team, all the Sixers need him to do is not actively harm the lead that the Sixers forged with Embiid on the floor. None of Rivers’ preferred options behind the big fella are going to do that in absence of the occasional stroke of luck. Charles Bassey was worth a look. We’ll see how comfortable Rivers is with giving him playoff minutes right off an injury. But for now, Reed’s upside far outweighs his downside.
You could not ask for a more leisurely path to points than what Joel Embiid had throughout the game. He made a number of catches out of the short roll, utilizing his mobility to get to the rim for scores. If it wasn’t that, Embiid caught, pivoted, shot-faked, and went up for clean layups off the glass. And that was just if the Pacers didn’t foul him. Embiid lived at the free throw line on Saturday, not having to pull out any of his creativity to draw contact on individual defenders in his way. It was as simple as moving his arms upwards with even the slightest hint at a shot-fake that got multiple Pacers slapping at him for fouls. Indiana didn’t even get its money’s worth on the contact; just cheap, nothing slaps.
Even with James Harden’s struggles as a shooter, he’s capable of catalyzing your offense in a way that no Sixer ever has in this era. Jimmy Butler never had prolonged lapses as a shooter, but he also never took a significant volume of shots. He also didn’t have the gravity as a scorer that Harden has that allows him to weaponize his passing game. Ben Simmons was a great facilitator as a pace-pusher and as a post-up forward surrounded by the right player archetypes. Even the low-end outcome from James Harden yields this team abnormally large assist numbers and high-level role-player scoring numbers. The high-end outcome is a one-man offense. So rather than micro-analyze every shot he misses, re-assess your expectations and settle for what may just be present-day Chris Paul.
James Harden looked very unsure of himself in the first few minutes of play. As everyone in Sixer world has come to know, things are not going well when your point guard is passing up open looks on the perimeter. There were some deferrals that were at least acceptable from the media section’s angle. The Pacers were already in rotation on defense, and Harden was pulling the Pacers over by way of pure shooting gravity, and then hitting the open teammate on swing passes. But, he over-thought and passed out of a look at the top of the key when the Pacers showed a zone one possession in the opening minutes. There were also some other shots from the perimeter that Harden normally takes without any sort of prologue or fires after dazzling with a machine-gun dribble, but instead passed out of them.
It’s no secret that Harden has struggled monumentally as a shooter since his first 5 games with the Sixers. For the most part, there have been no signs that he’s starting to figure it out. Doc Rivers played down the idea that there are any injuries nagging Harden before the game. But, I’ll call a bluff on that one. Harden is struggling to cleanly beat most single defenders off the dribble. Even when he does, a helper is there to tattoo his feeble layups into the front row. Beyond that, his shooting slump features a lot of flat balls that are landing short. You don’t just deteriorate rapidly because of age. You don’t just lose the muscle memory and touch you once had as a shooter because of age, either. Something is clearly bothering him. And if not, something about the team’s style or his role is affecting his play. Just have to hope that he can flip a switch or stop being diplomatic with his coach and teammates as a deferential guard when the playoffs start.
There was a bunch of undisciplined fouling that hurt Reed’s staying power in that stint. When making contact midair with Pacers attacking the rim, Reed tended to lower his arms ever so slightly to create contact on shots and send them to the line. There was also some over-zealousness in the way he approached defending, stepping a little too close to the ball or colliding with Pacers on the move, that put him in harm’s way. All in all, Reed committed 4 fouls in 6 minutes of play in the first half.
The Pacers made their run to get back into the game. And that was when Philadelphia’s defense peed all over itself. Tyrese Haliburton is very good, but he was essentially navigating workout drills in the pick-and-roll. Embiid missed the line between playing up on the ball-handler and protecting the basket against the roller. He forfeited space for Haliburton to attack for the sake of dropping to the plunging big. But it’s not all on Embiid to protect agains that. If he’s misstepping, the helper needs to be there to pinch off the lane against the ball-handler. No one did anything to step up and help the defensive anchor. Embiid is the team’s defensive game-changer when he’s locked in on that end of the floor, but that doesn’t give his teammates excuses to be space cadets in help.
The Sixers (50-31) will host the Detroit Pistons (23-58) on Sunday night to close out their regular season schedule. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.