The Sixers finished up their preseason slate hosting the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday. Joel Embiid and James Harden combined for 36 points as the Sixers held off the Hornets, 99-94, finishing preseason with a 4-0 record.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Hornets were without LaMelo Ball, who is recovering from a sprained left ankle. PJ Washington missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Steve Clifford started Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward, Jalen McDaniels, and Mason Plumlee.
All Sixers were available.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers opened the game with a Spain action in which Embiid picked for Harden and then received the back screen from Maxey. The fan-favorite guard popped, opened up to receive a pass from Harden, and then looked inside for Embiid. By that time, Embiid had completely sealed off the post defender and was able to pivot into a short jumper. That’s the second time I’ve noticed the Sixers run that play this preseason, and I don’t remember them running it last season. It might be an offseason addition to the playbook. If so, it’s a fine flavor to spice up an otherwise repetitive and bland play. With the shooting and offensive threats the Sixers have in their starting unit, the quick bursts of movement can throw off a defense, even if only for a moment.
Speaking of notable recurrences, Harris was fouled on a three-point shot for at least the second time this preseason. I can’t recall him ever being fouled on a three-point attempt before in his Sixers tenure. Part of that is probably just preseason miscues by the defense. But, I do wonder how much of it is attributable to Harris adapting to a more catch-and-shoot-based role. I also noticed in training camp that he was getting more arc under his shot than he previously had. It’s worth wondering whether he added more arc to get comfortable with a quicker release for his role with this group. My guess is it’s probably more about bad defense than adjustments Harris made, but it’s a trend I’ll keep an eye on.
Montrezl Harrell checked in and immediately found himself wrestling with various Hornets. Whether it was jockeying for potential Sixers misses off the glass, recovering to dump-off passes, or just walling off the interior as Harrell drove, the Hornets swarmed the Sixers big man. No matter, he bulldozed through all of it for finishes. Not only does he just muscle his way over every obstacle to go up for finishes relatively unabated, but he also keeps up with the tipped rebounds. Harrell battles for every offensive rebound he can reach, keeping the ball bouncing as if it’s in a popcorn-maker until he or a teammate can secure it. If he’s the one to secure the rock, he’s going right back up with it for a finish. That motor is something special. Even if the Sixers hemorrhage points at the rim with Harrell on the floor, they should be more than passable on offense without Embiid on the floor as long as they stagger Harden and Maxey.
Harden looked much closer to his former self in the last rehearsal before the season-opener. He canned 4 of his 8 three-point attempts, and finished 6-for-15 overall. But most importantly, he cleanly shook numerous Charlotte defenders tasked with staying in front of him in isolation. It was a combination of well-timed bursts and sharp ball-handling. No matter how you want to slice it, Harden was able to shed defenders and create more than marginal advantages. And he didn’t just expense that newfound space on open threes. Harden used the runway to crack the interior and make his decision from there.
Much has been made of Maxey’s need to improve as a defender. He still has a ways to go, but one of the developments of preseason has been his recognition to sprint to ball-handlers when they have their backs turned and poke the rock away to create run-outs for the Sixers. Elite guards will sniff out his trick and punish him by rifling passes to the vacant man from time to time, but it’s a good indicator that Maxey is at least aware of his surroundings and making an effort on that end of the floor.
The Sixers’ transition defense was downright awful. There wasn’t anything resembling a concerted effort to get back off of misses or live-ball turnovers. That manifested in Charlotte perpetually being one pass up the court away from open triples for Rozier or Hayward. The Sixers also turned the ball over at the most inopportune times, losing control of the ball in crowds or failing to see helpers rush to their turned backs to pick the ball away in the open court. It’s safe to say many will be shocked if this Charlotte team is a good defensive bunch. The issue was more that the Sixers looked checked out doing many of the little things on offense. Well, that and the 12 shots the Hornets blocked.
Not a great game for Harris. He scored just 1 point in 27 minutes. Even when Harris controlled the rock in the open floor, the Hornets were quick to take advantage of his weak hands and tie him up or strip the ball away as he went for layups.
I really thought Dennis Smith Jr. was going to be the next Russell Westbrook. I didn’t anticipate that he’d be the next Westbrook as a shooter. Rather, I thought he was going t be an elite rim-stuffer and vertical athlete. A shame he didn’t pan out. Not yet, at least.
The Sixers will open the regular season on Tuesday on the road against the Boston Celtics. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.