The Sixers (35-19) visited the Brooklyn Nets (33-22) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to sweep its back-to-back. Brooklyn wanted to get its second win of the post Kevin Durant era. Joel Embiid and James Harden carried the Sixers, who needed a late rally for a 101-98 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The Nets were without the services of Seth Curry, who has a left adductor strain.
Jacque Vaughn started Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Nic Claxton.
As bad as Embiid was on defense for most of this game, he was superb on offense all night long. I thought it was a sign of maturity that he didn’t try to make matchups against Simmons personal. He gave a little more physicality than a normal advantage against a physical mismatch. But, Embiid didn’t make it about their history. He didn’t try to do too much. Brooklyn sent double-teams immediately upon Philadelphia making entry passes to Embiid in the post. He countered with quick touch passes out to Georges Niang for open looks from deep.
A negative assist-to-turnover says it wasn’t the best night of playmaking from Embiid. But, he played with control. Embiid did most of his work inside in the first half, getting to the free throw line with brute force. The second half was when his combination of absurd jump-shooting and finesse at the rim really came into play. It’s difficult to grasp that Embiid has turnover issues off the dribble when his footwork and balance when attacking in space is often superb.
He maneuvered around various Nets all night long, beating a baseline trap and tip-toeing around a smaller defender inside for a layup. That’s a move that no one else at Embiid’s position can do. He overpowered Claxton with pure physicality inside, forcing the Nets big man to foul him or be scored on. You knew Embiid was on a heater when he attacked the left slot before stepping back for fade-aways just outside the right elbow.
Embiid also turned on the defensive intensity as Philadelphia made its push back into the game in the second half. He started playing more on the perimeter, helping combat dribble penetration and pressure the ball on the perimeter. Embiid was nearby when Bridges attacked the rim on Brooklyn’s second-to-last possession, his presence forcing the new Net to rush a layup that he smoked.
No. 21 also rotated to the basket from the weak side, rejecting a Cam Thomas layup at the rim late in the third quarter. I thought the one moment you could stamp that showed Embiid really wanted to win the game was his contest on a Thomas pull-up midrange jumper fading towards the sideline in the middle of the fourth quarter. He got a hand up on the shot to force the miss, and then bolted to the rim to get the defensive rebound. Philadelphia trailed by five points at the time, making a run to tighten the affair in crunch time.
Those are the high-effort plays that you want out of Embiid on defense. Maybe you already know he’s capable of it in critical moments. But, it is that effort that sends a message to his teammates. If he applies that dominance from tip-off to the final buzzer, his teammates will pick up on it. The team often comes out lethargic on one or both sides of the court because of the way its leader conducts himself.
We all know how great Embiid is. No one would be silly enough to deny or dispute that. But, Saturday’s win was an example of how he can seamlessly coast to 30-plus points and check out on the other end. He’s such a great scorer that he can hit his averages on autopilot. But, no one can coast to consistently great defensive nights. That’s why there’s no excuse for him to do anything he wants on offense without breaking a sweat and then not caring on defense. This game against the Nets makes you question whether Embiid grasps how much he influences his teammates. As soon as he flipped the switch on defense, his teammates tightened up in their jobs, too. Philadelphia started to get stops, silencing the Nets in the game’s final quarter.
There wasn’t much great besides Embiid in this game. Nearly all of the remaining share goes to Harden, who was outstanding. He didn’t have his most efficient night of shooting. But, no. 1 made it clear that his body feels really good with less than 30 games to go in the season. The new-look Nets profile as a team that would give an unathletic, older guard some problems. But, Harden was more than up for the task. Claxton, Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, Ben Simmons, it didn’t matter. He dusted them off the dribble all night long, getting numerous Brooklyn defenders off balance with machine gun dribbling before taking a quick first step by them for bursts to the rim. Harden wasn’t afraid to attack defenders’ chests if he couldn’t get around them or helpers stepped in his way, either. He drew nine free throw attempts in the game.
Harden logged 12 shots in the first half, which is a bit unusual for him in his Sixers tenure. It felt like he took his return to Brooklyn for the first time since forcing his way to Philadelphia last trade deadline personal. That level of aggression from Harden is exactly what the Sixers need. He deferred to Embiid more often than calling his own number, which is what you expect out of a point guard cast as Robin to the primary star’s Batman. But, he didn’t defer so much that the offense became predictable.
I liked everything I saw from Jalen McDaniels in his Sixers debut. He contested jumpers with control, closing out to the side of the shooter instead of launching himself into the body. He bolted to the rim for rebounds when the Nets’ shots went up. McDaniels even set screens, reading how Brooklyn set up on defense and booking to the rim to make himself available to the ball-handler.
One of the most impressive things that McDaniels did was quite minor. But, I thought it showed how smart he is and present in the moment he can be. Embiid caught the ball while McDaniels was relocating around the baseline to the big fella’s side of the floor. Rather than clogging the lane or trying to post up, McDaniels quickly backpedaled away from the ball and relocated to the corner to open up space for Embiid. It was one of the first couple possessions they ever played together, and McDaniels intuitively knew to relocate as soon as the ball landed in Embiid’s hands. More than that, he knew exactly where to go.
McDaniels didn’t try to do too much when the ball went his way, either. He stood in the corner and waited. If there was nothing obvious there when he had the rock, he got off it quickly. There was no hesitation to shoot when open, and he laced a triple from the corner over a slightly late contest.
I do want to see the Sixers experiment with him more as a screener, particularly with Harden. I really liked the lineup they deployed to start the fourth quarter, which featured Harden, Tyrese Maxey, McDaniels, Niang, and Paul Reed. When Embiid is off the floor, you need shooting and athleticism next to Harden. Maybe there isn’t a ton of pure skill between McDaniels and Reed, but there’s a ton of length and athleticism there. One thing is for sure, McDaniels is much more controlled and skilled with the ball in his hands. I think the more repetitions McDaniels gets screening for Harden, the more lethal it will be. He’s just so springy and quick on the move, it feels like a lot of good can happen with that wing-guard two-man game:
A slipped ball screen into an oop out of a side double drag for McDaniels' first basket with the Sixers. pic.twitter.com/bZQwIA8H0A— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) February 11, 2023
Obviously, the Nets aren’t the star-studded hot ticket now that Durant and Kyrie Irving are gone. But, I still think this Nets team is quite good. They’ll fight every night to overcome the lack of star power. I buy this group as a decent playoff team. That said, this was a really nice win for the Sixers. They led for what felt like all of about one minute in the game, but that was enough to escape with the victory.
More importantly, this win clinched a season series victory over Brooklyn. It might not come into play with the Sixers having a 3.5-game lead on the Nets in the Eastern Conference standings. But, you’ll take every tie-breaker you can get against other likely playoff teams.
The intermittent effort lately has become more of a theme than a pesky cold that doesn’t go away. On Friday, the Sixers were unwilling to match New York’s physicality and intensity in execution. On Saturday, the issue was speed and focus on defense. Effort on defense was far down the list of priorities for Philadelphia in the game’s opening quarter. The Sixers lost three-point shooters all night long. But, the problem in the first quarter was that the Sixers couldn’t sustain effort or focus long enough to resist beyond the first pass. The Nets crushed the Sixers with three-point shooting, getting open looks by filling in empty locations and making one or two passes around the court.
The Sixers didn’t do much to mitigate the transition defense issue on their possessions, either. The offense was clunky, the Sixers lacking aggression on the drive and mistiming decisions. Brooklyn is obviously very long with Bridges, Finney-Smith, Johnson, Ben Simmons, and Claxton. They’re going to try to junk up passing lanes and driving lanes to turn you into a jump-shooting team. The Sixers didn’t open up the game approaching them the right way on offense.
Sure, Embiid got his touches and got to the free throw line. Sure, Harden dusted his defenders off the dribble and got to the rim. But, the drive-and-kick game was weak. The Sixers passed out of the drive way too early on a number of occasions. I don’t know whether it was intimidation brought on by the Nets’ length or just poor execution, but the early passes didn’t help create advantages for their recipients. It more or less reset the possession and slowed things down.
Look no further than Embiid, who sets the tone for Philadelphia on both ends of the floor. Harden missed an inbound pass from the big guy, resulting in a live-ball turnover on one play in the first quarter. Embiid, sporting terrible body language on the ensuing turnover, didn’t even care to try to wipe away the mistake with good defense.
He didn’t contest the first shot, which ended up being a miss. But, he didn’t grab the defensive rebound, either. Brooklyn got a second shot on the offensive rebound, and Embiid didn’t contest that, either. Easy bucket. It ultimately didn’t prevent the Sixers from adding one to the ‘W’ column. But, in a three-point win, a play like that doesn’t happen if Embiid just gives basic effort. Really disappointing display by the big man.
That wasn’t the only terrible defensive effort from Embiid. Claxton blocked his baseline jumper and then sprinted behind him in transition for a dunk. Embiid didn’t even get to the rim to contest or see the play coming.
As the game went on and the Sixers hung around, that issue improved. But, even as Philadelphia started to match energy, the Nets still capitalized on open looks because of poor communication on defensive assignments. Countless Brooklyn transition possessions saw Georges Niang fall well short of landing a good contest despite sprinting into the picture, losing his assignment with no chance of recovery on the other side of the court.
Brooklyn’s torrid three-point shooting eventually normalized, partly because of the Sixers’ tightening up the defense and partly because a three-point heavy team just isn’t going to sustain ridiculous efficiency even on open looks. But, Philadelphia struggled to keep pace against the Nets’ quick-moving, multi-pass offense for most of the night.
The dreadful play from Harris continued on Saturday. Indecision wasn’t really the problem, although there were a couple of possessions in which I caught him catching and dribbling into a possession reset instead of popping an open three. Still, when you shoot 1-for-9, there’s nothing pretty. Even the most open jumpers didn’t fall, and Harris had no luck finding his touch around the rim on drives.
I think we’re seeing the biggest downside for a player working out of his best role. We’ve seen Harris be consistently very good as a second or third option because the ball is in his hands more. Even if multiple guys have to miss the same game, he can step up and lead a victory as the main guy from time to time. But, Philadelphia needs him to master the low-usage, high-efficiency role on offense. He just isn’t a natural contributor when working out of quick, infrequent touches. As such, his bouts of bad play are going to be very bad.
What this comes down to is the obvious. There’s only been one or two seasons — 2020-21 and 2021-22 — in which Harris’ style of play has truly fit what the Sixers needed in those respective campaigns. He even briefly mastered the role the Sixers need from him during last season’s playoff run. But, Harden and Maxey are going to get more shots than him on any given night. And he just isn’t a prolific sniper off the catch or two-dribble pull-up shooter from anywhere player. That’s especially the case in a role that doesn’t promise a consistent flow of touches. The best version of the Sixers casts him as a fourth option, and one that makes well below max money.
Perhaps there’s a world where your top two players are so good that you can afford to overpay him as a third option and he’ll fit quite well. But, in the Sixers’ world, he’s not playing a natural role and he’s making more than $30 million to do it. This isn’t about counting dollars or criticizing anyone for logging a major payday. This is about return on investment. It’s impossible to overlook a hot-and-cold shooter who is more of a detriment than a positive factor on his worst night when that player is billed as a scorer and is making nearly $40 million this season. That is what you call dead money.
I liked the lineups Rivers threw out in this game, especially a Harden-plus-bench lineup that included McDaniels. But, this was the perfect matchup to close with McDaniels instead of Tucker or Harris. Brooklyn’s new look is big and long with lots of shooting and speed. To be fair, Philadelphia really suffocated Brooklyn in the guts of the game. So, it ultimately worked out. But, McDaniels is the perfect type of player to close a game on both ends against that matchup.
I get he hasn’t spent any on-court time with this team or even practiced. I can understand that he may just trust the more experienced Harris and Tucker right now. But, if he’s closing games with either of them over McDaniels, if the new guy proves he can play, because of name value, that’s a problem. It shows a lack of feel for the game. Can’t say it’s a huge problem yet because only time will tell. But, given how Harris played and Tucker’s lack of size against Brooklyn, I thought McDaniels played well enough in his minutes to show he clearly should’ve been on the court in winning time.
The Sixers (36-19) will host the Houston Rockets (13-43) on Monday. Tip-off is 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.