The Sixers (44-22) hosted the Washington Wizards (31-36) on Sunday evening. Philadelphia wanted to win its fifth game in a row. Washington wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Joel Embiid set the tone early, leading Philadelphia in a wire-to-wire victory over the Wizards, 112-93.
Before we get to the action, some context is due.
The Wizards were without the services of Isaiah Todd, who is on a G-League assignment with the Capital City Go-Go. Quenton Jackson and Jay Huff are on Two-Way assignments with the Go-Go and were unavailable.
Wes Unseld Jr. started Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porzingis, and Daniel Gafford.
The Sixers were without the services of Louis King and Mac McClung, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
With apologies to the 50-and-older crowd that cringes every time Embiid launches a three, one of the areas the big guy’s heightened maturity and improved conditioning show the most is his volume of three-point attempts. A younger version of Embiid, one that might’ve been suffering from nagging pains or fatigue rooted in poor conditioning or one that wanted to showcase his dynamism as an offensive player, wouldn’t turn down invitations to fire from deep. In most cases, Embiid would let it fly if he had the space — regardless of space, shot clock, or other circumstances.
This more experienced version, however, isn’t so interested in taking threes. He attempts just three per game this season — tied for the lowest per game volume of his career. The other such volume was, of course, Embiid’s first season of MVP candidacy. There are multiple anecdotes and quotes suggesting that that offseason — between the Sixers getting swept out of the bubble and Doc Rivers’ first season with the team — was the one in which he started taking his conditioning and craft more seriously.
As Embiid has mastered shots between the free throw line and the restricted area, his desire to settle from the perimeter has faded. There’s been a very positive correlation between Embiid’s efficiency improving as the diet of midrange jumpers increases. That mastery of the midrange has bled into his free throw shooting, Embiid enjoying the second highest percentage from the charity stripe of his career.
All of that, together, breeds a much more dominant player. Feeling more automatic from the free throw line, Embiid now actively rejects open threes in favor of daring defenders to contest without fouling. I think it would be dishonest to say that Embiid likes contact, but his volume of free throws tells you that he isn’t going to shy away from it. So, there he was in the first quarter, turning down an open transition three as the pink jersey that would’ve been his man stayed by the rim. Invitation declined, Embiid went right at him.
Time will tell whether Embiid’s aggression and toughness translates in a meaningful way in the postseason. A clean bill of health would certainly help. But, the story of Embiid’s decline in three-point volume, despite being a capable shooter, is evidence that he’s toughened up taken better care of his body over the last few seasons.
But, as we’ve all come to know, Embiid doesn’t need to take an abundance of outside jumpers to dominate a game on offense. He flashed from spot to spot in the post, wrestling inside to make himself available to teammates all night long. Embiid made himself wide and extended his outside arm when Washington denied him inside positioning. When they fronted or tried to deny on Embiid’s hip, he simply pivoted towards the rim and asked for the pass to lead him towards the basket.
Of course, the elbow jumper has become a staple of Embiid’s game. It’s at the point where the pick-and-roll with Harden or the jab-step and one dribble to the right for a pull-up is an automatic bucket. When Embiid and Harden are on the floor together, the offense can basically snooze as they dazzle with the two-man game. It’s down to an absolute science, quite frankly. A decent-enough screen to give Harden a path downhill, open wide to the elbow, and wait for the bounce pass. An automatic two points more often than not.
You might need to clean your glasses or replace your contact lenses if you’re not seeing what Embiid is doing the other end of the floor, too. Sunday continued the recent trend of him stepping out to guard the perimeter, no. 21 taking on Beal in isolation. There was also some switching when Embiid was on the court. I admittedly don’t notice a ton of switching on my live watches of games. But, we’ve seen that Embiid prefers drop coverage. The more he guards on the perimeter and the more they switch when he’s on the floor, the more I get the feeling that Philadelphia will challenge Embiid to guard in space in the playoffs.
That becomes much easier without going full switch mode if the opposition sports someone like Matisse Thybulle. As we saw on Friday, the Sixers flipped the game on the Blazers when Embiid started the second half “guarding” Thybulle. Banking on Thybulle being the same player he always was in Philadelphia, the Sixers used Embiid as a roamer on defense. He trapped, guarded one-on-one, and made quick moves back to the rim when necessary. That was part of what the Sixers did to hold strong in the second half, waiting for their offense to catch up and put the finishing touches on a comeback win.
Unless you’re talking about a Robert Williams III up in Boston, a pure vertical threat at the rim, I don’t see the immediately obvious playoff path where Philadelphia will have a ton of opportunity to implement the roaming concept. So, I’ll be curious to see how they use Embiid in space. I guess that’s another way of wondering whether they’ll lean heavily into switching.
The important thing is that Embiid’s defensive senses are dependable enough that he’s never too far from home, even as he steps out to thwart guards and wings. Ever since the All-Star break, Embiid has done double duty, roaming to the perimeter and recovering back to the rim to make plays. As long as he stays in touch with his rim senses, I don’t care how they use him in the most meaningful games. Even when he stepped outside the paint on Sunday, Embiid was easily capable of getting back to the basket to thwart shots at the rim or force Washington to kiss the backboard for scores at seemingly impossible angles.
Embiid didn’t have to step all the way out to help, either. He anticipated short jumpers and floaters really well, taking one step forward to spike the ball further away than where it started. A good rule of thumb is that if Embiid can reasonably reach a shot right now, he’s making strong contests or outright rejecting the attempts. It’s been one of his best stretches of regular season defense that I can remember.
He came out and set the tone early on both ends of the floor as if he knew the Nuggets lost before the Sixers tipped off and felt like he had an opportunity to send a message on a night when Jokic came up short when Denver needed him most.
The game was basically never in doubt, no matter how much Washington threatened to close the gap. It was only a matter of how long the Sixers would let it stay close. Embiid would’ve been perfectly capable of building on his 34 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and four blocks if the game called for it. Fortunately for him, the fourth quarter was a rare opportunity to kick his feet up and relax. Look no further than the lineup that opened the final frame.
Harden, Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed were plus-13 in 6:28, eating up more than half the fourth quarter and blowing the game open. The main plot there is that Harden is such a genius with the ball that you can toggle any screener with decent hands into the lineup and he’ll make them look great.
Of course, Reed deserves all the credit in the world for figuring things out on offense. It’s quite clear that the game has slowed down for him, and he’s making strides as a screen-and-dive guy every night. Reed’s intuition is solidifying to the point where he doesn’t even need to run the action with Harden or even be on the floor with no. 1, for that matter. He’s not flustered by a new partner. He just finds the ball and gets to work. If the first look isn’t there, he re-screens until something else develops.
I also think there are other fascinating plots to that lineup. There are three functional ball-handlers there, which obviously makes offense easier to come by. There’s legitimately good shooting in that mix, if not a slight bump coming from how Harden’s gravity creates open looks for everyone else.
That that combination is able to get stops is at least somewhat surprising, Melton and Reed profiling as the only two positives on defense. Perhaps it’s just synergy, the overall defensive product better than what each individual guy provides on that end of the floor. Whatever it is, they really junked up Washington’s offense. Philadelphia held the Wizards to a bunch of one-and-done possessions, standing them up with good contests to force misses and get out in transition.
Of course, Embiid immediately chucked a pair of threes as I put the finishing touches on that monologue about decreased three-point volume. Go figure.
After a very strong first nine minutes of the game, the Sixers executed with water-level energy and urgency. I recently unsubscribed from the view that blowing leads of less than 25 points is a damning indictment. The Sixers never built that much separation in the first half, but a wire-to-wire blowout is perfectly fine every now and then. Instead of throwing a couple haymakers and then turning on autopilot, keep the foot on the gas for a couple quarters and put the game to bed before the fourth quarter.
Jalen McDaniels left the game with a right hip contusion after being fouled in the second quarter and did not return.
The Sixers (45-22) will visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (43-27) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on ESPN.