The Sixers (13-12) hosted the Charlotte Hornets (7-19) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to build on its win over the Lakers on Friday. Charlotte wanted to snap a four-game losing streak. Joel Embiid dominated for his second 50-plus-point game of the season, leading the Sixers in a 131-113 win.
Before we get to the action, allow me to set the scene.
The Hornets were without the services of LaMelo Ball, who has a sprained left ankle. Gordon Hayward was out with a fractured Scapula in his left shoulder.
Cody Martin missed the game due to a procedure on his left knee. Dennis Smith Jr. has a sprained left ankle and was out.
Mark Williams sprained his left ankle and was unavailable.
Steve Clifford started Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., PJ Washington, Jalen McDaniels, and Mason Plumlee.
The Sixers were without the services of Tyrese Maxey, who is inching closer to a return from a small fracture in his left foot.
Danuel House Jr. missed the game with a laceration on his left foot.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Not much fell for the Sixers early in this one, shooting 3-for-12 before Rivers called a timeout around the 6-minute mark of the first quarter, but the process was at least a bit encouraging. Philadelphia made an effort to get its feet in the paint, whether by way of Harden crossover and burst into the gap or shot-fake off a swing pass and attack the closeout. That’s ultimately what you want off crisp ball movement, and you’ll bet on the outcomes eventually trending in your favor over a large sample size.
Once the Sixers woke up, they applied pressure on Charlotte’s neck with some zone defense to finish the first quarter and start the second quarter. The extra pressure on Charlotte’s ball-handlers, whether it be Rozier or someone else, banked on the Hornets making bad decisions with the ball. Smart bet, the Sixers poking the ball away or intercepting ill-advised passes to get out on the run, themselves. The eye test says the Sixers have used zone quite well to stop bleeding when their man coverages have failed them in recent games. And it worked much the same to silence the Hornets when they were feeling themselves early in the game.
Say what you will about Embiid’s level of engagement, style of play, or deviation from the model old-school tough-guy big. 28 points at halftime against Charlotte after 25 points at halftime on Friday. Pull-up jumpers, attacking the rim in isolation against heavy-footed matchups, and taking the ball up the court like a guard for authoritative, crafty finishes. The guy gets 30 in his sleep. Some of the fans that have been around the block a couple times will remark that the team will never win with Embiid. Well, you’re not winning any time soon without him, either.
Perhaps the Hornets missed the memo, but Melton hit eight triples against the Lakers. Maybe don’t lose him off-ball six times in the third quarter? The offseason trade acquisition knocked down four triples in the frame, punctuating a stretch during which the Sixers took a 19-point lead.
After cooling down quite a bit upon Harden’s return, Shake Milton has had two productive games in a row off the bench. The best thing he did in either game was play with control and force when the ball hit his hands, slashing to the rim off the catch on swing plays or taking his assignment to the middle of the floor for his bread-and-butter shots in the midrange. I think the goal with Melton’s role should be limiting ball-handling turnovers and scoring efficiently. That all stems from confidence, and right now he believes in his ability to win battles in the paint. He shrinks the floor with his unwillingness to launch threes, but it ultimately yields effective outcomes. So, you’ll take what you can get.
Another reserve player, Montrezl Harrell just brought energy to a game that lacked such a variable. He got the minutes in this one after Paul Reed had seemingly won the backup job over the last month. Any expectation that he can be relied upon for stops should be gone at this point. Same thing can be said of his rebounding. But, when you need someone who will go right at bigger guys inside, play through contact, and stir the crowd with thunderous plays at the rim, he’s your guy. Understanding his shortcomings won’t change or improve much, he gave the Sixers good minutes on offense on Sunday.
Any story of this game starts and ends with Embiid and Harden. The former didn’t stop after snoring through the first 30 points he scored. He was wonderfully aggressive in feasting upon defenders who had no chance of stopping him — which was all defenders, really. Yet, he played with control, navigating traffic to glide to the rim for buckets. He also did a fabulous job of playing through contact, knocking down midrange and short jumpers all night long as the Hornets bumped him in their frantic efforts to stop his onslaught. 53 more points for the big fella.
The idea of anyone his size being able to test the limits of what should be possible is incredible. Embiid does it with regularity. He’s not going to do it every night, but he’s clearly taken it upon himself to answer the challenge of setting the tone. He’s done so remarkably the last two games, full-stop. The quality of competition is not a caveat.
Harden, on the other hand, followed suit on the Embiid parade, whether he wanted to or not. The ball wasn’t sticking in his hands, the isolations were few and far between, the shots came organically within the flow of the game. Forget about the 19 points and 9 rebounds (which, by the way, was a good effort by him on the defensive glass in this one). He had 16 assists against four turnovers, the playmaking on-point all night long.
Harden’s timing on passes was nearly pristine in the eyes of this writer. He waited for help-defenders to shade his way before roping passes across the floor to hit shooters and slashers. He stretched the pick-and-roll, waiting for Embiid to open up out of the screen and roll into the pocket of space bred from that. If that wasn’t there, he rifled the ball to the weak side of the floor to plug a shooter or facilitate a swing play.
It was the type of effort that reminds you just how important the nature of Harden’s game is to any offense, even if his shots aren’t falling. The vision makes up for the difference on those nights. If the timing on those passes is right, he’s a lethal weapon regardless of what his own shot is doing.
Speaking of the pick-and-roll game, Embiid and Harden flashed signs of the cohesion that made them so unstoppable last season. They went to coast mode on that play, getting Embiid easy jumpers in the paint out of the screen more times than not. Nice to see some pick-and-roll instead of Elbow-5 and Elbow-flat.
I know the coach is the first person on the chopping block every time there’s something to complain about, but the players need to wear the market share of the blame at some point when things go poorly. The starters came in looking as disjointed as ever, seemingly almost blind to the length and athleticism that Charlotte’s unripe roster has. They were making one pass too many. One particular episode that stood out was Matisse Thybulle passing up a dunk to give the ball to Embiid, who was in the same position he was on the opposite side of the lane but with a defender nearby, only for that pass to be deflected for a live-ball turnover.
Plays like that — where you’re forcing passes that aren’t there or making extra, unnecessary passes for the sake of spirited ball movement — are frustrating on a variety of levels. On one hand, the basic principle is that you’re being selfless to a fault, passing up open shots to get the ball to teammates who aren’t in good position to capitalize on having the rock in their hands. That’s called being so selfless that you’re actually being selfish. On the other hand, there’s such a thing as shot quality, and you don’t want to discourage ball movement when your team has such high-usage players that lack of ball movement is a common regression when they play poorly.
This all comes back to decision-making and valuing the basketball. There’s no excuse for being so disjointed on offense. If you’re overlooking the ways that your opponent could feasibly create issues for you, then you’re either sleep-walking or neglecting the scouting report. Both are bad, but sleep-waling might be worse for this group. They’ve done nothing to earn the equity that they can just coast through games on autopilot and still win. That’s reserved for very good teams, which the Sixers have yet to establish themselves as this season.
Another thing you have to blame the players for is the transition defense. It was getting better until Harden returned. Not a shocker when you consider one of his biggest downsides is volume of live-ball turnovers. It wasn’t all on him in the first half, Harden only contributed one of the turns before intermission. But, you can forget about getting any effort from him in transition. He might as well just stand under the Sixers’ basket when the opposition gets out on the break. Whether it’s communication or understanding of where to be, the whole team just doesn’t seem to care about getting back when there’s a run-out for the opposition.
You might say that that falls on Rivers. In some sense, you’d be right. Except, they don’t have a puncher’s chance of getting stops in transition anyway because their effort in getting back is so poor at times. That falls on the guys in the uniforms, first and foremost. What might help is some awareness and communication on offense. But, that is also effort and engagement, which the Sixers didn’t care to offer much of in the first quarter. Again, that comes back to playing down to competition.
The Sixers (14-12) will host the Sacramento Kings (14-11) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.