Joel Embiid and James Harden talking under basket during free throws; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (27-16) visited the Los Angeles Clippers (23-22) on Tuesday. Philadelphia aimed to extend its winning streak to three games. Los Angeles wanted to build on Sunday’s victory over the Rockets. Joel Embiid scored 41 points to power the Sixers to victory, 120-110.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.

The Clippers were without the services of Luke Kennard, who has a sore right calf. John Wall missed the game with a sore abdomen.

Brandon Boston Jr. is on an assignment with the Clippers’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable. Moussa Diabate is on a Two-Way assignment with the Clippers’ G-League affiliate and was not with the team.

Tyronn Lue started Terance Mann, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac.


Not that anything the Sixers did on defense was particularly inspiring, the Clippers scoring 13 points in about two minutes, 50 seconds after a frigid start. But, I did like that they switched on pick-and-rolls when Zubac was the screener. He’s not a perimeter threat, and so you’re not concerned with him being guarded by a smaller defender outside of the paint. Switching made sure a defender was connected to ball-handlers like George and Leonard through the action. So, there wasn’t any creating rhythm into pull-up jumpers or dribble penetration out of the screen. Embiid prefers to defend in drop coverage, and the switch concept was a good starting game plan.

It’s no secret that Tyrese Maxey has struggled a bit since returning from the foot injury. The two obvious possibilities are that he’s still trying to get comfortable after such a long layoff. Alternatively, there’s something of a book out on the under-sized shooting guard. Teams take him more seriously after the leap he made last season, and some of the things he did as a second-year guard are being taken away this year. It’s probably a little bit of both. But, I’m inclined to think it’s a bit more of the former than the latter. After all, the lasting memory of Maxey before the misstep that sidelined him for more than a month was scoring 24 points in the first half against the Bucks. But, through the struggles, few things are more automatic for Philadelphia’s offense than Maxey getting to his right hand as he gets downhill in a halfcourt environment. He dropped a difficult floater, plus the foul, to end the first quarter. The young guard then converted a gorgeous one-footed bank shot from about 10 feet out on a drive to his right.

I didn’t love Rivers rolling with the Maxey-led bench units again for reasons defined above. But, I did like that that unit, anchored by a defensively-immobile Montrezl Harrell, went to a zone defense instead of staying in man. The group wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked in unison and genuinely fought on defense. The result? Los Angeles became a jump-shooting team.

There weren’t any hard drives to the basket, the dribble penetration was non-existent, and the Clippers were very indecisive. On a night when the jumpers were off in the first half, the Clippers were drawing dead against a lineup that they should’ve been able to find a rhythm against. As such, the Sixers pushed their lead to double-digits with both Embiid and Harden resting.

Even when the Sixers were in their man coverages, their defensive rotations were quite impressive after a laughable first quarter. The Clippers could only swing the ball across the floor to try to get Philadelphia into rotation. Even then, the white jerseys were timely to the ball and balanced on their feet. The Clippers didn’t have much success attacking heavy close-outs or killing them with the three ball because Philadelphia was incredibly disciplined.

Two of the leaders of that defensive effort were Harris and Tucker. Harris is generally a net-positive defender, but he isn’t quick enough or attentive enough to be a truly great on-ball and off-ball defensive player. But when tasked with shutting down an opposing star, he’s proven he can win the battle on any given night.

Granted, Leonard is nowhere near the player he used to be right now. Nonetheless, there was Harris, beating a variety of Clippers to their spots as they tried to turn the corner on him. He was also incredible as a helper, reaching in on the blind side to poke the ball away or sliding over on the drive to create chaos for the Clippers. He had five steals in the first half, and got Philadelphia running in transition.

Harris, by the way, was fabulous on offense, too. His three-point shot has abandoned him in recent weeks. But, Harris was aggressive in getting to the midrange game throughout the first half and muscling his way to the rim against mismatches. He used the heater to build rhythm before lacing a triple from the corner to give Philadelphia a 12-point lead towards the end of the second quarter.

Tucker also did a great job on Leonard in the first 24 minutes. He navigated screens and guarded in space. Tucker also did a fine job of staying in front of the Clipper wing. Tucker refused to let him get comfortable with the ball in his hands, and even laced a couple triples, himself. 

One more thing on the defense in the first half. There were surely some uncalled fouls that benefitted the Sixers, but they did a really good job of keeping hands up and arms raised throughout their first-half charge. Whether it was shots at the rim or jumpers, they made textbook contests. 

The only way this team was going to beat a home team with as much firepower on the wings as the Clippers have was if one of its stars absolutely dominated. And, after a pair of autopilot outings laced with record-scratching decisions by the big fella, he absolutely owned the first half of this game. He established his touch with easy points at the free throw line early on. Then, Harden picked up the pace. The Clippers weren’t all the way back, giving Embiid an advantage as long as he properly sealed off his defender inside. Embiid got shots at the rim one after another in the first half. Some came by just flashing and cutting to spots in the halfcourt setting. Others came by just running the floor.

Once the big guy was really cooking, he started operating by the elbows more. There he was, canning jumpers out of pick-and-pops with Harden. Or, if he could draw his defender out of the paint, he drove to the cup. Of course, he capped a 26-point first half with a buzzer-beating triple from the top of the arc.  

The offense hummed in the second quarter once Harden checked in for his second run of the game. He kicked up the pace, got everyone running. As such, the Sixers restored a double-digit lead after the Clippers punched back to close the game.

With the game hanging in the balance to start the final quarter, Rivers put his trust in Maxey to lead the bench unit. This time, he responded beautifully. The speedy guard navigated ball screens into pull-up triples three times in a row en route to an 11-point personal burst to open the fourth quarter. He shocked the Clippers, pushing Philadelphia’s lead back up to six points basically by himself before Embiid returned. Maxey scored 13 of his 22 points in the final frame, giving the Sixers precisely what they needed while the two more-featured stars recharged.

The Sixers so often miss the low man rotation on the weak side of the floor when they blitz the ball screen. The result is usually the roller getting a dunk. As bad as Harden was on both ends of the floor in this game, there he was rotating away from the weak-side corner shooter to the low position to deny Zubac a roll to the basket and contribute to a defensive stop for the Sixers. In the fourth quarter of a January game against the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Sixers finally made the correct back-side rotation following a blitzed ball screen.


As I prefaced in the last point of the “Like” section, Harden’s defense was more horrendous than usual in this game. Especially in the first quarter. There was one play in which he was a literal turnstile when Leonard attacked him. He basically stopped short of moving out of his way entirely. He also delivered a fake close-out on Norman Powell, barely offering a raised arm as he sprinted back on offense while the Clippers guard let a three fly on a swing pass with the Sixers in rotation.

Still not big on Rivers letting Maxey run the second unit to end the first quarter and start the second quarter. That exact decision in the fourth quarter was one of the biggest reasons Philadelphia won this game. But, I’m not quite sure he’s entirely back to his old self. The Sixers need Maxey to be totally himself in order for lineups in which he’s the only offensive creator to be effective. Otherwise, Embiid and Harden have to be staggered so that at least one is next to the youngster at all times. 

A really, really bad game from Montrezl Harrell. He couldn’t stop anyone at the rim. Even in drop coverage, the Clippers were licensed to attack him, challenging the Sixers big man to make a play. He wasn’t close. It would be one thing if he made up for it on offense. But, only three points for him in this one. 

The Clippers made their inevitable run in the third quarter. It coincided directly with the Sixers losing their pace on offense. Everything stagnated. Embiid ended up on the perimeter late in the shot clock. Harris had the hot potato against the shot clock and Leonard draped on him. Harden wasn’t really trying to move. It all became a slog, and the Clippers even briefly took the lead.

Lulls are inevitable. But, there needs to be a middle ground between running freely and practically slowed to a halt. There shouldn’t be long slumps when Embiid and Harden are on the court because they have the two-man game they can default to. Sure, that’s harder to execute against a zone, which was what the Clippers resorted to in the third quarter. But, the Sixers are also one of the five best three-point shooting teams in the league. They have the tools to be good against a zone. But, the Sixers fall into these ruts of indecision. That shouldn’t happen for long stretches. They were fortunate it didn’t prove fatal on Tuesday. 

Speaking of Harden, rough night for the bearded guy. He was lost. Look no further than him settling for threes against Zubac on a switch to see that. He also botched a layup that had no chance of going in on one particular burst to the rim.

I thought the Sixers did about as much as they could do to defend Leonard in the third quarter. He heated all the way up to 1000 degrees, and it was just a ridiculous display of shot-making. One thing that won’t help — going drop coverage on pick-and-rolls when Kawhi is handling the ball. The Sixers would’ve won by about 30 if it weren’t for Leonard’s third quarter.

Didn’t like Maxey only having nine points on five field goal attempts and less than 18 minutes of play through three quarters. But, we know what happened after that. 

The Sixers (28-16) will visit the Portland Trail Blazers (21-23) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 10 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 


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