The Sixers (21-14) hosted the New Orleans Pelicans (23-13) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to avenge Friday’s loss to the Pelicans and start 2023 with a win. New Orleans wanted to right its wrongs from Saturday’s loss to the Grizzlies. Joel Embiid dropped 42 points to lead the Sixers to their 10th straight home win, 120-111.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Pelicans were without Brandon Ingram, who has a contusion on his left great toe.
Larry Nance Jr. missed the game with neck spasms.
EJ Liddell is out for the season as he recovers from a torn right ACL. Dereon Seabron was on a Two-Way assignment with New Orleans’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Willie Green started CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones, Zion Williamson, and Jonas Valanciunas.
The Sixers were without Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who are on Two-Way assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
His status uncertain leading into the official announcement of Philadelphia’s starting lineup due to back soreness, Embiid wasted no time establishing himself and the Sixers’ level of intensity in the first few minutes of the game. He won the battle of physicality on Philadelphia’s first make of the game, claiming the offensive rebound on his own miss on a drive to the rim and going back up with the ball to score up close. Embiid then stroked a midrange jumper and tossed in a triple from the left elbow and wing, respectively, to score the Sixers’ first seven points of the contest.
He didn’t shy away from Valanciunas or any other Pelican that dared stand between him and the basket. The big fella was happy drawing contact in his assault on the basket. Embiid got to the charity stripe a handful of times in the first quarter. He slowed the game down to his pace. Embiid forced the Pelicans to go smaller as he logged foul after foul on them inside. And, of course, he accumulated his usual share of scores in the process.
McCollum didn’t go completely silent after lighting Philadelphia up for 11 threes in their first matchup of the season. But, the Sixers did a much better job of making things difficult for him. First and foremost, the majority of Philadelphia’s first-half turnovers were of the dead-ball variety. Right call or not, the officials pinged the Sixers for a handful of offensive fouls in the first 24 minutes. So, if nothing else, at least the Pelicans weren’t able to get McCollum going in transition like they did on Friday. That’s a credit to Harden, as well. He had a fistful of live-ball turnovers in the first game between these two teams, enabling New Orleans to spring down the floor without much resistance. No such happening in the first half this time around.
Beyond that, Melton did a much better job of navigating off-ball screens intended for McCollum. He found the most efficient path to reconnecting with his assignment, shortcutting the screener and going under to meet McCollum at the other side. If Melton didn’t do that, he tried to anticipate McCollum’s move, betting against his fake steps in any direction in order to beat him to the would-be location of the pass. McCollum still got his, scoring 26 points on the night. But, the Sixers did a much better job of limiting his spurts so that he couldn’t take over the game by himself at once.
Speaking of defensive strategy, I thought the Sixers also did a much better job of slowing Williamson down. It certainly felt like he actually dominated the game, but most of his impact came at the end of the second quarter and in the third quarter. He eventually left the game with a strained right hamstring and did not return. In the first half, Philadelphia made a point to put two defenders on Zion when he drove, walling off the interior and taking away avenues to drive to the cup. He still got his work done. It’s inevitable when the player is quicker and stronger than virtually everyone in the sport. But, there were a few New Orleans possessions in which Zion seemingly conceded that he couldn’t get to the rim and settled for short jumpers that had no chance of going in.
Beyond individual defensive assignments, the Sixers did a really nice job of protecting the rim when all else failed. Six different Sixers recorded one block each, Embiid and Harrell getting full hands on their respective rejections. Melton made a timely rotation to deter a shot close to the basket that a teammate was already contesting. Matisse Thybulle denied McCollum late in the game on a short jumper. Even if they didn’t pile up the blocks, the Sixers collectively made contests on a number of would-be high-quality attempts that missed the mark for New Orleans.
I thought Embiid brought the ball up himself quite often in this game, even with Harden on the floor. I don’t have a solid theory on why. But, it was interesting to see the outcome of some of those possessions. Embiid would bring the ball up the side of the floor and work his way down into the post. The double-team would come, and Harden would be left alone at the top or shading towards the strong side. Embiid was timely with his kick-out to beat the double, rifling the ball to Harden.
The bearded guy had a few open catch-and-shoot looks from deep. He didn’t take all of them, instead electing to swing some to the next guy on the weak side to keep the ball moving. But, Harden did let a couple fly off the catch. I wonder if that was Embiid goading Harden into at least trying to do more as a catch-and-shoot player. If so, the more interesting question is whether they agreed on that idea or that was Embiid subtly trying to remind Harden that he needs to be a more willing and flexible off-ball guard. Or, it could be nothing. It just didn’t seem like the type of game that called for more Embiid ball-handling than usual.
There were a number of good things out of the reserves in this game, whether it be a specific lineup effort or individual play. First, the two-man game between Harden and Georges Niang was on point from the moment the forward checked into the game. I understand the concerns that arise when Harden, in all of his offensive dynamism, comes off a screen. But, it’s practically free money for Philadelphia every time.
Niang pops, Harden’s man and the screener’s defender chase the ball. The shooter is left wide open on the perimeter. And Harden makes the pass — a behind-the-back bounce pass, to be exact — basically every time. It’s an automatic open three every time they run it, and defenses are perfectly fine with living by it. But, when Niang is on, it’s a killer play. And he was certainly on the mark in this game. The pick-and-pop generated points for Philadelphia while Embiid was recharging all game long.
Harden also had one of his best games of managing the offense without Embiid this season. In its simplest form, the idea is Embiid and Harden do whatever they want while the other is on the bench, and then they come together for magic in crunch time. Except, Harden has struggled to take over when tasked with leading four role players. That wasn’t the case in this game. Harden cooked with the second unit all game long.
I thought the best thing he did was attack downhill with force once he got the switch he wanted on the perimeter. Harden often plays to contact and immediately resorts to selling the contact when he feels it instead of playing through it. Or, he’ll subtly fade away from the contact as he attacks the cup. There was none of that against New Orleans. The bearded guy went right at the chests of various Pelicans, muscling his way through contact to convert layups or finishing off crafty baskets through fouls.
Tyrese Maxey looked much more comfortable in this game than he did in his first game back. He gave everyone numerous hints that he was starting to feel like himself, leveraging his speed to burst to the basket for a couple of line drives. He also had his usual body control and strength, powering through contact to get to the line for the bonus free throw a couple of times. There were some signature moments for the young guard, even in small dosages of time as he gets re-acclimated to the game.
With the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia really punished New Orleans when they double-teamed Harden. The Pelicans would send the double from the strong side. It pulled the weak-side corner helper to drop down to the basket. Harden countered the move by getting off the ball. He would swing it to the weak side to facilitate the pass to the Sixer left open in the corner. The Sixers got an open three from Niang and a signature baseline drive for a crafty layup from Maxey because of the late rotation back to the corner.
I just don’t see much of a reason to play up on Zion with one man. Especially when he’s on the perimeter. Zion is a non-shooter from the outside. He has perhaps the springiest first step in the game. You’re just not going to win isolations with consistency if you put one defender on him in space.
I guess the idea is to encourage him into drives towards help. You bet on your helpers to strip the ball away from him. But, you’ll live with him making open threes if you play off him. I would just double-team him on the drive and drop closer to the lanes when he catches the ball on the perimeter. Force him to run you over. It’s easy to see why he’s so good. But, it’s not like he’s going to beat you in a variety of ways.
On the topic of defending Williamson, the Sixers got away from what worked in the first quarter. Part of it was surely that he just woke up and asserted himself. But, the Sixers stopped putting two on the ball. Instead, they went with a single coverage and let Tucker defend him in space. It made no sense. Zion absolutely feasted on Philadelphia’s interior between the end of the second quarter and his exit with injury in the second half.
Harris hesitated on a couple of good looks from deep when the ball made its way to him. He’s been hesitant more often lately. Those catch-and-shoot looks dissipate quickly. Needs to re-discover that rhythm. It would probably help if the Sixers didn’t let him go handfuls of minutes without touching the ball before firing to him for quick shots off the catch.
The Sixers (22-14) will host the Indiana Pacers (21-17) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.