The Sixers (20-14) visited the Oklahoma City Thunder (15-20) on New Year’s Eve. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Oklahoma City wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Hornets in Charlotte on Thursday. Joel Embiid put together his first triple-double since last season in a 115-96 victory over the Thunder.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the stage.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who missed the game to manage the tendon strain in his right foot from which he recently recovered. Tyrese Maxey missed the second leg of the back-to-back to manage the small fracture in his left foot from which he returned on Friday.
PJ Tucker missed the game to manage the left knee injury on which he had surgery during the offseason. It was Tucker’s first missed game of the season.
Louis King and Julian Champagnie were on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
The Thunder were without Aleksej Pokusevski, who has a non-displaced fracture of his left tibial plateau.
Prized rookie Chet Holmgren is out for the season after having surgery to treat a Lisfranc injury in his right foot suffered in the summer.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl missed the game with a sprained right ankle. Ousmane Dieng has a small, non-displaced fracture in his right wrist and was out.
Mark Daigneault started Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams, and Jaylin Williams.
Given the opportunity to shine early on with both Harden and Maxey missing the game, Harris was perhaps the most involved Sixer in the game’s first few minutes. He looked incredibly comfortable, the ball in his hand for extended periods of time on his touches. Harris did the majority of his work at the rim. Whether it was Harris’ version of exploding off the dribble to glide to the rim or using his strong frame to out-muscle the smaller Thunder, the Sixers’ forward got to the basket for finishes early and often. And perhaps a sign of the physical advantage Harris had over Oklahoma City’s small starting lineup, he powered his way through a pair of fouls to get to the line for two old-school three-point plays.
Harris’ hands are typically at their hottest in the first quarter. But, as the game goes on, the opposing defense settles in. The fatigue slowly starts to hinder performance. Harris usually becomes a little bit less effective. He scored just 13 points on 13 field goal attempts and no free throws after the first frame on Saturday, finishing the game with 23 points on 17 shots. That’s a terrific line for most tier-A role players, and a star-level night for players of a decade ago. You understand that Harris simply doesn’t get enough touches or register a high-enough usage to make those 20-point outings much of an expectation on a night-to-night basis. On the other hand, any night your fourth-in-line can put up 20-plus is a really strong night for your offense.
Nonetheless, I do think there’s more Philadelphia can do to involve Harris in the offense once all hands are on deck. Even if it’s just targeting a mismatch in a switch and looking for Harris in the post against a smaller defender, that’s something. Besides, the Sixers’ late-game offense has been horrible over the last week. So, a pick-and-roll involving anyone, including Harris, would be an upgrade there.
He’s not much of a playmaker. I’m not expecting some breakthrough “click” for that part of his game at the age of 30. But, Harris has shown some comfort in punishing drop coverages as a ball-handler out of a DHO or pick-and-roll by pulling up into a midrange jumper. Ultimately, involving no. 12 in the offense more will keep him warm so that when it’s time for those catch-and-shoot threes, he’ll be confident in his trigger.
This has arguably been Embiid’s worst rebounding season of his career. But, the big guy had no problem securing misses in the first quarter on New Year’s Eve. The first thing I look at was Oklahoma City’s starting five. All starters were under 6-foot-10. Even if they gave maximum effort and gang-rebounded, they simply didn’t have the height to consistently win those battles against the likes of Embiid. He had five boards in the first quarter, taking advantage of the size disparity.
The big guy cleaned the glass on the Sixers’ end of the court. He generated extra plays for an offense that was adding separation between itself and the Thunder seemingly every 30 seconds. He didn’t stop there. Embiid picked on Oklahoma City on the other end of the floor, gathering rebounds on defense to limit the number of bites the Thunder got at the apple on a night when they couldn’t buy a basket early on.
There are a bunch of reasons Embiid’s rebounding has disappointed this season. I think it’s fair to say that one of them is simply effort. But, at least you can somewhat understand the idea that the guy leading the league in scoring and anchoring an elite defense might just be saving some energy.
There’s also something to be said for the pieces on the floor around him. Embiid isn’t going to carry the Sixers’ rebounding alone. And when his teammates allow dribble penetration on the perimeter, it’s his responsibility to step up and contest. So, sometimes he’s simply not near the basket when the ball comes down. That’s not necessarily his fault. It’s certainly not his fault that his teammates have collectively underachieved in the rebounding department this season. But, it’s also hard to understand how a player of Embiid’s height and mass is only averaging a double-double if you do him a favor and round his rebounding average upwards. But, Saturday offered a unique opportunity against an abnormally small opponent. And the big fella was very aware of the advantage he had.
On the topic of Embiid, he could’ve easily decided to add some insurance to his stature as the league’s top scorer. But, he wasn’t feeling it. His jumper was off the mark for most of the game. Embiid also didn’t really assert himself as a scorer, either. Instead, he noticed that his team didn’t need him to pump the scoring column to win the game. The Sixers were blowing the doors off the Thunder without him terrorizing Oklahoma City. So, he put his facilitator cap on. He looked for his teammates all night long. Embiid facilitated the offense out of basic actions that the Sixers run all the time. It was good timing out of delay action and swinging the rock when the double-team came. It was directing his teammates to come get the ball for DHOs. Embiid made a point to get his teammates involved all night long.
It was the type of mindset that builds equity with one’s teammates. It could’ve been just another episode of America’s favorite game show, How Many Points Will Joel Embiid Score Tonight?. But, the centerpiece of the offense decided to balance the team’s shot diet. Everyone was involved, everyone got looks. And when Embiid was on the verge of his first triple-double since last season, his teammates went out of their ways to channel the offense back towards him. There were a couple possessions in the fourth quarter in which various Sixers turned down shots that didn’t come directly from Embiid. Instead, they opted to get the ball back to the big fella and then resumed the normal flow from there. Finally, it was Harris who stroked a triple out of a DHO with Embiid to give the big man his triple-double. And Embiid’s teammates were all happy to help him get there or see it happen if they, themselves, weren’t all that involved in it.
I think just about everyone and their mothers have been vocal about their frustration with Montrezl Harrell becoming the primary reserve center behind Embiid when Paul Reed has pretty handily outplayed him this season. But, there’s no denying that, if only for one night, Harrell was the guy who was a no-brainer signing on a veteran minimum deal in the final weeks of this past offseason.
In the first half, he directed the offense out of delay action quite well, calling upon teammates to come retrieve the ball for DHOs. He screened and dove to the basket hard, actually forming a potent pick-and-roll duo with the ball-handler involved. When Harrell got inside, he made himself wide and available at the rim. If his partner obliged and delivered the ball to him, Harrell went up strong, protecting the ball through contact for finishes at the rim. Even if he or a teammate missed, Harrell retrieved the miss and put the ball back up to get some second-chance points for Philadelphia.
In about 7 minutes between the first and second quarters, Harrell scored six points and grabbed four rebounds. Three of them came on the offensive glass. More importantly, the Sixers were plus-8 in his minutes. For the first time in what feels like weeks, the Sixers actually created some more separation in the minutes Embiid was recharging on the bench. That’s almost always a recipe for victory in this era of Sixers basketball.
I’m pretty heavily on board with Rivers playing a three-guard starting lineup once Maxey works his way back to his regular minutes. Melton has been too good and proven too versatile to put back on the bench. Maxey has built too much equity to be a sixth man. This game only added to my confidence that it could work. Melton made a couple of long rotations to the rim for strong-side blocks off the backboard. It wasn’t like those plays were heroic, taxing efforts for Melton, either. He made it look relatively easy. Plays like those give me reason to believe that the Sixers will keep their defensive chops even if they trend more towards the creative side with three guards in the starting five.
Melton isn’t as physically solid as Tucker is. But, he has the athleticism and verticality that Tucker lacks. They make defensive plays in different ways. And on top of that, Melton is a much more willing trigger on offense. I’m not saying that Tucker should be sent to the bench for the rest of time or that he should be out of the starting job for the rest of the season. Rather, my point is that I think it’s an experiment worth trying.
The Sixers need to finish in the top 10 on both offense and defense. The defense is already there. But, they’ve got a lot of work to do to bring that offense up. Rivers’ first move towards that should be the three-guard lineup. Melton’s play on defense gives me a lot of confidence that Philadelphia could maintain its prowess on that end while improving its stature on offense.
At the risk of being a buzz kill to your post-victory and New Year’s Eve celebration, it certainly felt like there was some good luck for the Sixers in this game. Overall, I thought the Sixers did a really nice job on both ends of the court without needing any luck. But, Oklahoma City shot 42.9 percent at the rim, according to Cleaning The Glass. That ranks worse than 99 percent of rim outcomes. The Thunder canned only 33.3 percent of its threes, a figure worse than 63 percent of three-point shooting outcomes. Oklahoma City couldn’t put the ball in the basket from the two most efficient levels of the court. You won’t lose many games when the opponent does that.
When you end the calendar year with a wire-to-wire blowout win, there isn’t a whole lot to criticize. But, there are a couple points to get to.
Harrell got absolutely destroyed by Zion Williamson and the Pelicans on Friday. The second night of a back-to-back against a very weak, very small team would’ve been the perfect starting point to reintegrate Reed into the rotation. Alas, we got more Harrell. I don’t know what Reed did, but it makes no sense that he’s out of the cycle right now.
He hasn’t seen real minutes since the first half of the Lakers victory early in December. Reed was brutal in those minutes, but I don’t think that justified his being benched for a month. It’s a very bizarre thing, in my opinion. Perhaps Rivers was so thin on trust with Reed that that was the final straw. But, Reed had been logging consistent minutes up to that point. More importantly, he was playing more than well enough to justify being the primary behind Embiid. If he didn’t believe in Reed, I have to think he wouldn’t have been giving him minutes before that Lakers game. Yet, after giving young Reed the nod for an extended period of time, Rivers seemingly quit him cold turkey.
Editor’s note: Harrell was quite good in this one. So, kudos to him.
The Sixers came out of halftime quite lethargic. They didn’t let the Thunder back into this game. It was essentially over after the first five minutes of the first quarter. But, they could’ve easily pushed it to a 30-40-point lead in the first few minutes after halftime and given the starters the rest of the night off. The elite teams can put together a resume of such beatdowns. It would be nice if the Sixers started doing that, too.
The cold streak for Georges Niang continued in this one. He’s been so good in his time as a Sixer that you almost forget that low-usage bench shooters typically have cold stretches. This is the first frigid stretch I remember from him. To his credit, he’s aggressive in putting the ball on the floor, driving to the rim, and making swing passes when he senses someone open on the weak side of the floor. Niang might have to refocus his sniper vision. But, those other light layers have allowed him to do a pinch more than draw dead when the shot is off.
The Sixers (21-14) will host the New Orleans Pelicans (23-13) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.