The Sixers (46-22) visited the Charlotte Hornets (22-49) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to win its seventh consecutive game. Charlotte wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Embiid, Harden, and the Sixers bulldozed the Hornets to officially eliminate Charlotte from the playoffs, 121-82.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without the services of Jalen McDaniels, who has a right hip contusion.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The Hornets were without the services of LaMelo Ball, who is out for the rest of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a fractured right ankle.
Cody Martin missed the game with a sore left knee. Mark Williams has a sprained right thumb and was out.
James Bouknight is on an assignment with the Hornets’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable. Theo Maledon is on a Two-Way assignment with Charlotte’s G-League affiliate and was out.
Steve Clifford started Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, and Nick Richards.
The good moments have been few and far between for Harris lately. As such, it must’ve felt like a weight off his back to have a really nice game against Charlotte on Friday. His teammates looked his way early, the Sixers running flex actions that got him sealed for touches inside. It all started with a contested triple from the right wing that found the mark early in the game.
Once Harris saw one go down, he was ready to go. He knocked down another triple later in the first half from the left wing, rattling in a catch-and-shoot look early in transition. Harris didn’t just fall in love with the perimeter. The deep ball was just a tool at his disposal throughout the night. Harris bullied mismatches, intuitively backing his way down to the basket for high-percentage shots when he sensed mismatches. He ran the floor in transition, redeeming a dunk on a gorgeous pocket pass from Tucker. He even got a rep in a pick-and-roll, pulling up for a midrange jumper after clearing the screen.
I can see both sides of the argument regarding Harris’ importance in the playoffs. There’s no question they will need him to be his best self on defense. But, the offense is a different story. They needed him to be great in last season’s playoffs because Harden wasn’t healthy. But, Harden has been better than anyone could’ve hoped for in his first full season with the Sixers. You factor in that Embiid is as good as he’s ever been and Maxey finding his footing, and it is fair to wonder whether it’s important for Harris to find his stride because he’ll be the fourth option on most nights.
I think there’s a chance he can swing a series the deeper the Sixers go in the playoffs. So, I think it’s important for him to re-discover his early-season form as a volume catch-and-shoot three-point guy capable of making things happen off the dribble as long as he makes quick decisions. But, I can see the other side of the argument for those who want to make it.
Embiid broke out of the early boredom emphatically. And it was more of the same. He was simply dominant, destroying Charlotte from the nail and in. Much of the work came courtesy of a two-man game. But, there was at least one impressive score that was almost all Embiid’s own doing:
exhibit b: https://t.co/rrcA6fvSyG pic.twitter.com/zv68ml0qAj— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 17, 2023
Embiid took advantage of sleeping Charlotte defenders, quickly sealing them off inside for easy buckets at the rim or bullying his way up close before turning around for quick scores.
The overwhelming majority of his 38 points came easy because Harden or someone else served them up on a plate for the big guy. He didn’t have to put the ball on the deck much or navigate traffic. It was just screen, open, catch, and react. Embiid slowed his roll or opened wide out of the screen, Harden or Maxey bounced the ball to him for an easy jumper by the free throw line. If Embiid saw a runway after opening up wide out of the screen, he went all the way to the rim for two points.
He didn’t just go autopilot on offense and coast through the game, though. Embiid swatted four shots away, although I think there was some beneficial scorekeeping that helped him out there. Still, his rim instincts were excellent. Embiid stayed vertical when drivers elevated, meeting them at the top to reject their shots. He made good decisions as a pick-and-roll defender, reading the ball and adjusting his drop accordingly to make himself available high in the action. He also just made some simply incredible defensive plays, twisting on the move and rejecting Kai Jones at the rim and goading Rozier into a drive before spiking his layup away:
Terry Rozier very well might've been shooting this anyway, but I think Embiid intentionally looked away to goad Rozier into driving and then rotated over in help and swatted the layup away once Rozier committed to the drive. pic.twitter.com/3jneBAZcrG— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) March 18, 2023
As good as Embiid has been on offense this year and especially lately, the bigger story is his defense. That’s where you can see his desire to win MVP, even if he won’t say it into microphones. His will to make plays as a rim-protector and defend in space has been nothing short of remarkable, regardless of who the opponent is. It has to be the best two-way stretch of his career.
The Hornets are too ripe to make the right defensive plays on a possession-to-possession basis. But, this game was a perfect example of Harden’s offensive genius. All of the good in Embiid’s scoring output, Harden was the genesis for much of it. Charlotte put two on the ball as soon as the screener joined the play. That is the right concept, given how elite a playmaker Harden is. The problem was that the Hornets thought that was enough to solve the offense. They were not prepared to make help rotations when Harden made the first pass against the extra pressure.
As such, Philadelphia got endless practice-level shots off of Harden’s pass out of the pick-and-roll or the swing pass second to Harden’s pass. Harris got an easy catch-and-shoot three from the right wing because the Hornets botched a help rotation. Embiid threw down a thunderous dunk because there was no weak-side helper there to clog his driving lane.
Even if it wasn’t a two-man game dish, Harden saw openings in transition and early in the halfcourt offense. Hit-ahead passes for quick scores or Embiid opening in the post out of a flex action, Harden found the open man. No. 1 took a backseat as a scorer in this one, but he used the Hornets’ youthfulness against them and picked Charlotte apart all night.
Paul Reed had six offensive rebounds in 12 minutes of action. He’s getting better by the day, especially on offense. Control of both his body and the ball is the only ingredient he needs to be successful on that end of the floor right now. His touch around the rim is making strides every minute he’s on the court. The best thing he did in this game was show his second jump on the glass. He created additional plays per possession for Philadelphia, keeping the ball alive on his own or teammates’ misses and scoring the second look himself. Garbage time probably inflated it a good bit, but the Sixers were plus-nine with Reed on the floor in the same game that they were plus-26 with Embiid on the court.
More than anything, that tells you it was a good night for the Sixers.
The way this game started was at least a little conflicting in these eyes. On one hand, if Embiid wants to win the MVP award, he needs to put his imprint on every game from the get-go. If he can do it against an elite Cleveland defense in hostile territory, he can absolutely do it against a bottom-10 defense in Charlotte.
On the other hand, it is the 22-49 Hornets. The limited home audience that is there is more concerned about what beverage will accompany them at the game than the game, itself. The rest — and significant majority, it seemed like — of the audience was Sixers fans who made their collective presence known with booming MVP chants for the big fella. Anyway, it’s understandable that there would be relatively little juice for this matchup.
But, you could see it early. Embiid committed a couple turnovers in the first few minutes of the game trying to force feed the ball to Harris inside, misreading the best way to get the ball to him or making the wrong decision to look his way as the Hornets tried to deny the entry pass. Embiid also toed the line on a three early in the clock that missed the mark. Fortunately, the slow start only lasted a few minutes and it was pure dominance the rest of the night.
Tucker did his usual junkyard work on the glass, but some really rough decisions on offense from him. There’s feeding the hot hand and there’s junking up the fluidity of the offense by not taking easy shots when they’re right in front of you. Tucker fell into the latter category on Friday. He also bit a Hayward fake on a shot that he clearly wasn’t going to take and logged a foul.
Rough night of shooting for Harden, too. Many of his threes weren’t close, and he missed all six of his attempts. 4-for-15 overall. A triple-double is a nice consolation prize, I suppose. Speaking of rough shooting, 0-for-5 from deep for Niang. You know the Sixers are playing a terrible team when they win by 39 points despite getting an 0-11 effort from beyond the arc from those two.
Harris had a really nice game for the first time in a while. But, there were a couple plays in transition in which he botched possessions when Philadelphia had numbers. I’m sure Embiid and Harden understand that there are levels to skill and that they were born with particular gifts that 99.9 percent of people do not have. But, I do wonder if they quietly ask themselves how Harris can make some relatively easy plays look so difficult when they make those same plays all the time.
The Sixers (47-22) will visit the Indiana Pacers (32-38) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.