The Sixers (25-16) visited the Utah Jazz (22-23) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Thursday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah wanted to build on Friday’s victory over the Orlando Magic. James Harden scored 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Sixers past the Jazz, 118-117.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Tobias Harris, who missed the game with left knee soreness. Harris briefly left the home loss to the Thunder after tumbling to the floor holding his left knee in pain. He eventually limped off the court under his own power before exiting to the locker room.
Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Jazz were without Lauri Markkanen, who missed the game with a left hip contusion.
Collin Sexton was unavailable in accordance with right hamstring injury maintenance.
Kelly Olynyk has a sprained left ankle and was out. Rudy Gay missed the game with a left low back spasm.
Johnny Juzang is on a Two-Way assignment with Utah’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Will Hardy started Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Walker Kessler.
It was all about Embiid and three-point shooting through the game’s first 12 minutes. With neither a Markkanen nor an Olynyk available to offer much resistance, Embiid had little more than a few traffic cones stopping him from doing whatever he wanted in the first quarter. Kessler stood no chance. Vanderbilt could only plead for mercy. Utah even tried Talen Horton-Tucker with a couple helpers converging on Embiid’s move to the basket. None of it mattered, the big guy got whatever he wanted all over the floor early on. The Jazz either conceded the basket or fouled him in the act.
You might say Embiid forced things a bit, sensing that there was no single purple jersey capable of keeping him at bay. But, the offense was quite balanced. Embiid scored 13 points, on six field goal attempts and six free throw attempts. The Sixers, as a team, connected on six of their 11 three-point looks. Harden was a major catalyst of that three-point shooting. He didn’t hit any, himself, but no. 1 empowered his teammates to dial up the open threes quickly.
Harden didn’t jog the ball up upon receiving outlet passes. Rather, he looked ahead for the open man, rifling the ball up the court to get Philadelphia in scoring position before the Jazz were back to defend. Harden’s passing touch was everywhere in the first quarter. If he wasn’t delivering hit-ahead passes, Harden was moving chess pieces around in the halfcourt, using every Utah step against them to dime open shooters on the perimeter. Philadelphia put up a season-high 41 points in the first frame, Embiid’s forceful play and Harden’s playmaking stapling the outburst.
When Philadelphia needed someone to calm things down as the Jazz made their extended run in the second quarter, it wasn’t Embiid or even Harden who took over. Rather, it was the young, always-cheerful Maxey who answered the bell. After struggling to rediscover his stroke from deep in the first handful of games back from the fracture in his foot, Maxey knocked down four of his six three-point attempts in the first half. The last two came precisely when the Sixers needed some offensive spark to cool the Utah momentum late in the second quarter.
At worst, Harden’s jumper failed him through three quarters. At best, he really wasn’t that aggressive of a perimeter shooter through the first 36 minutes. But, none of that mattered with 12 minutes of regulation left to play. There was the bearded guy, carrying the Sixers on his back in the guts of the game. Harden laced four triples in the final frame, hitting three in a row over one sequence in the middle of the quarter. Harden toggled between manipulating ball screens to settle into pull-up threes when the Jazz defender went under on the pick and lulling an individual assignment to sleep before creating space for a three with a quick step backwards. He scored 16 in a row for Philadelphia, mixing in a stepback midrange jumper and a pair of free throws to power the offense by himself.
Harden didn’t make it all about his heroic scoring as the game tightened, either. He invested in his teammates, dishing two assists with the game hanging in the balance. One was to Shake Milton on a cross-court pass for an open three. The other came out of a pick-and-roll that netted Embiid the game-winning jumper with less than five seconds to play. Harden pulled every right string in this game, answering the call when his running mate appeared unable to assert himself in the most critical minutes. None of this really matters until Harden debunks his playoff reputation. But, this was a vintage quarter for a guy who many wanted to write off after last season.
Speaking of Milton, he was the lone bright spot from the bench on a night when the reserves gave the Sixers basically nothing. He got to his patented midrange jumper, knocking in a barrage of fade-aways off the dribble in this one. He also knocked down three triples. Good night for a guard who has been surprisingly consistent for the Sixers this season.
As many have begged and pleaded for, the Sixers went to their prized two-man game with the Jazz threatening to send Philadelphia to a devastating 0-1 start on its five-game west road trip. Rivers deserves credit for pushing the right button, his team scoring both of its final two buckets out of the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. But, the two guys on the court deserve credit for executing it to perfection. It was largely an unimpressive night of execution for Embiid and Philadelphia, but the two best players got it together when the moment called for it the most. The first pick-and-roll got Harden a short jumper at the rim. After the Jazz retook the lead, they went back to the pick-and-roll. This time, it yielded Embiid the jumper that traded the lead back to the Sixers. They wouldn’t relinquish it this time.
Speaking of Rivers, an acknowledgement is in order for his flexibility with crunch time lineups. He’s consistently recognized when Tucker is giving the Sixers little to nothing on offense and benched him in crunch time for a more helpful offensive player. He’s also been quite good about offense-for-defense substitutions. On Saturday, Rivers went with Milton in crunch time. And he was sure to take Maxey out when Philadelphia was in need of stops in the final minute of play. After a questionable coaching display on Thursday, it was a much better night from the head honcho on Saturday.
There’s going to be a playoff game in which Melton smokes a layup in crunch time, the Sixers lose the game by one or two possessions, and it’s going to be a nightmare for the team and its fans. The most jarring part of his tendency to miss layups is that Melton has the vertical athleticism to finish above the rim, practically fastening the ball against the glass to leave no room for an unfortunate bounce. His touch is bizarrely inconsistent. I think I have a good idea of what he’ll be working on this summer.
Almost all of the equity Philadelphia built in the first quarter was destroyed in the second frame. There were some bad live-ball turnovers that let Utah run in transition, but the Sixers also missed several shots that they usually make. You were looking for continuity in effort and engagement from the first period to the second, and it just wasn’t there. The Sixers totally fell asleep after what was arguably their best offensive quarter of the season, to date.
Second quarter and beyond, one of the most jarring culprits of Philadelphia’s inability to keep the Jazz at arm’s length was second-change opportunities. The Sixers put forth minimal effort to get to long defensive rebounds, conceding additional plays per possession to the Jazz. The problem of those long offensive rebounds is that the first pass is a kick-out to an open shooter. So, a zero-point possession turns into a three-point possession because you failed to complete the defensive stand.
The result wasn’t really much better on more usual rebounds, the Sixers failing to secure the back side of the floor against crashing Jazz players. I thought Embiid was a major disappointment in that regard. Kessler and a variety of Jazz men snuck under the basket to tip the ball back in on misses when Embiid was in the vicinity. It’s been a down year of rebounding for Embiid, and poor effort in that department is unacceptable given the two-season struggle the Sixers have had on the glass.
All season long, Melton has been cast as a great defensive playmaker. He’s been a heroic addition for this team on both ends. But, he’s overrated as an individual defender. He and Matisse Thybulle were totally devoured by Clarkson all game long. It wasn’t the best night of three-point shooting for the veteran spark plug. But, he attacked those two off the dribble all game long. Whether it was drives to the basket or pull-up jumpers in the midrange, they couldn’t do anything to stop him.
That’s particularly frustrating for Thybulle. At least Ben Simmons was an incredible passer. He had some redeeming qualities on offense when his scoring game never really developed. Thybulle, as has been said numerous times, hasn’t made meaningful strides as an offensive player over his four-year career. If he’s going to be a zero on offense, he needs to be a wall on defense. Yet, it feels like he loses the individual matchup more often than not. Clarkson was the latest winner.
On the topic of Thybulle, his disappointing individual defense wouldn’t be as jarring if he made good decisions. Yet, there he was, trucking Conley in the back 40 feet away from the basket in the third quarter. He’s a constant source of undisciplined, unnecessary fouls, and they often show up at mind-boggling moments. At this point, he’s purely situational and nothing more.
Philadelphia missed several bizarre shots. They struggled specifically with layups, and the long jumpers that they cashed in on in the first quarter abruptly missed short. I do wonder if any of that had to do with the high altitude. Utah is the third highest state in the country. This is Philadelphia’s first true trip out west this season, so I do wonder if the Sixers struggled to keep wind as this game went on. If so, that might’ve left them a little short on shots.
Even in victory, the Sixers simply did not give a consistent professional effort after they looked ready to blow the doors off in the first quarter. They made bad decisions and had poor shot selection. The Sixers offered little defensive resistance against dribble penetration. They failed to complete defensive possessions with box-outs. It all counts the same in the win column, but this was just a really poor effort with bad focus for 36 minutes. Not one to feel good about.
Clarkson’s biggest blemish of the night came on the game’s final shot. He basically handed Philadelphia the win, dribbling himself into a trap along the sideline with nowhere to go with time running out. In a game where the Sixers were outplayed by an inferior team, it was an uncompetitive decision that secured the win for Philadelphia without the white jerseys having to make a big defensive play to earn it.
The Sixers (26-16) will visit the Los Angeles Lakers (19-23) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBA TV.