Embiid warming up

The Sixers (36-23) visited the New York Knicks (25-35) on Sunday afternoon. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to 3 games. New York aimed at picking up its first victory post All-Star break. James Harden recorded his first triple-double with the Sixers in a victory over the Knicks in the Garden, 125-109.

Before we get to what I saw, some house-keeping.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way), who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Knicks were without Quentin Grimes, who has a subluxation of his right patella. Derrick Rose is recovering from surgery on a skin infection on his right ankle, and was unavailable. 

Kemba Walker has been shut down for the rest of the season.

Luka Samanic (Two-Way) was on an assignment with New York’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Tom Thibodeau started Alec Burks, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.

First Quarter

Joel Embiid found himself the beneficiary of refreshingly open looks from James Harden early on. The Sixers ran something resembling a Spain pick-and-roll, and Harden found Embiid diving to the cup for a dunk as he got downhill off the screen. A few possessions later, Harden ran the break and left a dump-off pass for Embiid and then shielded off RJ Barrett so that his big man had a clear runway for a dunk. Those are valuable feeds to Embiid. Obviously, any Embiid shot at the rim is a great look. But more than that, those feeds incentivize him to continue to roll to the cup aggressively. There’s going to be give and take as his relationship with Harden blossoms. Embiid is going to have to become a willing roller, and the Sixers are going to have to reward him when he does it by getting him easy buckets. 

Just as they did in Minnesota, the Sixers lived at the free throw line in the first frame. The two pillars of the Sixers’ offense combined for 13 free throws in the first quarter. Obviously, the value is free points and getting the opposition in foul trouble early in the game. The Sixers were in the bonus less than halfway through the first quarter. But more than that, and certainly most importantly for the playoffs, those stoppages in play give Embiid and Harden a chance to recharge while they’re in the game. We’ll eventually know if that figures into Doc Rivers’ rotation calculus, but Embiid and Harden both rank in the top 5 of the league in free throw attempts per game. That’s a unique opportunity for a team with a high-usage post-up center.

Harden’s ability to create space and knock down those deep step-back triples really demoralizes the opposing defense. They think they’re doing a fine job holding their ground and preventing drives, no one is cutting, no one is particularly open. Then, boom — Harden sticks a deep one in the eye. He’s made a career out of shots like that, and The Beard is just 6 made triples away from passing Reggie Miller for third place on the all-time threes made list. He made two — one from each wing — in the first quarter.

Emblematic of Philly’s first quarter defense were the two undisciplined fouls Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle committed. Thybulle opened the game with a smackdown on an RJ Barrett floater. Thybulle is usually better than that, but he will commit the occasional misfire on a pump fake. Maxey has a lower defensive standard, so you can understand him giving unnecessary contact on shooters. He fouled Kentucky teammate Immanuel Quickley on a triple in the first quarter, grazing him on a rear contest to send him to the charity stripe for a four-point play. Those two fouls were representative of the lack of discipline the Sixers showed on defense in the first quarter, surrendering 35 points to the league’s sixth worst offense.

Second Quarter

Maxey made up for the ill-advised foul with tremendous play in the second frame. The second-year guard scored from all three levels, making a triple off the catch, getting to the midrange for floaters, and carving New York’s interior at the rim. The most promising early development of the Harden era is that Maxey has adapted so well to playing off the ball. I suppose that adaptation was easier than expected because of how often he was off the ball with Seth Curry on the court before the trade. 

Part of the damage he’s done is undoubtedly related to Harden’s gravity as a scorer and playmaker. Defenses take a half of a step away from the driving lane, and that’s all that Maxey needs to run the route. Harden made passes to Maxey from all over the court, and the speedster took advantage of the lifted helper by zooming right to the cup. 

Maxey was no slouch on defense, either. After arguing with an official over a non-call (correct call, by the way), Maxey shot back on defense and intercepted a cross-court pass to send the Sixers out in transition. That wasn’t his only heady defensive play of the quarter. With his low center of gravity, Maxey has the physical tools to be a weapon in help. He can get his hands in the passing lanes and driving lanes, stripping attacking opponents and igniting fast breaks. Maxey played a big hand in that on Sunday, denying the Knicks shots off drives by disrupting their dribbles. And when he plays a role in those defensive stops, he doesn’t bask in it. There were instances in which he created the steals and then sling-shot himself ahead of the pack to participate in his team’s transition play. 

Tobias Harris is really struggling to find his footing within the new offense. There were a couple of passes in which he had room to shoot, but turned it down and dribbled aimlessly. That’s less problematic with a dynamic ball-handler like Harden as the safety blanket. But, it disrupts the flow of pace. Harris has to get comfortable with catching and doing anything. Gone must be the days of catching and feeling the possession out. I can understand there needing to be time to adapt to a much lower-usage role. But, everyone else of significance is feeding off Harden relatively well. He looks quite lost in the offense, struggling to identify his opportunities. It shouldn’t be this difficult to fit next to Embiid and Harden. Even Danny Green rejected Harden’s call for an inbound pass in favor of getting the ball to Harris in an effort to build some rhythm. It’s the admirable thing for Harden to be accepting of that, as a leader. But, the offense should not be stalled for the sake of accommodating Harris. It’s going to move on, and he has to adapt to it.

Third Quarter

Harris woke up after halftime, at least with his aggression. He wasn’t hunting outside shots, but he was sniffing out driving lanes and getting to the rim. He forced a foul driving baseline on Alec Burks and made both free throws, and then went in for a dunk off a Harden pass in transition. Harris got fouled and wasn’t rewarded, but there’s nothing he can really do about that.

My long-standing theory is that officiating favors athleticism, in addition to the obvious reputation factor. Harris is not a phenomenal vertical athlete. As such, there’s contact that goes whistle-free because it doesn’t look so blatant against an athlete that doesn’t pop like, say, Ja Morant pops. The concern isn’t that he’s missing shots — Harris is skilled enough as a shooter to avoid a prolonged slump (barring injury). But, the aggression comes and goes. Harris has to hunt shots off the catch, whether it be triples, quick pull-ups, or drives. There can’t be a pause, idle dribble, and then pass to someone else or forced errant shot.

The third quarter was painfully slow entirely because of free throws. There were 18 total fouls — 16 personals and 2 technicals — in the frame. Embiid got to the free throw line for 5 attempts in the third frame. That number isn’t eye-popping. What is eye-popping is that Embiid got to the line for 21 free throws through three quarters. He couldn’t help but crack a smile after drawing his last foul in the third frame, knowing that he had put the Knicks’ bigs in absolute hell all afternoon.

Fourth Quarter

New York made a push to eventually take the lead early in the fourth quarter, but a pair of fouls drawn by Harden and Harris in back-to-back possessions spelled trouble for the Knicks. Those two fouls disqualified Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims, leaving the Knicks without a center for the remaining 9 minutes of regulation. Mind you, Embiid hadn’t even returned to the game yet.

Even though the Knicks held the lead, any chance they had of winning the game was erased. Harden registered a couple of buckets to keep the game close until Embiid came back. And once the big fella returned, it was back to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game 23 of 27 from the charity stripe, both career highs. Everyone knew Embiid and Harden would combine to inflate the Sixers’ free throw attempts beyond belief. But, I’m not sure many factored in how Harden would directly inflate Embiid’s free throw output. His ability to read the passing window as a driver out of the pick-and-roll and wait until the very last second to deliver passes is leaving interior defenses completely vulnerable. With Embiid looming with a chance to power down an emphatic dunk with no one in his way, they’re forced to foul just to prevent easy scores. Embiid had to simply roll hard and barrel to the rim to pick up contact. He scored 37 points despite only registering 18 field goals.

There are some defensive concerns, even in victory. You saw the Sixers playing Niang with Harden in crunch time. Of course, that didn’t stop them from switching on New York’s screens to appease Harden. You’re probably not going to change his nature at 32 years of age. He also does so much on offense that you can accept living with the defensive shortcomings. With that, you have to mitigate the defensive limitations around Harden. So, playing Niang in a switch and drop scheme in crunch time can be fatal. The Knicks toggled through screens until Niang was isolated against a ball-handler and then went to work. The slow feet held true, and the Knicks got to the rim against Philly’s drop throughout the fourth quarter. The saving grace is that the Knicks just aren’t a dangerous shooting team. So, you’ll live with them taking pull-up midrange jumpers and floaters. You can even survive with them stepping beyond the arc for those shots. But they’re athletic enough to do damage at the rim, which they did heading into the final few minutes.

But at the end of the day, Embiid is an all-world defensive anchor. When he sensed his team taking control, he leveraged his mobility to protect the basket. Embiid recorded a couple of blocks at the rim in the final few minutes of the fourth, thwarting New York’s efforts to stay alive.

The Sixers (37-23) will host the Knicks (25-36) on Wednesday night. It will be Harden’s home debut. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, EST. You can catch the game on ESPN.