James Harden handles the ball in Sixers-Pacers game, January 4, 2023; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (22-14) hosted the Indiana Pacers (21-17) on Wednesday. Philadelphia planned to win its third game in a row. Indiana aimed to win its fifth game in a row. James Harden made some massive defensive plays down the stretch to secure a win in overtime, 129-126.

Before we get to the game, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Pacers were without Kendall Brown, who is out with a stress reaction in his right tibia.

Daniel Theis is recovering from surgery on his right knee and was unavailable.

Isaiah Jackson is on an assignment with Indiana’s G-League affiliate and was out. Trevelin Queen is on a Two-Way assignment with Indiana’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Rick Carlisle started Tyrese Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, and Myles Turner.

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who missed the game with a sore left foot.

Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.

Likes

The Sixers kept this game close despite some early dead batteries on offense with their defense. I thought, given the circumstance that Embiid was unavailable, they did pretty much exactly what you would’ve wanted them to do. Without their security blanket rim-protector and a small-ball lineup to start, Philadelphia did a tremendous job of taking away dribble penetration. I actually didn’t notice as much switching on the perimeter as I thought I would have, some blue jerseys sticking with their assignments through picks.

There were only a handful of times in which Indiana got the ball inside, whether that be by drive-and-kick or post touches. Credit to the Sixers for fronting and denying passes inside and good interior positioning. That’s especially difficult when the opposition can toggle between Turner and Jalen Smith. That’s two more traditionally-sized bigs with vertical athleticism than what the Sixers had to offer, and yet Indiana couldn’t make a theme out of shots at the rim.

Even when the ball did find its way inside, the Sixers’ first line of defense didn’t freeze like they usually do when Embiid is there to clean up their messes. There was a helper in the right spot to make sure the Pacers still felt resistance. A helper from the driving lane, the designated low man, and the weak-side helper rotating to the box were all there to take away whatever advantage Indiana thought it found. It could’ve easily been one of those nights when the interior defense was like butter. But, Philadelphia really put together an excellent team effort to not give away easy buckets inside.

And then, as became a theme in the month of December, the Sixers unleashed their zone defense. That made life even more challenging for Indiana. The Pacers immediately became timid from beyond the arc, moving the ball like a hot potato instead of operating with patience. They forced passes to try to beat Philadelphia’s zone to its spots in rotation.

Whether it was too tight of a window, too hard of a pass within short proximity, or too off-timed, Indiana gave the ball away with regularity against Philadelphia’s zone. The Sixers struggled to find rhythm on offense. But, they used the extra possessions they created for themselves to figure out the right formula. After crawling out of an early hole with their defense, they created some separation with the same equation.

When the Sixers did finally discover their rhythm on offense, it was because they beat Indiana down the floor with pace. Usually, they move relatively slowly with Embiid available. The first pass is often to Embiid by the left block or at the elbow, and things flow from there. On Wednesday, the Sixers got the ball up the floor within the first three or four seconds of the shot clock because they rifled the ball ahead out of the backcourt.

The ball movement didn’t stop there. Philadelphia wasn’t content with the shot always coming from the first pass. The Sixers whizzed the ball around the floor, creating North-South movement. There were a couple possessions in which the Sixers made two or three passes before the shot clock even counted down to 19 seconds. That pace allowed Philadelphia to knife its way to the rim when the jumpers didn’t fall early on.

It wasn’t Harden’s best night shooting the ball, but he didn’t let a rough night from the perimeter render him useless as a scorer. The bearded guy was aggressive in hunting the rim all night long. Even with Turner playing at the level or assisting in a double-team, Harden found angles. He split the gap and burst through the middle of the floor to penetrate Indiana’s interior, in search of whatever was to come next.

If Turner didn’t come and Harden was tasked with being the last man standing on an island, no problem. He found the edge and changed speeds, finding his way inside to challenge Turner at the rim. He fought through contact for scores up close and finished with craft. Harden also didn’t allow himself to be a one-trick pony at the rim. He pulled up short to dangle floaters when Turner was in position to reject him if he dared to meet the Pacers big man all the way at the basket. Harden showed a good combination of burst and upper body strength at the rim all game long.

With the game hanging in the balance, Indiana tried to do what all teams with stars try to do against switch schemes. They brought Harden’s man into the screen action for Haliburton, targeting the older guard in isolations on their own star. That strategy is usually successful when your worst defender is simply smaller than the offensive player. As it turns out, Harden and Haliburton are the same size. So, it essentially came down to will and pride. And the Sixers point guard took the disrespect personally. It wasn’t easy, but Harden managed to stay in front of Haliburton more often than not.

He didn’t allow the Pacers point guard to create leverage, forcing other Pacers to make plays. Harden had to count on his teammates to recover in help and hold strong in their matchups. But, he refused to be devoured on his home court. He even made the game-saving playing in overtime, recording a block at the rim after missing a pair of free throws that would’ve put Philadelphia up by three points. For a guy known to loaf around in help, give bare-minimum effort on his individual assignments, and be out of position on the defensive glass, Harden won numerous critical one-on-one battles with his defense down the stretch to secure a win for Philadelphia. 

Dislikes

The flip side of Philadelphia’s urgency in stopping leakage in the paint was that they were a bit too reliant upon three-point luck early on. Indiana started the game relatively hot from beyond the arc, and created an early advantage with three-point shooting. There was still a degree of favorable three-point luck for Philadelphia as the game wore on. But, the Sixers definitely paid a little more attention to the perimeter after the Pacers burned them from deep in the first quarter.

The momentum flowed the Sixers’ way in the second quarter. But after creating some distance between themselves and the Pacers, the Sixers lost what made them successful early. Indiana was able to run in transition, which is even more problematic than usual given that the Pacers play at one of the 10 fastest paces in the league. You’re going to miss shots, and teams will run on those misses. But, the Sixers could’ve done more to send players back to defend as the shots went up. Furthermore, the live-ball turnovers hurt. That’s sloppiness, and it obviously doesn’t have to be as inevitable as missing shots is. 

There were also a few miscommunications on switches that gave Indiana naked looks. The Pacers were effective in using staggered screens for Haliburton, forcing Philadelphia to switch quickly and dig deep into its switch rules. Of course, that will create some confusion. And the Sixers surrendered some good looks at threes ahead of halftime as a result.

Harden finished the game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1, which is a very efficient number. But, some of his turnovers were horrendous. There were times in the second half in which he tried to read passes two or three plays ahead. But, because he’s seeing things unfold far differently than what his playmaking-deficient teammates see, Harden ended up making the absolute worst passes he could’ve made.

One was a rifle right into a Pacer, similar to Gardner Minshew’s pick-six against the Saints on Sunday. Another was a bad pass that was picked off in the middle of the floor with only one Sixer ahead of the ball. Harden makes some unbelievable passes and has put up some flat-out comical double-doubles this season. But, when he turns the ball over, it is ugly

Some of those turnovers came down the stretch, and added gasoline to a broader trend of turnover problems for Philadelphia in the fourth quarter. Live-ball mistakes erased what was a double-digit lead heading into the game’s final quarter, the Pacers even taking a four-point lead in the final minute of regulation.

The perfect summation of both the Sixers’ turnover woes and general mind-boggling execution in holding down late leads was an eight-second violation despite having three guards on the court. How do you do that?

To compound the problem, the Sixers’ defense wasn’t quite as strong as it had been in the first three quarters. Hield became particularly problematic. The Sixers bit on Hield’s quick shot fake a number of times, allowing the Pacers wing to reset for open threes as the would-be defender scrambled to recover. When they didn’t bite on the fake, the Sixers lost him around the perimeter. Hield connected on a handful of triples down the stretch to inch the Pacers closer and even take the lead.

Somewhat a byproduct of Harden’s turnovers but also beyond them, I thought the Sixers’ offense really fell apart in crunch time when no. 1 slowed the game down with his over-dribbling. That wasn’t a problem in the first half, coinciding with the timeframe during which the Sixers were humming on offense. The more he slowed the game down, the less the ball moved, the more Indiana was able to set up its defense, and the more often the Sixers began to work against the shot clock. 

There was even an extended stretch between the fourth quarter and overtime during which Maxey barely touched the ball except for slashing when swing passes came his way. He’s blossomed into an elite catch-and-shoot three-point sniper, so it’s fine that he’s playing off the ball more. But, sometimes it’s both good and necessary to let your backcourt mate take over some of the ball-handling duties so that the opposing defense can’t just anticipate what you’re going to do and sit comfortably in a certain scheme. In fact, the suddenly-sputtering Sixers’ offense eventually put the game away in the extra session when Philadelphia decided to put the ball in Maxey’s hands.

The Sixers (23-14) will host the Chicago Bulls (17-21) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

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