Maxey and Harden, Blue x White 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (3-4) visited the Washington Wizards (3-3) on the last of a four-game road trip. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to three games and climb back to .500. Washington wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. James Harden posted 23 points and 17 assists to lead the Sixers to victory, 118-111.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid missed the game with a non-Covid illness.

Two-Way signees Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable. 

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

Corey Kispert is recovering from a sprained left ankle and was unavailable. Delon Wright has a strained right hamstring and was out.

Wes Unseld Jr. started Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Gill, and Kristaps Porzingis. 


Tucker leading the game story with a bullet point in the “Like” column is not something I expected! Nonetheless, he was 5-for-5 from the floor at halftime. Much of his damage came tossing up soft floaters in pockets of space less than 10 feet from the rim. He certainly had the touch in the first half, getting just enough arc under the ball to guide it over the outstretched arms of players like Porzingis around the painted area. It wasn’t like he had easy angles on all of them, either. He made a short push shot over Porzingis from the left baseline. Difficult bucket considering you don’t have any help from the backboard and it’s somewhat of an in-between shot.

The Sixers stayed disciplined in the first quarter, refusing to panic when Washington found its way to the rim. Philadelphia stayed vertical and refused to give up ground, and that stone-walling caused the Wizards to miss shots at the rim or turn the ball over as they tried to pivot into other options when it became apparent the shots up close weren’t going to be comfortable. The Sixers used those misses and live-ball turnovers to get out and run, and they found offense from that early in this one. 

Harden was quite the aggressor early on in this game. He wasn’t passing on opportunities for the sake of feeding teammates. Rather, he was searching for shots in rhythm throughout the first quarter. And Harden helped himself by being unpredictable. He wasn’t just relying on threes or midrange jumpers. Instead, he used the runway to get to the rim if he had space to do so. And if he felt like he could shake his man, he was comfortable letting it fly from beyond the arc. Harden connected on a pair of layups and a pair of threes in the first frame, drawing a pair of and-1s en route to 15 points in the opening quarter. 

Matisse Thybulle is essentially a one-man transition defense. If he’s within reaching distance of a ball-handler pushing up the court, he’s poking the rock away to put the Sixers on the offensive. He had at least two blind-side poke-aways in the first half. For an offense that has disappointed despite its firepower, the Sixers can use all the open-court points they can get.

That Harden didn’t have any turnovers at halftime was impressive considering the constant trapping he faced from Washington. Once he heated up, the Wizards wanted the ball out of his hands, which is probably evident by the fact that he registered 17 assists in this game. Of course, the score-keepers have something to do with that inflated statistic, but I’ll address that a little later. But even as the trapping persisted in the second half, Harden had relatively little trouble reeling in the second defender and then quarterbacking the offense by finding the open man to act as a playmaker or shoot off the catch.

From top to bottom, the Sixers recognized that Porzingis has spacial limitations as a lateral mover on defense. As such, they went right at him all night long. Maxey put a hurting on him, beating the rim-protector to the basket for a handful of crafty finishes. Harden picked up a bucket and foul challenging him at the cup. Even Melton had success finishing at the rim on the move against Porzingis. It was as if the Sixers were picking on him, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do — exploit weaknesses. 

Philadelphia finally got some separation late in the third quarter thanks to Maxey. The third-year guard exploded with an assortment of difficult shots at the rim, a fading bank shot a few steps beyond the paint, and a triple near the logo. He kept the Sixers from crumbling when Harden, the catalyst of the entire offense, recharged on the bench. As this season has gone on, he’s done a much better job of approaching contact. Just a few games ago, he would fade ever-so-slightly, leaving layups dangling long enough to be blocked or with spin that allowed them to trickle off the rim. He’s really found his stride over the last three games, attacking straight into the rim and challenging defenders in his way.

The Wizards fought through a barrage of threes from Georges Niang to get back into this game late in the fourth quarter. When Harden checked back in, the traps resumed. But, Melton was there to release the pressure. The Sixers closed out their fourth victory of the season with Melton screening for Harden before the initial trap came. When he caught the ball in space, he was decisive. He toggled between taking the ball right to the rim and spraying it to other teammates to make Washington recover and go into rotation.


As good as Thybulle’s transition defense was in this game, there was an equally horrendous snapshot of his offensive woes. He caught a pass on the move in the middle of the floor, had Niang open in the corner, saw him, and rifled a pass that missed Niang by about four feet. That one won’t make the highlight reel.

As good as Montrezl Harrell has been around the rim throughout his career, it has not been a great start to the season for him in that regard. He’s missed bunnies. Harrell has played to whistles instead of being aggressive. He’s been loose with the ball. That didn’t change in the first half on Monday.

As I wrote in the Bulls game story on Saturday, Niang has been a much more willing driver this season. But, the outcome isn’t always good. He had two equally hilarious and horrific drives in the first half. One was a layup that barely got above the basket on a drive that seemed to get more complicated the more Niang dribbled. The other was a half-committed drive that ended with what seemed to be a lob that hit the rim or a very flat floater. Either way, no points on those possessions.

It seemed like Harden’s lack of burst really showed in the second half for the first time this season. He picked up a couple turnovers trying to drive at Wizards that he simply couldn’t get around, either getting stripped or making bad passes to get Washington out in transition. Getting back to that score-keeper point I mentioned earlier, it seems like they count Harden being stripped as he attacks the basket as missed shots. I’d understand that ruling if he was clearly in the act of shooting when he loses control. But, it seems like many of these missed shots are being counted when he loses the ball before getting it above his waist. Makes you wonder what his efficiency would look like if those were counted as turnovers instead. 

And on the topic of Harden’s turnovers, it would be nice if he at least faked like he was trying to make an effort to defend in transition. Especially when those transition opportunities result from his own live-ball turnovers.

The Sixers forgot how to run their offense after they built an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. They weren’t aggressive, moving the ball, or weaponizing speed in the pick-and-roll. Instead, the Sixers tried to clock-manage this game for a sizable portion of the fourth quarter. The disorganization caused live-ball turnovers and bad shots. Incomprehensible given the rhythm they had in building the lead up to 18.

The Sixers (4-4) will see the Wizards (3-4) again on Wednesday. This time, it’ll be in Philadelphia. Tip-off at The Center is scheduled for 6 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.


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