The Sixers (36-19) hosted the Houston Rockets (13-43) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Houston wanted to snap a five-game losing streak. James Harden notched a double-double against his former club to lead the Sixers to victory, 123-104.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Rockets were without the services of Kevin Porter Jr., who has a left foot contusion.
John Wall, who was traded to Houston on Thursday, is not with the team.
Stephen Silas started Jalen Green, Jae’Sean Tate, Jabari Smith Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr., and Alperen Sengun.
The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Rivers did a great job of recognizing the athleticism disparity (more on that in the ‘Dislikes’ column) early and trying to remedy it by making Jalen McDaniels one of the first men off the bench. He even tested McDaniels with some extended run between the first and second quarters, the newest Sixer logging 10 minutes in the first half.
McDaniels didn’t do a lot that showed up in the box score in this one. But, I thought his functional length was on full display in this one. The Sixers aren’t exactly a showtime team; lob passes are few and far between. But, they’ve been willing to throw it up to the new guy in his first two games with the team. He engulfs the ball when it pops loose, picking up 50/50s or saving possessions for his team. McDaniels has also come down with a number of contested rebounds thus far, barging into crowds and securing the rock over a sea of arms.
His ability to come up with wild blocks solely because of his long arms is something that will make highlight reels, McDaniels coming out of nowhere to spike what looked like a sure-thing finish at the rim for Houston. He uses his pterodactyl-like arms to overwhelm everyone he comes near on defense, testing your pure shooting skill because he takes away your ability to see the basket unabated.
On offense, he’s a breath of fresh air. McDaniels put the ball on the floor a couple of times in this game, handing traffic with control and a tight handle. You saw numerous things from McDaniels in this game that Matisse Thybulle simply never gave the Sixers. McDaniels finished a difficult layup through a foul after running the floor in transition. He got the friendly bounce on a midrange jumper, pulling up out of a drive to the paint.
He’s going to have some bad moments as he gets used to applying his functional athleticism and length to this new team. But, you feel like McDaniels is going to fall into some good moments with that length and athleticism, alone. One catch-and-shoot three isn’t going to move me, so we’ll see if that holds up over a large sample size of attempts. But, everything he’s shown thus far has been good.
Been quite a long rut for Harris, but he was a huge contributor ahead of intermission. Harris knocked down a triple on the catch without even a moment’s hesitation. He dropped a midrange jumper and had a couple of strong drives to the cup. Harris played with control, tightening his dribble and processing the obstacles in his way as he attacked off the swing and in transition. He made sure to get right to the rim, too, leaving no space for the ball to miss its target.
In a game where length and athleticism, together, was a big story, Tyrese Maxey was one of the Sixers’ brightest lights in the first half. He burned the rubber on the soles of his shoes, bursting around the floor to beat bigger Rockets defenders off the dribble for a handful of crafty buckets at the rim. Maxey even punished a red jersey who dared go under the ball screen, pulling up for a triple after clearing the pick immediately upon checking into the game for the first time. That’s two very good outings as this team’s sixth man in his last three games. Consistency is everything in this role. The key now is keeping his foot on the gas every time he checks in.
If Rivers is going to experiment with an all-bench lineup, I liked the one he opened the fourth quarter with. Maxey, Shake Milton, McDaniels, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed. Harden checked in for Milton one minute into the quarter. I think pretty much any non-Embiid lineup should feature Harden. The other pieces just aren’t consistent enough right now to trust lineups that don’t feature one of Embiid and Harden.
But, if you’re going to run all-bench lineups, Maxey and two long athletes are a good base shell. Even when Harden checks in, you still want to keep that defense strong. McDaniels and Reed, together, are a good pairing for that. They might commit some fouls or make some mistakes on offense. But, they can switch everything. That ability to guard in space at least gives you a chance in those non-Embiid minutes. And, by the way, the Sixers blew the game open in the fourth quarter without the big guy ever touching the floor.
The ‘Likes’ wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Harden. He beat up on his old team all night long. Harden applied his muscle inside, finishing through contact at the rim a number of times throughout the game. He also teased Houston from outside, lacing four triples in the third quarter. If they gave him space from well beyond the line, no problem. Sengun forcing him right in space? No problem, quick dribble and a step backwards into the corner. Too late getting around a screen? No problem. Off the catch? No problem. He scored 28 points with 10 assists against his former club.
Right off the bat, you could see the Sixers’ most mortal issues on display. The Rockets are 30 games below .500 — obviously quite bad. But, there’s a collection of raw talent and athleticism there. Philadelphia’s talent is quite polished at this point, but the Sixers are not a team that screams athleticism on most nights.
So, even a terrible team can given them some issues by using its intangible gifts. There the Rockets were early on, leaping into the passing lanes to disrupt post entry passes to Embiid. Houston was also quite fluid in attacking off the dribble, leveraging burst to beat Philadelphia in its man rotations and soar to the basket. Sometimes, the raw talent failed and shots missed. No worry, a Rocket or two crashed to the basket, looking to jump over lazy Sixers for offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities.
The athleticism also killed the Sixers in transition. Houston’s length in wingspan and in gate meant Philadelphia had to be smarter with the ball. Yet, there were Embiid and the Sixers, losing the ball on poke-aways and strips. The Rockets are so much quicker and more athletic that Philadelphia basically conceded two points as soon as Houston picked up the loose change.
There’s really no excuse for it. If If you miss a shot, two or three guys should be sprinting back on defense when the ball goes up anyway. Sometimes, you’ll inevitably get beat down the floor on turnovers, regardless of effort or starting position. There’s only one way to combat that — lock in and take care of the ball on offense.
On the topic of turnovers, not a good half taking care of the basketball for Embiid. He lost control every time he put the ball on the floor, the Rockets reaching in for deflections. He was only punished with two turnovers in the first half, but Embiid lost the ball on the attack a number of times.
The only reason the Rockets were in this game at halftime was the rebounding disparity. Houston was plus-12 on the glass in the first 24 minutes. Most notably, they won the offensive glass by seven rebounds. Even the 13-43 Rockets will find their way to a couple scores if you give them that many additional plays.
Tucker only played seven minutes in the game due to left calf tightness. Maxey started in his place in the second half.
The Sixers got some stops playing zone in this game. But, don’t get it twisted. Houston missed a ton of jumpers at the sweet spot of the zone. Philadelphia did benefit from a number of turnovers in this game, so the zone worked as intended. But, the zone was used to mask the fact that they couldn’t guard in man coverages. That continues to be a problem and will be a major issue against good teams if the Sixers don’t fix it.
The Sixers (37-19) will host the Cleveland Cavaliers (38-22) on Wednesday in their final game before the All-Star break. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.