James Harden catches a pass and lines up a three while warming up for a game; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (23-15) visited the Detroit Pistons (11-31) on Sunday afternoon. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Friday. Detroit aimed to get back on track after Friday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. James Harden recorded a triple-double to lead the Sixers to victory in Detroit, 123-111.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who missed his third consecutive game with a sore left foot.

PJ Tucker was out with a non-Covid illness.

Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Julian Champagnie and Louis King are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and Montrezl Harrell.

The Pistons were without the services of Cade Cunningham, who is out for the season with a stress fracture in his left tibia.

Marvin Bagley III has metacarpal fractures in his right hand and was out. Jalen Duren missed the game with a sore right ankle.

Isaiah Livers has a sprained right shoulder and was unavailable. Rodney McGruder missed the game with a non-Covid illness.

Buddy Boeheim and Jared Rhoden are on Two-Way assignments with Detroit’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.

Dwane Casey started Killian Hayes, Jaden Ivey, Saddiq Bey, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Isaiah Stewart.


A good summation of the first quarter was the Harden-Harrell two-man game punishing the Pistons, and then the Sixers holding steady when the duo made their respective departures. Philadelphia jumped out to an early 8-point advantage almost purely by virtue of the chemistry the point guard and center have. It was as simple as taking what Detroit showed on defense and reacting accordingly. There was no forcing anything, no misjudgment of risks within the action, nothing too fancy beyond the spice Harden added on his passes to Harrell.

If Harden didn’t like his options on the perimeter and didn’t want to reduce the offense to his one-on-one dances, he called his big man up for a screen. Detroit played high in coverage, unwilling to sacrifice dribble penetration to really open up Philadelphia’s offense. That was fine by Harden, who waited until he pulled the big up just far enough to clear the lane for Harrell before delivering the ball to his teammate for shots at the rim. If Detroit didn’t fully give into his threats to get downhill, Harden fought his way to the rim before casting the ball to Harrell at the rim, who leaked behind the big while he was focused on Harden.

Harden recorded a fistful of dimes in his first stint run on the two-man game with Harrell, by itself. And the hot start built Harrell up for his run in the second quarter. Upon checking back in, Harden and Harrell, together, restored order after the Pistons cut Philadelphia’s double-digit lead to four points. Harrell took mismatches off the dribble and made his patented quick flip shot in the middle of the lane. He gathered offensive rebounds for putbacks, and he bulldozed his way to the basket for finishes around the cup. He was the game’s leading scorer at halftime, and the Sixers led by 17 at the break.

Harrell has simply been awesome over the past three games. The biggest difference is that he’s playing with great control. His footwork and balance have been excellent recently, eliminating the awkward steps that caused botched layups and missed catches on pocket passes. He’s making those difficult catches on the move now, with enough momentum going to the rim to just truck his way through traffic for authoritative finishes. That wasn’t happening through the first 35-or-so games. 

We cannot praise Harrell without circling back to Harden. The bearded guy toyed with the Pistons for all 28 of his minutes. If they made the mistake of going under on ball screens, he pulled up behind the pick and drained a three. If his defender disrespected him with shooting space, Harden rocked him to sleep before lacing a stepback triple. It wasn’t just a party from beyond the arc, though. Harden called up screeners to get the mismatch he wanted on the perimeter. He then danced his new defender out of position before bursting to the cup for layups.

He kept the ball on a string the entire game, leveraging his own gravity to dime up his shooters and cutters if a Detroit helper shaded his way. Harden did whatever he wanted on the court, barely breaking a sweat on his way to a triple-double on the Sixers’ first possession of the third quarter. It was a far cry from what he was capable of when the Sixers lost to the Pistons last spring, when Harden couldn’t summon enough power to get around Isaiah Stewart on switches in Detroit. 

Paul Reed was simply fantastic, logging more minutes as Harrell’s backup than the starting center did. He fought for offensive rebounds all night long, generating eight(!) extra offensive plays for Philadelphia by corralling his team’s misses. Sometimes it was simply being taller and longer than the Piston in his way. He just tipped the ball up and out of their reach before claiming it, himself. Other times, it was Reed flying around a frozen Piston to grab the ball as it fell off the rim or boxing one out for inside positioning as the shot went up.

Reed’s defense was excellent, too. In its simplest form, any dialogue on that front begins with a look at the number of fouls he committed. Only two in more than 24 minutes of playing time. Outstanding. But, Reed showed great discipline in contesting shots. He kept his hands back and arms up. But, Reed still used his body to keep Detroit fading away from the rim no matter how close they got to the basket.

He even stayed disciplined in space, mostly keeping his feet on the floor on shot fakes and not using his hips to make contact when he felt a Piston getting around him. Reed practiced his best techniques both on the perimeter defending in switches and in the paint protecting the rim. My guess is that Harrell is fully entrenched in the rotation directly behind Embiid, and I don’t think this game changed that at all. But, this was perhaps Reed’s best performance of the season.  

Maxey was Philadelphia’s leading scorer in the game, but he had a particularly exquisite stretch late in the third quarter. The young guard stepped on the gas in transition, converting a pair of layups (one and-1). He then finished the quarter by dusting Hayes in isolation before lacing a pull-up midrange jumper. Maxey’s three-point shot was short throughout the game, but he knocked down a couple of difficult midrange jumpers off the dribble. It was the burst, the element that takes him from picture-perfect to total blur, that came back in a big way. He inches closer to being all the way back with each passing game.

We cannot finish up the “Like” section of the column without applauding Matisse Thybulle. Six steals in this game for the defensive specialist. He preyed on errant, lazy passes across the court all game long. The long wing’s gambles paid off virtually every time, Thybulle sprinting in front of his assignment to intercept the ball in the open court. He absolutely terrorized Detroit with the live-ball turnovers all game long.


Philadelphia committed some really sloppy turnovers in the first quarter. There were some bad passes that Detroit picked off, and one instance of inexplicably bad dribbling from Harden. It didn’t feel like much of it was a result of Detroit’s defense. The Sixers just came out bored against a terrible team on a Sunday afternoon on the road.

Ultimately, this game was never really in doubt. But, it took the Sixers a while to finally put this game away. They looked poised to put the nail in the coffin a couple of times, only to let the Pistons rip off a small run to get it back within striking distance. The Sixers do that often, and rarely record a wire-to-wire smackdown. Just drop the hammer, fellas.

The Sixers (24-15) will host the Detroit Pistons (11-32) on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.


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