The Sixers (0-3) hosted the Indiana Pacers (1-2) on Monday. Philadelphia was desperately looking for its first victory of the season. Indiana looked to build on a victory over the Pistons on Saturday. James Harden and Joel Embiid combined for 55 points to push the Sixers to that elusive first victory, 120-106.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Myles Turner is recovering from a sprained left ankle and was unavailable. Daniel Theis was out with a sore right knee.
Rick Carlisle started Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, Jalen Smith, and Isaiah Jackson.
All Sixers were available for this game.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers looked like a different team on offense in the first 6 minutes of the game. The culprit? Ball movement. They had looks at open corner threes on virtually every possession as long as they made more than one pass every time down. They weren’t short, unproductive passes just for the sake of passing the ball, either. The ball moved from the outside to the inside, and vice versa. The passes were traveling from left to right, and vice versa, too. Swinging the ball had the Indiana defense out of position and hemorrhaging open shots on the perimeter. Philadelphia got up 16 triples in the first frame. Even if you’re missing, that efficiency in shot selection is the power of working the ball around the court.
Embiid was as big a contributor to that as anyone. Even if he wasn’t plugging the shooter himself, he was catalyzing a sequence that found the eventual shooter. Perhaps the most encouraging sign that his slow start might be seeing the end of the tunnel was his consistency in reading Indiana’s defense. Whether they applied additional pressure or just shaded towards him, Embiid invited the extra attention just far enough to rip passes to open teammates and spark swings to open shooters.
Harden did a particularly nice job feeding the interior. It’s almost funny to watch him make an entry pass on the same side of the floor as Harris does. Harris simply isn’t comfortable lobbing passes to Embiid inside at certain angles. He’ll opt to swing the ball to someone else and hope they can find Embiid flashing at a more favorable angle. And then there’s Harden, who catches and immediately just lofts the ball above the crowd as if Embiid is a wide receiver. The crazy part is that his feel for those passes is usually quite good. The ball dies right in front of the rim, giving Embiid time to elude his defender and catch for a finish or get fouled going up. Harden gave Harrell the same treatment. Just lob it up and let him find the ball.
The Sixers were also far more engaged in their halfcourt defense than they had been in the first three games. They were well-prepared for Indiana to spray the ball virtually anywhere on the court. You could see their shell drills from practice come to life in a real environment. It didn’t matter whether it was the original assignment, every Sixer found the open man and closed out, trusting a teammate to rotate out and cover in his absence.
Harris rebounded after a brutal first quarter. He shot 1-for-5 from deep in the first frame, but went on to knock down 4 triples on a career-high 10 attempts. In years past, he might’ve gotten discouraged and attempted one for the remainder of the game. But, in the role he plays now, Harris has to forget the misses. He did that, and he reaped the benefits of doing so.
Speaking of bad starts, Harden had a rather pedestrian first half. But, he came alive in the fourth quarter. He kept the Sixers calm as the Pacers punched back and threatened. And when the offense got a bit tight as the game hung in the balance, he knocked down a fadeaway midrange jumper, a stepback from the right wing, and a dagger from the top of the arc after making his defender fall down. The bearded guy finished with 29 points, 11 assists, and 9 rebounds on 10-for-18 shooting.
The Sixers, for the life of them, cannot help but argue with officials before getting back in transition. I don’t know if it’s some subconscious way of trying to say, “Hey, I never miss around the rim that badly”, or what. But, it doesn’t really matter why they do it. They hemorrhage shots on the perimeter and inside because of that practice, and it’s a huge reason why their transition defense is horrible.
The Sixers might need Harden to be, say, 5 percent more aware on defense in order for them to be a top-10 team on that end of the floor. Just too many times he gets caught ball-watching in help, only for the opposition to kick to his man for open corner threes.
Has not been the cleanest start to the season for Maxey. He was 1-for-8 from the field midway through the third quarter. I think his shot diet has been a little too much catch-and-shoot three in the early part of the season. But, everyone has to sacrifice a bit to make this thing work. The more alarming issue is that his shots at the rim just aren’t falling. Part of it is probably scouting report. Now that Maxey is on the front page of the game plan, teams know to play his drives a bit more urgently and shade a big over his way to help. The season is still so young, but something to track, nonetheless.
Philadelphia’s perimeter defense slipped quite a bit after the first quarter and change. Much of it seemed to be on whichever side the slowest Sixer defender was. Indiana recognized that recovery speed on the weak side was a sore weakness, and they exploited it. Georges Niang fell victim to that strategy, having no chance to recover. When you account for that and the number of transition three-point looks the Pacers got, it really becomes a less than inspiring defensive night. The Pacers simply missed a ton of open looks, shooting below 30 percent on more than 40 three-point attempts in the game.
The Sixers (1-3) will visit the Toronto Raptors (1-2) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.