Georges Niang makes the game-winning defensive rotation against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Sixers (26-16) visited the Los Angeles Lakers (19-23) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to build upon Saturday’s victory over the Jazz in Utah. Los Angeles wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Joel Embiid and James Harden filled it up, but Georges Niang made a critical defensive play to secure the win for the Sixers, 113-112. 

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

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.

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

The Lakers were without Anthony Davis, who is recovering from a stress injury in his right foot.

Austin Reaves has a strained left hamstring and was unavailable. Lonnie Walker IV missed the game with left knee tendinitis.

Patrick Beverley was out with a non-covid illness.

Darvin Ham started Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson, LeBron James, and Thomas Bryant.


One of the immeasurable values of Embiid’s rim defense is the number of shots in the paint the opposition doesn’t attempt out of pure intimidation. We see it all the time, players of all sizes and athleticisms turning down would-be no-brainers around the basket and either kicking out to shooters or keeping the dribble alive and resetting the possession. Perhaps a shot at the basket develops later in the possession or the team scores through other means anyway. But, Embiid simply lurking around the rim actively causes drivers and paint players to freeze in their tracks and get off the ball like a hot potato. It’s a significant reason why Philadelphia ranks sixth in defense this season and why the Sixers have been at least a respectable defense each season since 2017-18.

The Sixers went to their zone defense almost at the same time the Lakers went to theirs in the second quarter. Both teams saw some success in it. For Philadelphia, the Lakers really struggled to take care of the ball trying to dribble penetrate against the Sixers’ zone. The Sixers converged on the ball, tipping it away from its handler when the Lakers tried to attack from the wings.

Not enough has been made of Harden’s three-point shooting this season. He’s up to 38 percent from deep, and threes make up 45 percent of his shot volume. He knocked down four in the decisive quarter in Utah on Saturday, and then laced four more against the Lakers on Sunday. Harden hit a couple against Los Angeles’ zone, so it wasn’t as if he was taking the most difficult threes. Nonetheless, he’s made eight of his last 17 attempts.

Speaking of Harden, the Sixers could’ve lost both games of the back-to-back and I’d still say the bigger takeaway is how he looked in both games. He didn’t fade in either game, as a decision-maker, shooter, or dribbler. Most importantly, and perhaps the best indicator of where his health and conditioning are, Harden did a fantastic job of bursting off the dribble and getting to the basket. It isn’t just these two games, either. Rather, his ability to beat defenders off the dribble and get to the cup has been a trend recently. That wasn’t happening last season, and the Sixers are probably seeing the best version of Harden they could’ve hoped for coming into this season. Knock on wood, but the hamstring and stamina don’t seem to be nearly the same problem they were last season. 

Harris’ three-pointer is off the mark right now. But, he always looks quite comfortable in the midrange. Philadelphia made a point to get him involved against mismatches in the post in the second half. They also tried to feature him as a duck-in guy on high-low actions. That effort to get him going paid dividends down the stretch, Harris knocking down a handful of jumpers with the game hanging in the balance. 

Embiid has become quite proficient at putting up quiet 20-point halves. In fact, he’s such a good scorer that it’s practically a given that he gets at least 30 points. That also means, barring an abnormally outrageous scoring night, his point total isn’t the overruling judge of whether or not he played well. He wasn’t particularly great in either leg of this back-to-back. But, the big guy looked a lot more like himself in the third quarter.

He simply dominated, scoring or assisting on 17 straight points in the final seven minutes of the quarter. He dimed open shooters when the double-team came. Embiid found a cutting Niang along the baseline for a reverse layup. The big man acted as a driver, attacking the basket from the perimeter and getting to the charity stripe. He also laced a triple from the top of the key. It was a superstar third quarter for the reigning MVP runner-up, and he carried the entire offense over that seven-minute stretch.

Just as they did in the win over the Jazz on Saturday, the Sixers rode the two-man game between Harden and Embiid in crunch time. It is practically the definition of bread-and-butter offense. Embiid was a bit jumper happy down the stretch on Sunday, but the Sixers got good looks out of the pick-and-roll elbow series when the game was up for grabs.

To wrap up the ‘Likes’ column, two quick shout-outs are due. First, we have Montrezl Harrell. He didn’t have a stand-out game. But, according to Rivers’ postgame press conference, he convinced the coaching staff to challenge an out-of-bounds call that the Sixers won down the stretch. With the overturned call, the Sixers forced a turnover and took possession of the rock. Embiid then knocked down a 13-foot jumper to put the Sixers up by four points with 46 seconds to play. Critical moment for Philadelphia. Second, we have Niang. He’s really struggled with the shot in the first two games of this trip. But, he executed his low-man rotation to perfection on the Lakers’ final possession, trapping the box on a Russell Westbrook baseline drive to force a turnover and secure the win for Philadelphia. That’s right, a game-winning defensive play from Niang.


The Sixers certainly didn’t concern themselves with stopping James in the game’s first few minutes. Granted, he’s arguably the greatest player of all time and regularly makes defenses look silly at the ripe age of 38. But, the seas parted for him to glide to the basket a handful of times in the opening quarter. He also knocked down a couple stress-free jumpers. James has never been the best jump-shooter, and he certainly isn’t the shooter he used to be at his best. But, what you don’t want is for that guy to get hot and comfortable early. Once LeBron is in rhythm, good luck putting out the fire. 12 points in about six minutes of action. Might make sense to, I don’t know, guard the guy with the second most points of all time with a little more urgency.

The Lakers’ side of the zone defense success involved pace. The Sixers looked quite lost, Harden becoming the slightest bit indecisive with his passes against the zone. The ball didn’t move quickly enough to draw the Lakers out of position when they made the adjustment in the second quarter. I thought the Sixers handled it better in the second half, Embiid acting as a fulcrum in the gap between the zone alignment to make things happen. But, it’s jarring that Philadelphia has Harden as a point guard, is the fifth best three-point shooting team in the league, and still doesn’t just immediately roast the zone as soon as the opposing defense deploys it. 

LeBron was the only reason the Lakers were in the game at halftime. The only one. Every run the Lakers made seemingly involved James. And the Sixers were happy to let him bowl his way down the court in transition, either as a ball-handler or as a cutter running the floor. Get in front of him and square your back to the basket against him so that he doesn’t have a cutting angle to the basket.

Saturday’s edition of the Matisse Thybulle experience was fouling Mike Conley 40 feet from the basket. Sunday’s edition featured Thybulle committing a blatant shooting foul on Westbrook as he rose into a long two at the end of the second quarter. Westbrook has made 30 percent of his midrange shots this season. Why on earth are you fouling him on a long two?

I didn’t love Embiid’s pace at various points in this game. He was mostly great in the third quarter and made some huge shots in the fourth quarter. But, too many times it felt like he caught the ball and needed a couple seconds to survey his surroundings before making a decision. And it wasn’t like he was finding his way to great shots on those possessions. Many of them had no rhythm. The outcome reflected as much. Sometimes, you can slow the pace and take your time as you try to find your way to your sweet spot. But, don’t play around at your sweet spot when you’re already there. Catch the ball and go.

Based on Rivers’ postgame press conference, it doesn’t sound like Maxey coming off the bench is a permanent thing for this team. At least not right now. But, I didn’t love the way he was deployed in this game. I think there’s something worth exploring in bringing him in as the team’s sixth man. But, he clearly isn’t ready to carry the second unit yet. Rivers needs to stagger Embiid and Harden so that at least one of them is with him at all times.

I think bringing him off the bench can be very valuable to this team. He may even find a groove leading the bench as the season progresses. But, as he gets settled in after not playing basketball for a month, Maxey just isn’t ready to carry the second unit’s offense by himself. He’s not aggressive enough in attacking downhill, instead ripping jumpers a bit too hastily. Maxey also isn’t as assertive as you’d like to see in those reserve lineups. He frequently plays off the ball or makes the next pass instead of treating the court like his playground.

The Sixers (27-16) will stay in Los Angeles for a date with the Clippers (23-22) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 10 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.


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