Harden and Embiid at Sixers media day 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (12-11) visited the Houston Rockets (6-17) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Houston wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. The Sixers’ defense failed against a bad team, dealing Philadelphia a terrible 132-123 loss in double overtime to send them home after an 0-3 road trip.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a small fracture in his left foot. Georges Niang was out with a sore right foot.

Julian Champagnie is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.

After missing almost exactly a month with a strained tendon in his right foot, James Harden made his return to the court. Harden was on a minute restriction. Head coach Doc Rivers would not specify the restriction before the game.

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

The Rockets were without Jae’Sean Tate, who has a sore right ankle.

Trevor Hudgins and Darius Days were on Two-Way assignments with Houston’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.

Stephen Silas started Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Eric Gordon, Jabari Smith Jr., and Alperen Sengun.

Likes

The Rockets had pretty much nothing to throw at Embiid in the paint, and the Sixers knew it. They went to Embiid in the paint on five of their first eight possessions, and to positive results. Embiid stepped to the line for a pair of free throws, bullied Sengun to the rim for a finish, and drilled a pull-up jumper just below the elbow early on. Philadelphia, in general, has done a really good job of identifying Embiid’s mismatches early in games this season. They irritate the issue with a slew of elbow touches or post-ups on the left side of the floor to threaten the opposition enough to force traps and double-teams, forcing teams to commit extra attention to open up the rest of Philadelphia’s offense.

Even though Harden wasn’t looking for his touches in his first stint of the game, the impact of his court vision was present immediately. Whether it was a cross-court lob to Melton for a catch-and-shoot three or hitting Embiid right in his shooting pocket for a jumper right around the elbow, Harden just made it easier for everyone to be effective. The synergy the team displayed in Harden’s absence made for a more watchable and competitive product, especially as the star power dwindled with injuries. But, ball movement doesn’t necessarily breed shot-creation, and shot-creation makes offense easier to come by. That’s what you need to get through an 82-game regular season, especially when you have your eyes on bigger prizes in the postseason.

Some good minutes from Shake Milton in the first half of this one, the guard proving adaptable to having the ball in his hands less. He notched a couple buckets in the paint, dropping a contested floater off a feed from Harden and slicing hard to the basket after screening the bearded guy on a gorgeous pick-and-roll. It’s critical for Milton to build some confidence in his ability to play off the ball, as he’s going to navigate being a catch-and-shoot guy and a ball-handler as one of Philadelphia’s lead guards off the bench. He stayed true to his style in his first minutes in the second unit in quite some time, slashing to the basket and using his length to get to the rim off the bounce.

Harris has sneakily been a dead-eye shooter for Philadelphia over the last two games. He shot 5-for-6 from three in the loss to Memphis, and was 7-for-8 from deep in this affair. Really good stretch for the forward. For a guy who has struggled with quick decisions at various points in his career, that Harris is seeing good results is just positive reinforcement for his making an effort to up his three-point volume this season. The more he hoists, the better he fits with this group. And ever since he had an 0-for-7 showing against Cleveland last week, he’s been a sniper. 

Dislikes

My God, the fouling by both teams was unbearable. More than 30 minutes to get through the first 12 minutes. The game, in total, took over three hours (granted, it went to double overtime). It’s game 24 on the regular season, and this isn’t exactly a marquee matchup. No one needed that.

The only thing really keeping the Rockets in this game was Philadelphia’s lack of effort on defense, and it was a two-fold issue. First, the Sixers did pretty much nothing to stop dribble penetration, the likes of Porter Jr. and any other explosive Rocket revving their engines after clearing the first line of defense on the perimeter to challenge Embiid at the rim. The lack of resistance came from all over the floor, no one on the Sixers’ side proving capable of containing the ball. That also forced Embiid to navigate a ton of decision-making on defense. Embiid had some good defensive moments, perturbing attacks at the rim, protecting the basket and retrieving the rebound on the miss, or denying individual Rockets on the perimeter.

But, the bad defensive moments from Embiid far outweighed the good moments. He was late to a number of contests, and gave up what felt like a million offensive rebounds. Even when the Sixers put together good defensive possessions, Embiid played without force. A number of Rockets rushed around him to retrieve the putback off the miss. Granted, not every botched box-out is Embiid’s fault. He can’t box everyone out, and it wasn’t his man beating him to the missed shot every time. His teammates have to carry their weight. But, more often than not, it felt like his counterpart was the one coming up with the offensive rebound to give Houston an extra shot. It isn’t just a one game issue. Embiid lost the battle to Steven Adams decisively on Friday, giving Memphis a ton of extra shots, too. 

Embiid is an all-world talent and an unimpeachable superstar. You can line up the games that the Sixers have won riding his back and lose track of your count after a while. But, teams follow the lead of their best players. The Sixers are no different. They go as Embiid goes. He cannot just coast or play without force on one side of the ball. Those are not championship characteristics. Titles aren’t won in December, and ultimately no one will care about this game if the Sixers reach new heights in the playoffs. But, you have to build the culture and DNA in the regular season so that it becomes second nature when the games count the most.

The Celtics, Bucks, Warriors, and Suns — the last four Finals teams — were well-oiled machines by the time the playoffs came. They were prepared for the gauntlet because they were used to not taking nights off. Bad shooting nights, bad turnovers, and bad decisions happen. There’s luck and unpredictable human imperfection there. But, you never have to question the efforts of the stars that lead those teams. And if they give their all, their teammates know they have to give theirs, too, if they want to contribute or even stay on the roster.

For years, Embiid has said he wants to win Defensive Player of the Year. It’s time to act like it.

Speaking of bad decision-making, Embiid and Harden had some dreadful moments as this game wore on. Embiid had a pair of mind-boggling turnovers after half-heartedly rising into shots that he wasn’t committed to, only to get caught in the air and throw the ball away in the face of double-teams. Harden took a pair of jumpers down the stretch that were questionable at best after a really rusty return. I don’t mind going to Harden for high-leverage shots because putting trust in him builds equity for when you need him the most as the games get more important. But, pulling up for an elbow jumper when he had Embiid open on the right wing and then settling for an isolation three on the last shot of regulation were really bad decisions. At least get decent looks. It looked like an ego trip for the bearded guy.

The bad decisions kept the game hanging in the balance for far too long and gave Houston life. The longer it went on, the more prevalent the Sixers’ mistakes. That’s what happens when you trend older, especially compared to your opponent. The Rockets had the advantage in that department. Any fade their legs showed was much more gradual than it was for the Sixers. And when fatigue sets in, you play with less precision and intelligence. And when Embiid fouled out, it might as well have been over.

Speaking of legs, Harden was supposed to be on a minutes restriction in this game. He instead played 38 minutes. I don’t know if the restriction is supposed to be a proportion of game length or a set minute budget, but that seems quite heavy for your first action in over a month.

After the game, Rivers said Embiid left the bench area because he had blood on something he was wearing. How long does it take to remedy that situation? Embiid changes his jerseys quite often anyway, if it was that. The Sixers could’ve squeaked out a few more stops or buckets in that time. Not to be one of the old school miserabs, but that’s not an insignificant margin of time.

I get that it’s been a month since the two highest-usage players have worked together, and there were moments in which the two-man game looked good in this game. But, the Sixers have to find more balance between ball-dominant offense and incentivizing player movement with ball movement. The offense was way too much of Harden and Embiid in this game. We can sit here and debate about stars driving winning. But, there’s a time and place to hop on their backs. December games aren’t that, especially when the depth proved capable of doing more over the last month.

The less you rely on your studs, in the regular season, the better you typically are as a whole team in the playoffs. They have to figure out that dynamic, for the sake of making life easier for their best players and for the sake of building up their supporting cast. Watching two or three guys touch the ball makes for neither good play nor good viewing experience. 

The Sixers will host the Los Angeles Lakers (10-12) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.

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