The Sixers (12-12) hosted the Los Angeles Lakers (10-14) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Los Angeles aimed to snap a two-game losing streak. Despite blowing a nine-point lead in the final minute of regulation, the Sixers dominated the Lakers in overtime, pulling out a 133-122 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Lakers were without the services of Wenyen Gabriel, who has a sprained left shoulder. Juan Toscano-Anderson was out with a sprained right ankle.
Cole Swider and Scotty Pippen Jr. are on Two-Way assignments with the Lakers’ G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Darvin Ham started Dennis Schroder, Patrick Beverley, Lonnie Walker, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis.
The Sixers were without the services of Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a small fracture in his left foot.
Georges Niang has a sore right foot and was out. Danuel House Jr. missed the game with a lacerated left foot.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
It was abundantly clear from the jump that Embiid wanted to establish himself early in this one, taking on another dynamite big man on national television. I’m never going to complain about him wanting to give another star player the work. But, you can do harm on the way to winning that individual matchup. That harm can manifest in taking terrible shots, committing turnovers, and disengaging your teammates if you’re blatantly ignoring them. Embiid got to his jumper early and often, but he wasn’t venturing too far out on his attempts, nor was he putting the ball on the deck with reckless abandon. He also didn’t neglect his physical prowess, sensing and acting upon opportunities to drive the ball in one-on-one situations. If you’re going to isolate, you should try to get to the rim when the opportunity presents itself. Embiid did that to the tune of 20 of Philadelphia’s 31 points in the first quarter.
We all know he’s capable of that. And you can’t not commend him for dominating so thoroughly. But, this team goes where he goes. So, neither he nor the Sixers are winning jack until he starts to understand the importance of putting his best foot forward every night. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the face of the franchise, every team needs one. But, with that spotlight and paycheck comes immense responsibility. The occasional bad game will happen. But, he can’t put forth defensive efforts like he did in Memphis and Houston with any degree of regularity. The star sets the tone. The Sixers aren’t going to reach new heights until he plays with the focus he had in the first quarter of this game, every night.
There was an awesome stretch of shotmaking in the second quarter, the two teams combining to make 11 consecutive shots. In most cases, you’d say defense was optional during that stretch. I actually thought there were some decent defensive efforts from both teams, even if there were instances in which the shots were wide open. Just goes to show you can play some incredibly fun basketball when you stop overthinking, just react to what’s in front of you, and play to the rhythm of the game. Whether it was Melton, Harris, Walker, or someone else, they played freely and without conscience. Both teams looked like heavyweights, if only for a few minutes.
Matisse Thybulle was a significant contributor to that run of shotmaking, surprisingly enough. He flushed three dunks within a minute of checking into the game, one of which came from a strong baseline drive attacking a contest. Certainly brought some energy off the bench to keep those in attendance thrilled by the display of offense they were treated to on Friday night.
The Sixers would’ve been firmly in the loss column after this one had it not been for Melton. He missed his first two triples, made his next eight, and then missed his final two. Somewhere in the middle of that career high was a career-high seven steals. Melton also came up with some monster rebounds, skying over numerous friends and foes to secure the ball out of the air and diving on the floor for a long one to create an extra play for Philadelphia. There wasn’t a ton of consistent scoring output outside of Embiid in this game. But, Melton’s career-high 33 points stabilized things behind the big guy.
I suppose I have to give the Sixers kudos for putting their big boy pants on and dominating the Lakers in overtime after nearly vomiting up what would’ve been their worst loss of the season. On one hand, I’m not sure how much credit you deserve for undoing the trouble you got yourself into. On the other hand, persevering and overcoming your own errors shows character. They could’ve slumped their shoulders after blowing a nine-point lead with less than a minute to go, living to see overtime only on the graces of a missed free throw from Davis. After the game, Rivers even said their minds were on what had transpired heading into the overtime. But, they turned it around, executing in the extra session to come out victorious. Perhaps there’s some character worth commending in there. Maybe everyone will laugh about it some day, but it certainly wasn’t funny in the moment.
I championed the theory that Tucker’s offensive play would improve when Harden returned with such belief that I wrote a piece on it a few weeks ago. It’s aged like milk over the first game-and-a-half that Harden has been back. In the first quarter of this game, alone, Tucker hesitated on an open corner three long enough for the look to dissipate. He took a pass off the head, and barely grazed the rim on an open corner triple he actually attempted. I don’t think it’s age, which is why I strongly disagree with the application of the word “washed” in this case. Right now, it’s all confidence. He hasn’t seen consistently good things happen when he touches the ball for a month now. It’s only natural that self-doubt kicks in. Still a lot of season left, but, man, it’s been ugly since Harden first went down.
All of the equity created by Embiid’s rampage in the first quarter was swiftly erased when he checked out of the game, Paul Reed relieving the big guy to the tune of a minus-12 in 4 minutes. The Lakers made their entire comeback with Embiid on the bench. They took themselves from a reeling group on the verge of being knocked out for the night to a confident team that believed in itself more with every step down the court. Los Angeles tested the waters on a zone when Embiid went to the bench. The Sixers’ offense had no answers.
That’s three consecutive games in which Reed has been terrible in his first stint off the bench. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Rivers for the team falling apart when Embiid goes to the bench. He’s staggering the big fella with Harden when he can so that one is on the court at all times. There’s only so much he can do when Maxey and two rotation bench pieces are out. The players simply have to step up.
What I think you can blame Rivers for is Reed making rookie mistakes in his third year. He’s inconsistent because he’s played sparingly up to this point in his career. Young players get better by learning from their mistakes. That he didn’t really play at all through two years before being promoted to the primary backup center meant that the Sixers were going to have to play through his rookie mistakes with regularity. Maybe that wouldn’t have been the case if Rivers allowed Reed to make mistakes within a small, controlled role during his first two years.
I’ve been pretty level-headed about this team through their discouraging 12-12 start, insisting that there’s little credibility in grandiose diagnoses of what this team’s outlook is until there’s a substantial sample size of data to look at. But, the one thing that I am very concerned about is the transition defense. They don’t get back, they botch decisions, and they don’t stop the bleeding with tight play on offense. I’m not convinced the Sixers have the personnel to be a good transition defense even at their best. The vast majority of the roster either too old or unathletic to keep up or too small to make much of a difference. The only path to them getting any better at defending the break is pure effort. Up to this point, that will to get stops in transition has been mostly non-existent when the team is at full health.
Speaking of defense, Harden’s has been just as terrible as advertised. He’ll get down in a stance and make himself wide so as to appear to be giving effort. But, he offers very little resistance to the drive. And when he gives in and allows the drive, he’s reaching around and committing fouls, leaving his teammates without even a chance to step up in help. That, of course, is when he’s not losing his assignment or the nearest offensive player entirely, checking out on the defensive side all together. That used to be tolerable when Harden was the fulcrum of the offense in Houston, turning in 50-point triple-doubles routinely. But, at this stage of his career, there are no more Harden-charged top-5 team offenses. He has to give a little more on defense on nights when his offensive game can’t mitigate a complete zero on the other end.
Pretty much nothing I can write will do the way this game played out any justice. The Sixers led by double digits for most of the fourth quarter, hiking their advantage up to 18 points early in the frame. They took their foot off the gas, and let the Lakers build some rhythm. Just when the game felt safe after Melton knocked in his eighth three of the night to give the Sixers an eight-point lead with 45 seconds to go, all hell broke loose. Missed free throws, a botched coverage that allowed for an open Austin Reaves three, and a slew of horrendous passing turnovers later, Davis was at the free line with a chance to win the game for the Lakers with four seconds left. Fortunately for the Sixers, he didn’t cash in, and the game went to overtime.
But, let’s step back and look at how they got there. First, they couldn’t get the ball up the court at all in the final 30 seconds of the game. The Lakers applied pressure on the inbound pass. The Sixers threw up ridiculous pass after ridiculous pass when the trap flooded the recipient of the inbound pass. If the Sixers didn’t make terrible decisions on the inbound pass, they surely lost composure on the outlet pass. Los Angeles wasn’t assuming control, either. They missed crucial free throws in the final possessions of regulation. But, the Sixers were disorganized, unable to prevent themselves from giving the Lakers additional chances.
After the game, Rivers remarked that the guards didn’t come to the ball enough to counter Los Angeles’ pressure. But, I don’t know that naming Harris as the inbound passer is the best course of action, either. He’s not a good passer against pressure, neither in decision-making nor in delivering the ball precisely on target. Why not have one of your guards inbound the ball? Why is everyone coming to the ball? Wouldn’t it make sense to have someone go long? Could a screen, misdirection, or literally any non-repetitive motion help?
The players have to make better decisions and execute on the floor down the stretch. But, the coach also has to draw some things up so that there’s some degree of organization as the game tightens. Everyone has to be better, and on multiple fronts. It was shaping up to be a very nice win over a flawed team that still presents some challenges. The game ended up being a victory that felt like a loss. There was nothing positive gleaned from this one, other than a new number in the win column.
As good an offensive game as Thybulle had, his habits on defense continue to haunt him, year after year. He should’ve learned about body contact on shooters when he fouled Trae Young on a three in the final minutes of Philadelphia’s Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals two seasons ago. Yet, here he is, giving contact to Reaves as he attempts to contest a three from the side, sending the Laker to the line for a chance to tie the game in the final seconds.
He’s a gifted defender who can be an asset in some situations. But, Thybulle’s offensive limitations make it impossible to play him significant minutes. That Thybulle still has the same bad habits he had two years ago makes it very difficult to trust him on the highest-leverage plays. If you can’t play trust him when the game hangs in the balance, and you can’t play him heavy minutes because he’s offensively deficient, how good of a defender can he really be? His development has been a major disappointment up to this point in his career.
The Sixers (13-12) will host the Charlotte Hornets (7-19) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.