Harden talking to fans; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (20-13) visited the New Orleans Pelicans (22-12) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Wizards in Washington, DC on Tuesday. New Orleans aimed to win its fifth consecutive game. CJ McCollum knocked down a franchise-record 11 threes to send the Sixers to a second consecutive loss, 127-116.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Tyrese Maxey made his return from a small fracture in his left foot. The young guard played under a minutes restriction and came off the bench in his first action since suffering the injury in the first half of Philadelphia’s victory over the Bucks in November. The Sixers are on the first leg of a back-to-back, so it will be interesting to see how they manage him on Saturday in Oklahoma City.

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

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

The Pelicans were without Brandon Ingram, who is recovering from a contusion on his left great toe.

Larry Nance Jr. missed the game with a neck spasm. Herbert Jones is in the process of reconditioning for a return to competition, but was available in the event of an emergency.

EJ Liddell is recovering from a torn right ACL and was out. 

Dereon Seabron is on a Two-Way assignment with New Orleans’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Willie Green started McCollum, Naji Marshall, Trey Murphy III, Zion Williamson, and Jonas Valanciunas.


Philadelphia came out with an offensive spirit similar to the one they displayed in the first quarter against Washington. The Sixers made a point of forwarding the ball to Harden, making long outlet passes up the court to the bearded guy. Similar to what they did in the first quarter against Washington, Harden set the tone with early offense, pushing the pace to empower his team to take advantage of the Pelicans’ transition defense. The early results were sensational, both Embiid and Harris logging dunks against a New Orleans interior that wasn’t quite set to defend. 

Even when things settled down and New Orleans was able to slow the game a bit, Embiid exerted pressure inside. The big fella usually resorts to finesse and perimeter game when matched up with like-sized or physically-imposing bigs. Valanciunas is someone Embiid hasn’t been able to so easily bulldoze in his career, but the big guy in blue had his way in the first quarter. He was able to toggle between brute strength, quite literally forcing Valanciunas to back down until he was in no man’s land under the rim and the big man in blue was in position to score at the cup, and smooth touch, executing jumpers from the elbow with supreme marksmanship.

Embiid was absolutely dominant for three quarters, rendering just about everything New Orleans threw at him ineffective, and scoring whichever way he pleased in the process. The only thing that stopped Embiid was Embiid, himself. It seemed like he ran out of gas after his stint in the third quarter, drawing empty even after he was given his regular time to recharge in the fourth quarter.

All told, it was a weird Harden game. Every play that didn’t end in a turnover from the point guard was usually gold. He scored 20 on remarkable efficiency and dished 10 assists. But, the turnovers. Oh, the turnovers. More on that later.

I thought Maxey looked every bit of a rusty guard, which isn’t the least bit surprising. He wasn’t coming back against a slouch of an opponent, either. When he was comfortable using it, Maxey very clearly had his speed, which was encouraging. His shooting touch also eventually showed up, the guard knocking down a fading midrange jumper over a good contest from Williamson and then a catch-and-shoot three after slipping a screen for Harden later in the game.

He played a good chunk of his minutes in lineups where he was the only offensive spark, so it wasn’t like he could attack without the Pelicans specifically keying on him. Nonetheless, there were a handful of times it felt like he could’ve exploded around a defender and gotten to the rim but decided against it. Maybe he’s afraid of stepping on someone and re-aggravating his foot injury. It’s not unusual for there to be some psychological regression coming back from an injury, the injured player not fully trusting his body yet. There’s no reason to doubt that he’ll shake that rust off and re-discover his normal aggression sooner rather than later. The one time Maxey did drive hard to the rim, he converted a gorgeous reverse layup with numerous Pelicans converging on him. 


McCollum certainly deserves the first point under this column. He and Williamson were simply outstanding. But, Williamson’s physical attributes make it easier to understand why it might be very difficult to stop him, especially when he has a runway. The Sixers have been inconsistent in mitigating dribble penetration all season long, and Williamson carved his way to the cup all game long. But, McCollum’s outburst could’ve been stopped if the Sixers showed even a little bit of urgency on defense.

The explosive combo guard lit Philadelphia up like a Christmas tree, connecting on a Pelicans-record 11 triples in the game. It wasn’t like they were particularly difficult shots. He got started with a deep catch-and-shoot look, taking advantage of a defensive miscommunication that pulled Melton away from his assignment. Even as McCollum heated up, Philadelphia paid him very little attention, conceding naked looks from deep throughout the first half.

He inched closer to franchise history as Philadelphia’s turnovers piled up. McCollum’s teammates simply looked for him to space out as the Sixers reeled to recover in transition, plugging the open man with no defender in his vicinity. Even as the Sixers fought their way back into the game and flirted with yet another comeback, they weren’t as engaged as they needed to be on defense to complete the objective.

Look no further than McCollum’s 10th three of the game, a wide-open catch-and-shoot off a swing pass courtesy of a Pelicans offensive rebound. And then, of course, the knockout punch and final hit was a pull-up in transition. If the first nine makes weren’t enough to wake Philadelphia up and key on McCollum no matter what else was happening, they simply didn’t deserve to win the game.

One of the most mind-boggling strategic decisions of the game was electing to have Harris chase McCollum around screens when Melton was on the floor. I don’t feel like I should have to offer up the analysis that you want one of your best perimeter defenders with the gift of wide reach on the opposition’s hottest offensive player. And yet, there was Harris trying to run an obstacle course of red jerseys to get to McCollum in the second half.

Philadelphia really sputtered out of control with another all-bench lineup to end the first quarter. What is that, four games in a row they’ve done that? And four games in a row that they’ve lost their balance by the end of the first quarter? I can at least understand if, before the game, Rivers thought maybe Maxey would be comfortable running the show in that ecosystem. But, it was apparent quite early in his return that Maxey wasn’t ready for that type of role. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and Rivers guided his team directly into it. 

Those all-bench and then Harden-plus-bench lineups ultimately led to the likes of Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell guarding Williamson. The eye test said Tucker didn’t have much of a prayer, either. And look, I get it. Williamson is so good that sometimes you just don’t have the depth of personnel to bother him for an extended period of time. But, Rivers could’ve done more to match Zion’s minutes with Embiid’s so that the team’s one massive body with great defensive prowess would stand in the way of Williamson and the basket.

Of course, those minutes with Niang and Harrell went exactly how you’d expect them to go. It didn’t feel like Williamson started to assert himself against the Sixers’ starters until crunch time. In totality, he was fabulous and every bit of the no. 2 to McCollum’s no. 1. But, it felt like he did most of his damage against those Niang-Harrell lineups. They had no chance, Williamson muscling them into the basket every time he touched the ball.

On the topic of Niang, he’s been sensational for Philadelphia all season, but it seems like he’s been over-exposed lately. Some of that probably has to do with Rivers adjusting to Tucker’s game-to-game impact on the fly, going to Niang as the only reserve power forward he can really trust. But, his shot has been off lately. His defense, of course, is perpetually a huge minus.

Niang has such a quick trigger and has been so cold lately that I think there’s a point where a catch-and-shoot three from him early in the clock is detrimental to your offense. I’m all for shooting threes when they’re open, and great shooters need to feel a certain rhythm. But, there is something to be said about working the ball around the floor a bit more before letting it fly from deep. Besides, maybe a better look at a three reveals itself a few passes down the road. 

Getting back to the Harden turnovers alluded to earlier, the stark contrast to Harden’s efficient shooting and double-double was a seven-turnover night. At most, six were of the live-ball variety. He threw inexcusably lazy passes and lost his dribble. To exacerbate and infuriate the issue, he made very little effort to recover and defend in transition. And if the shooter was near him, Harden put forth the most uninspiring contest he could possibly offer, short of not contesting at all.

On some level, it’s what you signed up for. Harden can drop jaws with his shotmaking and playmaking, generating an elite team offense with his gravity, alone. But, the downside to his style is that Harden can be prone to turnovers in bunches and his defensive effort is mostly putrid. His good things were very good in this game. But, the bad was absolutely horrendous. And “absolutely horrendous” negates “very good”. How’s that for analysis?

The only thing worse than Rivers going with the predictably terrible Niang-Harrell lineup between the first and second quarters was going back to those lineups between the third and fourth quarters. Tucker was in the mix with that group, which makes for an even tougher offensive combination and barely lessens the issues on defense. It didn’t work in the first half, and the result didn’t change in the second half. I would think Rivers intends to modify that rotation once Maxey is back to his normal minutes so that he can stagger his core four and keep two in the game at all times. But, in the mean time, it boggles the mind to watch the same woes over and over again. 

The Sixers had their chances when Embiid came in for crunch time. In fact, they’ve had their chances in each of the last two games in similar situations. But, there was no offensive structure with both Embiid and Harden on the court in the guts of both Tuesday and Friday’s losses. There was no two-man game between the team’s two best players, no unstoppable pick-and-roll. The entire crunch time offense was elbow isolations for Embiid.

As hard as it is to believe, the Sixers are an outstanding isolation offense. But, they pick the worst times to default to one-man showings. When it comes to winning time, the path of least resistance is the pick-and-roll between those two, and it was nowhere to be found. That’s on Rivers and the team’s two established stars, and there’s just no excuse.

Speaking of inexcusable, the Sixers committed multiple back-breaking three-shot fouls in the second half. Each occurred when Philadelphia was on a run, igniting the Pelican fans in attendance and swinging the momentum back to New Orleans. Two of them occurred when the guilty Sixer was on the floor, rolling into the respective shooter. What’s three more jarring miscues in a game full of ridiculous mistakes, though?

The Sixers (20-14) will visit the Oklahoma City Thunder (15-20) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here