Photo by Jason Blevins/The Painted Lines

The Sixers (46-27) visited the Phoenix Suns (60-14) on Sunday evening. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to 4 games. Phoenix intended to push its own winning streak to 8 games. Joel Embiid dropped 37 points, but James Harden couldn’t hold up his end as the Sixers lost to the Suns, 114-104.

Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way), who are on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats. Springer is also nursing a sore left groin. 

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Suns were without the services of Cameron Johnson, who is nursing a right quad contusion. JaVale McGee missed the game due to a non-COVID illness.

Frank Kaminsky was out with a stress reaction in his right knee. Dario Saric is still recovering from a torn right ACL in last season’s Finals and was unavailable.

Gabriel Lundberg is not with the team and was out.

Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton.

Likes

The Sixers were wise to get Joel Embiid warmed up early on by keeping him moving in a variety of different contexts. On the first 3 possessions of the game, Embiid got touches doing vastly different things. Maxey got him rolling to the rim for a short jumper on the team’s first possession of the game. Then, Harden roped a pass through the closing window as Embiid rolled to the rim after screening and got a layup. On Philadelphia’s next time down, Harden absorbed a right wing trap and found Embiid in the middle of the floor, free to barrel to the rim for a score over Chris Paul.

Harden showed some early burst getting to the rim in the first half. That ability to quickly shift from a triple-threat position to a sprint to the rim as soon as he liked his angle put Phoenix on their heels. Harden was able to get to the cup and force desperation fouls. As such, he got to the line for 8 freebies against the Suns. Nearly as encouraging as the ability to get by Phoenix’s long, versatile perimeter defenders was the continuity Harden showed as a three-point shooter. After a 4-triple night against the Clippers on Friday, Harden struck gold on 2 of his 5 attempts against the Suns on Sunday.

Before going silent in the second half, Harden also made somewhat of an inspiring effort to relocate to vacant spaces on the court when the ball wasn’t in his hands. There were a couple of possessions in which Harden passed off to Embiid or allowed Tyrese Maxey to initiate the offense. He then cut through the lane to emerge in an open space on the other side of the court. In doing so, he took a page out of the Steph Curry book of cutting and filling. After making the initial pass, Harden ran routes to the lane and then cut back out to the strong-side corner to receive the pass from the teammate to whom he originally passed. The Draymond back-screen to cut off the closing defender wasn’t there. So, Harden couldn’t get the shot off after the movement. But, he at least made Phoenix work to communicate and shuffle themselves to keep track of his movement.

Tobias Harris showed some life as a fixture of the Sixers’ lineups sans Embiid and Harden. He punished mismatches in the post, twirling his way to the basket on spin moves out of those mismatches. The strategy behind those minutes in which Harris and Maxey operate as the focal points of the offense needs to be maximizing the shooting around them. That sounds obvious because that wouldn’t really be all that de-prioritized for Embiid and Harden. But, the reason it particularly matters for those Harris lineups is to keep defenses from over-helping on his mismatches. The Sixers have been particularly good at identifying and manipulating mismatches in the post specifically for Harris. I might even argue that they do that better for him than they do for Embiid or anyone else on the team. But the more empowered Harris feels out of the low post, the quicker he cooks. He scored 15 points in the first half on Sunday, and dominated the minutes during which Embiid and Harden re-charged.

Quite refreshing was seeing DeAndre Jordan catch a pair of lobs and finish dunks in the first half. He’s going to get shredded on defense with fouls and poor decision-making as he defends the interior. So, Jordan needs to make that up on offense. There were some infuriating moving screens in this game. But, Jordan did his job on offense without too much trouble. He also had decent moments as the big defending pick-and-rolls with Devin Booker. He dropped back a bit to protect against the drive, but didn’t give up so much space that Booker felt like he was pulling up for practice-level jumpers in the midrange.

Tyrese Maxey got up 10 threes in the game, but didn’t neglect attacking baseline close-outs off of swing passes. The shots weren’t falling, save for a pair of clutch threes in the fourth quarter. But, it was the perfect balance of making Phoenix respect him as a shooter and leveraging his physical gifts so as to not settle for threes all night.

Dislikes

Devin Booker’s sizzling hot start began with exploitation of size mismatches. The fire was stoked by what appeared to be some trash-talking from Philadelphia’s sideline. The Sixers did very little to deny him the ball early on. They allowed him to target the smaller Tyrese Maxey on switches throughout the first quarter and go to work. Booker obliterated Maxey out of the post in the first quarter, getting himself amped up with scores around the paint early on.

The thing that makes Booker so Kobe-like is his toughness and upper-body strength. There were possessions in which Booker got Maxey or another Sixer off their feet. But, he couldn’t get them to extend an arm to commit a foul. Forced to re-calibrate once the foul didn’t come mid-shot, Booker was able to adjust himself mid-air to drain the shot through the contact. He also missed short on a fade-away and was still able to recover to grab the offensive rebound and get a second shot. 

Booker also dialed the pull-up triples out of screens. He had 22 points in the first quarter, and looked absolutely unsolvable. That may be as simple as reading defensive miscommunications caused by a lack of talking on Philadelphia’s side. But, Booker wasn’t rushing up to the very edge of the three-point line to get those threes up. If someone didn’t step up to beat him to a spot, he launched from deep.

Shake Milton went from a guy able to hit pull-up threes in closing windows of space to a guy who can only make them off-the-catch. The reason for that would appear to be a much more pronounced load into his release. Milton had a much quicker release to his long-range jumper in his breakout season with the Sixers. But, he struggled with inconsistency last season and health this season, and now his deep ball has morphed into a heavy set shot.

His teammates gave him a few looks on long swing passes so that it would be a longer recovery to close out on Milton. But, the exaggerated load into the shot enabled Phoenix’s defenders to get back into Milton’s face for good contests. As a result, he was barely able to get those shots off. It may be attributable to the back contusion he suffered a few months ago. Perhaps that’s causing some pain or weakness when he shoots. It could be forcing him to need a longer load into his release to gather strength under the ball. 

Matisse Thybulle can’t always help this because he’s just trying to poke the ball loose amongst a number of opposing rebounders. But, he has a tendency to slap at long rebounds that are well within his reach instead of firmly grabbing at them. That’s a matter of spacial awareness, which is also problematic. The Sixers need every fundamental to collectively keep pace with the opposition on the glass. Thybulle slapping at rebounds just further projects the loose ball into someone else’s hands. So, it jeopardizes the rebound for Philadelphia. When the ball is well within his reach, Thybulle has to hold a box-out and secure the ball. Perhaps he’s worried about getting caught with the ball in his hands. All he has to do is take 1-2 dribbles to get the ball out of congestion and find a teammate.

Harden was quite effective against the Clippers and continued that in the first half of this game. But, he was invisible in the second half. The Suns put Mikal Bridges on him, and he was done. Harden showcased some ability to burst to the rim and got the favorable whistle on contact in the first half. But, Harden couldn’t get to the rim at all in the second half. Harden couldn’t create any space to get up jumpers, either. Unable to find any avenue to beat Bridges, Harden limited himself to swing passes throughout the second half.

Even when he did put the ball on the deck and drive, Harden didn’t play to score. He played to draw the whistle. There was some contact for which his name did not get the benefit of the doubt. But, Harden left shots at the rim well short and struggled to get all the way to the basket before coughing the rock up because he was playing to the whistle. Harden has shown that he’s stronger with the ball in the face of defensive resistance than what he did on Sunday. That made his lack of aggression all the more disappointing.

Tobias Harris did nothing to answer the call in the fourth quarter. He benefited from swing passes throughout the frame and got decent looks from deep and the midrange. Zilch in winning time won’t cut it.

The Sixers (46-28) will host the Milwaukee Bucks (46-28) on Tuesday in a game with significant ramifications for the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.