The Sixers (25-15) hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder (18-23) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Oklahoma City looked to rebound from Tuesday’s disastrous loss to the Heat in Miami. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gave the Sixers a 37-point headache as the Thunder shook Philadelphia, 133-114.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Thunder were without the services of Aleksej Pokusevski, who has a non-displaced fracture in his left tibial plateau.
Chet Holmgren is out for the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury in his right foot.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has a sprained right ankle and was unavailable. Ousmane Dieng has a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist and was out.
Mark Daigneault started Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Jalen Williams, and Jaylin Williams.
The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
There wasn’t much to applaud Philadelphia for in the first half. But, Embiid’s lone turnover (although, he only played 10 minutes because of foul trouble) came from pancaking a Thunder player on a roll to the basket for an offensive foul. Aside from that, Embiid was really good in his minutes. 10 points and six rebounds. He would’ve likely picked up a double-double had it not been for the foul trouble. Even when Oklahoma City applied pressure, the big guy was game to handle it. They shaded away from the weak link in the Sixers’ offense. The Thunder abandoned the corner shooter to over-step mutual help position around the baseline when Embiid had face-ups on the other side of the floor. He reacted quite well, pulling the shader a little closer before swinging passes across the court to get the Thunder into rotation.
Once Rivers reached his tolerance threshold for Embiid’s foul trouble, the Sixers were very much in trouble. Paul Reed tried to stop the bleeding. But, it was more or less a bandaid on a bullet wound. The Thunder built its lead up to 15 points, igniting boos from the Sixers’ faithful in attendance. But, Harden didn’t let his team go down without a fight. He had 7 assists ahead of halftime. But, it was his shooting that pumped new life into the Sixers.
The Beard knocked down a catch-and-shoot triple, then landed a four-point play on a Thunder player who had his hand too close to Harden. He finished the adrenaline rush with a single free throw after getting fouled on a layup (so, only redeeming one of a possible three points). Harden practically erased a significant double-digit deficit by himself. There’s not a ton to dig into there. But, Harden is enjoying one of the five best three-point shooting seasons of his 14-year career. Given his minute load this season, the three-point shooting is an encouraging barometer of how his legs feel.
The Sixers even took a 4-point lead in the third quarter, fully erasing the deficit and then some in a matter of just a few minutes. Harden deserves much of the credit for that. He controlled the pace of the game with his ball-handling. He kept Oklahoma City on its toes for a stretch, bending the Thunder defense to create good looks for his team. Even if he’s shooting poorly, a Harden that controls tempo simply changes how explosive the Sixers’ offense is.
He changes speeds, gets downhill, and pulls secondary defenders his way. On his worst individual scoring nights, Harden can pull his team out of a shooting slump by just manufacturing quality looks for teammates. That has proven to be true on numerous occasions already this season. Assuming he stays healthy, it should carry forward when the games start to mean more. The only question is, will he score and take care of the ball in the most important games of the season?
Embiid couldn’t control the game like he usually does due to foul trouble. But, there came a time in the fourth quarter when he was totally free to play. With that freedom, Embiid was what every Wilt Chamberlain fan in the Delaware Valley dreams of. He went at Mike Muscala inside as much as he could. Embiid caught passes and exploded after setting picks for Harden. He backed his helpless counterpart down until he could explode around him for a score. Embiid made a point to get high-quality shots at the rim as much as he could with the Sixers trying to claw back into the contest.
Harris seemed to take some knee-to-knee contact on a possession in the second quarter and tumbled over in pain on the baseline. He grasped what looked like the patella region and the area directly behind his knee before walking to the locker room under his own power. Any time you see someone down in pain grabbing a knee, it certainly puts a solemn tone on the game. But, Harris emerged from the locker room and promptly checked back into the game within a few minutes. So, seems a crisis was averted.
The Sixers once again fell asleep at the wheel, and it didn’t come without expense this time. You don’t recognize many names on the Thunder roster. But, it was apparent who the better team was going to be very early in this one.
It started with Embiid picking up two fouls early. Rivers actually let him play through the adversity for a bit, but the team’s defensive anchor didn’t have the liberty to take too many risks on defense. Coinciding with the Thunder having their give-a-bleep from the tip-off, the rim-protector being restricted in his defensive aggression was devastating for Philadelphia.
The Sixers could’ve done a better job of taking care of the ball in the first quarter. There were a couple of high-low actions for Embiid in which Oklahoma City got its hands on the pass and sent the Sixers back-pedaling to recover in transition. But, even when Philadelphia was able to contain the pace to a halfcourt setting for the Thunder, Oklahoma City was licensed to attack straight downhill because of Embiid’s foul trouble. The Thunder, who make up for their talent deficit by being big in all of the areas where the Sixers are small, knifed right to the basket with little resistance.
Much of that came from Gilgeous-Alexander, who owned the night after being mostly silent the first time these teams played each other. He was too big for Maxey, too crafty and quick for Tucker, and too strong for Harden. The only Sixers able to make him miss were Embiid and De’Anthony Melton. Gilgeous-Alexander practically salivated when Embiid picked up his second foul early in the first quarter. He wasn’t the only one, either. Giddey, along with a handful of physically-gifted Thunder players, got to the cup at will.
It was jarring to see the Sixers take so long to go to a zone defense after Embiid picked up his second foul. It would’ve been justifiable to open the game in a zone defense against Oklahoma City, seeing as the Thunder are in the bottom third of the league in three-point shooting. But, a zone would’ve both helped limit dribble penetration and reduced some of the foul risk Embiid would otherwise be exposed to in man coverages. By the time Philadelphia resorted to the zone, Gilgeous-Alexander was already scalding hot. It felt like the adjustment came a bit too late for the Sixers to use the zone as a chess move for restoring order and gaining the upper hand.
Rivers deserves credit for looking Paul Reed’s way when Embiid picked up his third foul in the second quarter. The third-year big man had some nice moments on the glass, too. But, it’s quite clear why he doesn’t get minutes consistently. Especially when Harden is on the floor. Reed’s timing on offense is off, forcing Harden to direct his big man through the action so that the Sixers can execute the possession. He also over-complicates movements around the rim, either losing the ball altogether or botching would-be simple layups. If his tendency to commit fouls was largely a thing of the past, I’d say compromising the offense is palatable because of what he brings on defense. But, Reed still fouls often, and he usually commits them at the worst times or makes contact for no good reason.
The game spiraled away from Philadelphia when Maxey committed his fourth foul. With Maxey spelled to the bench, the offense lacked the versatile punch the Sixers’ off-ball guard provides. Philadelphia missed shots and turned the ball over, and the Thunder quickly seized control. And with the offense looking completely lost, Rivers went with a lineup of Shake Milton, Melton, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Embiid. Not great for your offense when the big man is the only shot-creator. If the goal is defense, two of your five there are still net-negatives.
I can understand having low tolerance for foul trouble. But, it seemed like Rivers basically let the fear of his guys committing fouls compromise his feel for what would be needed to win the game. If he knowingly did that — inserting a lineup that had little chance of returning a positive output when the game started to fade away from the Sixers’ reach just because the risk of guys in foul trouble committing more fouls was too significant for his liking — Rivers essentially went down with his philosophy. The Sixers might as well have waved the white flag with more than a quarter to play in a winnable game.
That isn’t to say that Rivers deserves all the blame. The guy confined to the sidelines cannot be fully blamed or credited for the outcome of a game that is decided within the court of play. But, his decisions just didn’t make sense and had predictable outcomes. At the end of the day, the guys wearing the jerseys are most responsible for whatever happens. Philadelphia will out-talent the overwhelming majority of the league on any given night. But, out-working the opposition, regardless of talent disparity, molds champions. The Sixers had more talent than Thursday’s foe did. But, they just weren’t mentally mature enough to out-work them, too.
The Sixers (25-16) will visit the Utah Jazz (21-23) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.