The Sixers (44-27) visited the Los Angeles Lakers (31-41) on Wednesday night. Philadelphia wanted to build on its victory over the Miami Heat on Monday. Los Angeles intended to pick up another win following its victory over the Cavaliers on Monday. Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris combined for 95 points to lead the Sixers past the Lakers, 126-121.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Philadelphia was without the services of Myles Powell (Two-Way), Charles Bassey, and Jaden Springer, who were 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.
Los Angeles was without Anthony Davis (sprained right mid-foot) and LeBron James (sore left knee).
Talen Horton-Tucker was out with a sprained left ankle. Kendrick Nunn missed the game with a bone bruise on his right knee.
Mason Jones (Two-Way) was on assignment with Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Frank Vogel started Russell Westbrook, Austin Reaves, Wenyen Gabriel, Stanley Johnson, and Dwight Howard.
After Doc Rivers’ first timeout of the game, the offensive strategy re-focused on Joel Embiid instead of running through James Harden. That shift got the Sixers back on track after a 7-4 deficit in the first 3 minutes and change of play. The Sixers still trailed after the first quarter, but the offense picked up dramatically.
Flowing through Embiid is always a good option because, well, he’s the MVP favorite? But that focus should tighten and loosen by matchup. The Lakers fielded Dwight Howard in the starting lineup. The Sixers and their fans know his weaknesses quite well from last season’s relationship. So, going to Embiid in the post against Howard should’ve been on the specials list on the dinner menu. The Sixers didn’t make that a priority to open the game, but they made an adjustment and attacked the mismatch out of the timeout to get their engines going.
Rivers made a second noticeable adjustment in the first quarter. Shake Milton was amongst the first substitutions in the game for Philadelphia, checking in for Tyrese Maxey. The new lineup still featured Embiid and Harden. I like what Rivers went for — keep growing the chemistry between Embiid and Harden, and let Maxey run when those two are off the floor. It didn’t go perfectly — Harden still wasn’t that aggressive as a scorer with Maxey no longer there to balance touches, and Maxey wasn’t bursting up and down the floor for bunches of scores. But, the shape-shifting of the rotation might’ve unearthed a solution with the second unit. With Maxey driving the car while Embiid and Harden recharged, and Milton and Georges Niang playing next to Embiid and Harden, the Sixers’ bench squeezed out 27 points. Surely a welcomed sight after some of the recent putrid output from the reserves.
After a very quiet first half, Harden dialed it up and then some in the third quarter before briefly exiting after appearing to knock knees on a drive to the rim. Harden’s jumper remains off the mark. Perhaps it’ll correct at some point this season. But given Harden’s recent history of leg injuries, maybe it won’t. Still, the current iteration of Harden offers a lot to the Sixers even if the efficiency isn’t always there. He can still get to the cup even if the burst isn’t always there. He can leverage his body strength, just as he did all Wednesday night, driving to the free throw line before picking up his dribble and powering his way to the rim for floaters and layups.
Even if the shots aren’t actively falling for Harden, the looming threat of his scoring manipulates defenses, bending them to the point of creating windows for the other players on the floor. So, he can remain very effective despite lulls in which he’s not dominating the points column. Harden’s ability to get 22-10-8 in his sleep is all Sixers fans really wanted out of Ben Simmons anyway. The concern about Harden’s decline as a living, breathing playoff birth is more than understandable. But, his baseline is so high that the need to hit the panic button escapes me.
The current iteration of the star guard should retain significant value for the Sixers throughout this season and next season. Harden said at his introductory press conference that he plans to pick up his option for next season. Actions speak louder than words, of course. After next season, there’s a conversation to be had, assuming he sticks to his word. But, that you have Tyrese Maxey rising while Harden slows down should lead to some increased aversion to risk. The Sixers’ calculus may not change based on Maxey’s trajectory. Maybe, Harden still won’t be worth the financial risk when all is said and done. But, Maxey’s presence makes for a conversation that isn’t as high-stake as it would be if Maxey was part of the Harden trade or not drafted by Philadelphia.
They’ve failed to do this at times throughout the season, but the Sixers made a concerted effort to target Austin Reaves in the post. Tobias Harris, in particular, had little issue physically imposing himself on the rookie wing and getting to the rim. More than that, they actually took what the Lakers were doing on defense and adjusted their offensive strategy to bring Reaves into the picture. They’ve failed to make the weakest link on the opposing defense work at times this season. The world knows they didn’t do nearly enough to make Trae Young work on defense in last season’s playoffs. But, the name of the game — particularly in the postseason — is finding the achilles heel and targeting it. They didn’t let the Lakers hide Reaves, and Philadelphia had very little trouble scoring against him.
Up until Rivers’ first timeout, less than 4 minutes into the game, the Sixers ran much of their offense through James Harden. That’s not a bad game plan when you’re playing the corpse of the Los Angeles Lakers. But, it was perhaps a failure to maximize the options available. Harden got downhill, which is never a bad thing. But, he was off with the shots at the rim early on. Every shot that Harden took was fine, but there was a better shot available as long as Joel Embiid was on the court with Dwight Howard.
As they like to do, the Sixers found a way to start off slow in the first quarter. But, it wasn’t necessarily on the offensive end this time. Rather, the perimeter defense was putrid. The Lakers average 12.2 made threes per game. They connected on 6 in the first quarter. Aside from a fadeaway three from DJ Augustin that was only moderately contested and another from Carmelo Anthony from the right wing that was heavily contested by Niang, the Sixers did nothing to run LA off the three-point line. The Lakers got wide-open looks all throughout the first quarter, and the defense didn’t really adjust to start the second quarter, either.
While we’re on the topic of defense — Matisse Thybulle’s early masterpiece against Stephen Curry is long forgotten by now. His three-point shot has been better of late. But, his regression on offense this season has compounded the frustrating defensive lapses. When he’s not picking up cheap fouls on arm contact as he tries to reach in for poke-aways, he’s committing undisciplined shooting fouls. In the first quarter, he picked up a pair of cheapies.
The first one was on a body check to Russell Westbrook as he drove to the cup. Just let Westbrook drive and make the mistake himself, he’s known to do that at this point of his career. The second was a heavy close-out to a shooter in the corner, but the foul was called on the floor. At this point, Thybulle is obviously much better in the free safety role on defense. But he needs to be a significantly better on-ball defender, at the bare minimum, in his next progression.
The undisciplined fouls keep him on the bench when he doesn’t keep himself there because of the black hole that is his offensive repertoire. He very well may get paid handsomely to be a defensive ace, whether in Philadelphia or elsewhere. So, he needs to engulf opponents in numerous contexts instead of putting out his own fire. Keep the hands back and high, move the feet, keep the hips in front.
Speaking of fouls, the Sixers made Dwight Howard look like a top-75 player of all time (if this triggers you, that was the intention; I have no take on that, but it was a good opportunity for a zinger). It wasn’t that Howard foul-grifted his way into an excessive volume of free throws. In fact, quite the opposite. The Sixers let Howard — a former teammate, mind you — bowl to the rim unabated throughout the game. Howard’s hands are quite loose. He’s certainly capable of committing offensive fouls. If he makes more than half his free throws, you’re catching him on a good night.
Rather than exploit any of those weaknesses that they should know so well, the Sixers had nothing for him. The veteran big flushed home dunks, finished rudimentary layups, and flipped in floaters from just outside the restricted area all night. He kept the game far closer than it should’ve been. The Sixers looked as though they’d never seen him before. News flash — don’t let him run you over, smother him and then catch your breath while he’s at the free throw line. It may very well have been another indictment against the Sixers’ total lack of effort throughout this game. Maybe it wasn’t in the game plan; if so, that’s an indictment against coaching. Either way, there’s no way Howard should’ve had 24 points and only 9 free throw attempts.
If the Lakers were even partially competent, the Sixers would’ve left the building with a shiny new number in the loss column. Their late-game execution was atrocious. When James Harden is getting trapped on the inbound pass, come towards him to help relieve the pressure on a short pass. Don’t run away from the ball. What the [redacted] was that?
The Sixers (45-27) will stay in Los Angeles for a visit with the Clippers (36-38) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 10:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.