The Sixers (42-26) hosted the Dallas Mavericks (43-26) on Friday night. Philadelphia hoped to build on its victory over the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Dallas intended to push its winning streak to 4 games. Joel Embiid and James Harden combined for 56 points and 16 assists to overpower the Mavericks, 111-101.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Mavericks were without the services of Reggie Bullock, who missed the game due to personal reasons.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is recovering from surgery on his left foot and was out.
Theo Pinson was out with a fractured right fifth finger.
Jason Kidd started Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell.
The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way), who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Matisse Thybulle was particularly successful in getting the ball out of Luka Doncic’s hands early in the game. That success resulted from navigating ball screens. The Sixers did a little bit of switching with Embiid playing up on the screen, but Thybulle was up to the task of chasing Doncic around the screens in an effort to erase any comfort he felt slicing through the lane as he toggled through potential decisions. And it did, indeed, hinder Doncic a bit in the early-goings, as he chose to defer to Jalen Brunson for the first handful of possessions of the first quarter.
James Harden still doesn’t look like himself. In fact, the last time he really looked like anything resembling his Houston self was the last couple games before the infamous Kings-Nets game. He’s still quite deferential, electing to make passes to his teammates that the isolation- and high pick-and-roll-oriented Harden wouldn’t make. It seems more likely by the day that he’s just lost a big step due to the hamstring issues he’s dealt with over the last year. But, he played through contact much better on Friday than he had over the last handful of games. If Harden had driving lanes, he muscled his way to the cup and fought through Dallas’ resistance to finish a couple of layups.
Most of his success as a driver comes form the right wing and involves him driving across the lane to get to the left side of the rim. But those assertive drives are coming after Harden clears a screen and teases the helpers by slowing up ever so slightly before bursting. He’s not doing it as an isolation creator. In one-on-one scenarios, Harden is struggling to get around people. And it’s leading to him settling for high-difficulty step-back threes more often than he should be.
Joel Embiid got whatever he wanted en route to a 21-point first half. Whether it was duck-ins for high-low passes and dunks, midrange jumpers, or even a triple, Embiid simply dominated. Most encouraging of all was that he wasn’t settling for jumpers when he had obvious mismatches. If he found himself staring down Brunson or any other smaller Maverick, there was no playing around. Embiid asserted himself, using his unrivaled frame to bully his way to the paint for shots at the rim or fouls.
In the fourth quarter, we finally saw the James Harden that gives the Sixers a chance at a title in the here and now. Harden’s scoring became prolific, with him dialing up a pair of step-back triples to electrify the crowd. When Harden wasn’t ripping the cord on step-back threes, he was yo-yoing the ball with quick crossovers before knifing into the lane for layups. Harden even mixed in a step-back midrange jumper, too. When he wasn’t scoring the ball himself, Harden leveraged his scoring gravity to lift the big just enough to create space for DeAndre Jordan to flush high lobs. Harden’s playmaking closed the game out for the Sixers with Embiid recharging on the bench. By the time he returned to the game, it was mostly just cosmetic.
It was yet another ugly game for the Sixers’ bench. But after being outscored 12-5 in the first half, the Philadelphia bench — namely Georges Niang dialing it up from deep — won the battle of reserves 18-11 in the second half. For the game, they played Dallas’ to a tie. But, they were outscored 140-46 over the last 3 games. So, the Sixers will certainly take a tie.
Harden penetrated the interior of Dallas’ zone defense on one of his first touches of the game and had an opportunity to take a floater. Instead, he opted to pass out of the shot at the rim and put the ball in Tyrese Maxey’s hands. Maxey then ended up attacking the close-out and getting approximately the same shot Harden would’ve had, but missed. Unless there’s a lob threat lurking, he should never be passing out of a shot in the paint.
And of course, Thybulle passed up a shot right below the rim in favor of kicking to a teammate positioned in the corner. From a human standpoint, I can understand his position to an extent. He smoked a handful of bunnies against the Cavaliers a few nights ago. His confident might be a little down. But, these are layups at worst and dunks more likely than not. Worst of all, the Sixers have been befuddled by zone defenses all season long. So, that Thybulle passed up a shot at the rim in the face of a zone defense is unacceptable.
As good of a ball defender as Thybulle is at times, he has multi-game stretches of being incredibly undisciplined as he pursues the ball. Whether it’s being too physical on the hip and crashing into a shooter as they rise for a shot, or making contact with his arms as he goes for a poke-away, Thybulle has become a risk to pick up 2 fouls in extremely short order. That obviously is not a good habit to pick up. And it makes your one credible perimeter defender a massive wild card.
Harden’s three-point shot has been well off the mark over the last handful of games. Some of it has to do with the quality of the looks he’s getting, as I mentioned earlier. The step-back three is a fickle shot by nature because of how difficult it is to make. Harden is just better at it than most are. But when you’re fighting through leg injuries and your jumper is falling short as is, the step-back three just isn’t a good shot. Harden missed one of his two step-backs in the first half. He then missed two more in the third quarter. He didn’t have any luck on his one and only catch-and-shoot attempt in the third, either.
The Sixers (43-26) will host the Toronto Raptors (39-30) on Sunday night. Tip-off is set for 8:30 PM (I know what you’re thinking), Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.