The Philadelphia 76ers (18-10) returned home from a long four-game road trip to host the Houston Rockets (11-16). The Sixers were looking to stop their losing streak at three games, while the Rockets were mired in a six-game losing streak. Despite wasting most of a 29-point lead, the Sixers rode Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris to victory, 118-113.

Before we get to the game, some context.

Contextual Notes

Ben Simmons missed the game with what Doc Rivers termed a ‘stomach flu’. Matisse Thybulle started in his place. Shake Milton remained out with the sprained left ankle. Before the game, Rivers said that Milton was getting close, but could not provide a timeframe. Embiid returned to the lineup after missing the Sixers’ final game of the road trip in Utah with back stiffness. The Sixers started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Rockets were without Christian Wood, who is recovering from a sprained right ankle. Houston was also without PJ Tucker and Victor Oladipo, who were suffering from a left quad contusion and a strained right foot, respectively. Danuel House Jr started in Tucker’s spot. Stephen Silas also started John Wall, Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate, and DeMarcus Cousins.

First Half

The Sixers’ recent lack of urgency in pressuring opponents off of the three-point line continued early in this game. The Rockets connected on four of their first six attempts from deep. It wasn’t even as if they were converting tough looks, the Sixers were not very resistant to shooters. The Rockets were comfortably stepping into open looks and capitalizing on the windows of opportunity.

Seth Curry left the game with a hand injury early in the first quarter. Furkan Korkmaz replaced him, but Curry would return just a few minutes later.

“But, once we figure that that caused confusion, we stayed in it.”

The Sixers went with a 2-3 zone defense to combat Houston’s torrid three-point shooting, and the results were promising. The zone took Houston out of their offensive rhythm, and the Sixers were able to push the ball in transition off of their misses. Over the course of the road trip, when the Sixers were being outgunned from three-point range, Green and Harris spoke of the need to create transition opportunities in order to generate three-point attempts. Their self-reflections held true, as the Sixers laced six triples–twice the number they made in the first half of the Utah game–in the first quarter, alone.

Matisse Thybulle was the subject of discussion when Doc Rivers spoke of the zone after the game. “We have found as good as he is man, he’s a better even zone defender because he can float around and use his length,” Rivers said. “We haven’t done much without Ben on the floor. The Matisse-Ben combination is fantastic. Tonight, we did it. We really didn’t plan on doing it long, we were going to do it in stretches. But, once we figured that that caused confusion, we stayed in it.”

A Deviation From The Norm

Rivers opened the second quarter with a lineup consisting of Tyrese Maxey, Curry, Isaiah Joe, Mike Scott, and Dwight Howard. At first glance, it looked interesting. Maxey has the acceleration needed to turn corners and get downhill with success. Curry and Joe are the snipers. Scott stays out of the post so that Howard can be the only one inside. Outside of Maxey, that lineup appeared as though it had no idea how to generate a point. So, not a pretty showing. But, it produced a net neutral, which was the best a bench unit has looked for the Sixers in quite some time. So, I guess give it another shot?

The Sixers enjoyed a rather relaxed interior defense from the Rockets. Although there were times when threaded-needles resulted in deflections, the Sixers were cutting into the lanes and getting to the rim without resistance. Harris was able to earn his money around the paint without too much sweat. The Sixers scored 28 points in the paint in the first half, putting themselves on pace for 56 total. On the season, they’ve averaged fewer than 48 points in the paint. They got to the rim rather easily, and capitalized on their opportunities.

“As NBA players, we play with something always.”

Embiid looked rather uncomfortable towards the end of the first half. He was avoiding high-contact environments, stretching out his back, and moving rather slowly. He was seen trying to keep his back loose through the first half. As the back has been a nagging problem for him all season, this is obviously a situation worth monitoring.

Embiid talked about his lingering back discomfort after the game. “That’s where it started [the Lakers game in which he suffered a hard fall],” Embiid said. “It’s not alarming. As NBA players, we play with something always. The body is just sore, and you gotta take care of yourself. It’s normal. It’s just tightness. As the days go, some days it’s tighter than usual. Some days, it’s not. Obviously, in Utah, or after even during the Suns game and after the Suns game, it got more tighter than usual. Today, especially when we started the game, was tighter than usual. So, it just, some days I just got to go home and continue to do what I’ve been doing before.”

Second Half

As uncomfortable as Embiid looked towards the end of the first half, he appeared quite alright in the second half. Embiid played over ten minutes in the third quarter, and accumulated 12 points in the frame. He finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists on the night. He scored 23 of his 31 in the second half. 

“We really had some unforced turnovers that you don’t like.”

The Sixers built their lead has high as 29 points in the third quarter, but the Rockets refused to mail it in. They cut the Philadelphia lead down to four points in the final minute of regulation. You have to tip your cap to Houston’s ability to get back up and claw back into this affair. That undoubtedly means you also have to credit rookie head coach Stephen Silas with being able to motivate his team to fight the good fight.

But, the Rockets were stripped of a significant chunk of their regular rotation in this game. There is no excuse for the Sixers to have allowed this game to get as close as it became. Part of it was effort, as some more urgency and focus would’ve likely knocked the Rockets out earlier in the final frame. However, the Sixers’ struggles to actually generate shots instead of turnovers in the fourth quarter was a bitter reflection of the fact that this team is sorely lacking a true point guard to back up Simmons. They could not find a rhythm in the fourth quarter at all, and relied on Embiid and Harris exclusively to close the victory in crunch time. 

Rivers seems to disagree with that sentiment. After the game, he said, “I thought tonight we just got sloppy. We really had some unforced turnovers that you don’t like. You get a lead, the one thing about Houston, and there’s teams like him, they’re gonna keep throwing the ball at the rim, and if you turn the ball over, you’re gonna allow them back in the game. I didn’t think it was the pressure. I thought it was more of us, and we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds.” 

Rivers went away from Isaiah Joe in the second half, electing not to play him at all. Given the degree to which Korkmaz has struggled, and the degree to which the Sixers lack perimeter threats, I would imagine that it can’t be too much longer until Rivers is forced to give some of Korkmaz’s minutes to Joe. 

The Sixers (19-10) host the Chicago Bulls (12-15) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.