Home Sports Basketball Embiid scores 39, hits game-winner as Sixers rally to beat Blazers: Likes...

Embiid scores 39, hits game-winner as Sixers rally to beat Blazers: Likes and dislikes

Joel Embiid at the free throw line; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (43-22) hosted the Portland Trail Blazers (31-35) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to four games. Portland wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday. The Sixers trailed for 49 minutes and 59 seconds, but Joel Embiid’s jumper with one second left gave Philadelphia the only lead it needed in a 120-119 comeback victory.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Portland was without the services of Justise Winslow, who has a sprained left ankle.

Ryan Arcidiacono has a sore lower back and was out. Ibou Badji is recovering from surgery on his left knee and was unavailable.

John Butler Jr. is on a Two-Way assignment with Portland’s G-League affiliate and was out.

Chauncey Billups started Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Matisse Thybulle, Jerami Grant, and Jusuf Nurkic.

The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.


Pretty much every single shred of good in this game came courtesy of Embiid, and on both sides of the floor. He did just about all that he possibly could to match the Blazers bucket for bucket, plunging to the basket out of empty-side pick-and-rolls for scores inside. Embiid was patient away from the basket, jab-stepping his way into a couple jumpers around the nail in the first quarter.

Embiid didn’t really go to his jumper all that much until the final three quarters, and especially in the second half. But, it didn’t matter what shot he chose. Embiid was on a heater the entire night. I usually have a very good idea of whether shots are going in from the media section when I can see them above the rim as they become visible through the backboard. Every jumper Embiid took matched that characteristic. It was genuinely surprising when he missed. No matter who Portland put in his way, Embiid had no problem shooting over them. It was one of the more dominant displays of midrange shotmaking you’ll see this season.

No. 21 also dialed up his efforts on defense, seeing that his team was totally incapable of stringing together stops and scores. He was active as a rim-protector, rotating to the basket from all over the floor in an effort to alter shots at the basket. Embiid also made a significant effort to guard in space, coming out to help trap Lillard and Simons high on the perimeter. He also stepped out to dance in the corner, attempting to contain the ball.

That perimeter defense is something he’s offered much more as of late. I do wonder if that’s intentional, as it’s obvious some of Philadelphia’s issues in keeping the ball on the perimeter are centered around their drop-heavy scheme. They’re going to have to switch more in the playoffs, and I wonder if they’re ramping Embiid up for that.

The true mark of an MVP is when a team seemingly has no chance in hell of winning a game, and yet find themselves celebrating because they snagged victory from the jaws of defeat. Philadelphia would’ve been dead in the water had it not been for Embiid’s two-way effort in this game. The Sixers needed everything he gave them on both sides of the ball. And even that was only enough to escape by a one-point margin. Embiid simply carried the Sixers from tip-off to final buzzer, letting his teammates climb on his back and ride for 37 minutes and 34 seconds. But unlike Russell Wilson and Bronco nation, when Embiid figuratively said, “Let’s ride”, the outcome was a victory.

Some really good minutes for Danuel House Jr. in this one. He used his strength and size to stay attached to one of Portland’s most damaging scorers. And in the fourth quarter, he threw down a nasty one-handed alley-oop and canned a corner three to help keep the Sixers in the fight. He’s made the most of his minutes when called upon recently, and should be in the mix as Rivers figures out his wing depth.


The problem front and center early in this game put the only deficiency of a Harden-Maxey backcourt in the spotlight in Philadelphia. Harden’s will and level of attention on defense is problematic, to put it nicely, on any given night. That’s the case even if you believe that the perception of his defense hides the fact that he is at least passable in some aspects of resisting the opposing offense. As anyone who watches the Sixers closely knows, Maxey’s defensive woes are more based in his physique than they are in engagement. Philadelphia has been fortunate to not come across all that many potent backcourts for most of this season. So, opposing backcourts picking on the Sixers hasn’t really been that much of a problem. But, you noticed it on Friday.

Maxey opened the game on Lillard, and Portland went right at him. The Blazers put Maxey into DHOs, knowing that he isn’t strong enough to maneuver around Nurkic to stay with Lillard. Inside foot, outside foot, square the hips, boom for the Blazers legend. They put Maxey in high pick-and-rolls for both Lillard and Simons, daring Embiid to step to the level against quick guards or concede open pull-up threes. It wasn’t the most potent start for Lillard, but Simons scored 13 points in the first quarter. Grant was a significant beneficiary of the all the attention Lillard and Simons garnered in the middle of the floor, scoring 11 points in the first quarter on quick decisions every time the ball swung his way on the weak side.

Embiid’s efforts to guard the perimeter instead of living in drop coverage are totally admirable. He’s not stubbornly refusing a strategy that ventures away from his comfort zone in the drop. But, drop, level, or switch, it doesn’t matter if his teammates are totally incapable of keeping up their ends of the bargain. He can make the effort to block every layup or dunk that comes down the pike too, it’s simply impossible for him to get to enough of them if his teammates can’t stop dribble penetration.

Lillard is so surgical with the ball in his hands that sometimes he’s just going to tear you apart. He changes speeds and applies his quick-twitch athleticism unlike maybe any other guard in the NBA. You have to live with him beating you because it’s just inevitable from time to time. But, the Sixers didn’t make it hard on him at all. Lillard knifed in and out of the lane, stopping and starting on a dime all night long. He turned on the jets once he found the hole out of the ball screen.

Simons was also surgical, but he didn’t do as much of his damage as a dribble-penetrator. Philadelphia’s effectiveness against him was only better relative to what they had for Lillard. The younger Blazers guard just went on a shooting barrage of varying difficulties. Of course, it would’ve helped if the Sixers simply switched more when the Blazers screened for him. That would’ve mitigated him just stepping behind screens for open, albeit deep, threes.

The brutal nights have been more frequent than the good nights for Harris lately, and that trend continued in this one. 3-for-11 from the floor, and it was as ugly to watch as it was to read in the box score. I will say this, Harris gets fouled far more than he gets the whistle. Not easy to make shots when there’s illegal contact in addition to a contest.

Nonetheless, Harris lost control of the ball in traffic way too easily in this game. Except, it’s not just this game. It’s been a problem for him as long as he’s been a Sixer. It’s never gotten any better. I’ve written this multiple times before, but it would help Harris tremendously to get into the habit of using jump-stops in traffic. If nothing else, it will slow the game down for him and shake defenders free, opening things up for Harris to get cleaner looks here and there.

The Blazers shooting 13-for-20 wasn’t the only oddity of the second quarter. Between Paul Reed trying to go one-on-three, the loose balls, and the live-ball back-and-forth chaos, there were certainly some bizarre sequences in the game’s second chapter. I’m all for some live-ball chaos, but no one did anything with the opportunities. Disappointing.

The Sixers (44-22) will host the Washington Wizards (31-36) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 



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