The Philadelphia 76ers (38-17) hosted the Los Angeles Clippers (39-18) on Friday night. The Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to four games. The Clippers were looking to advance their own winning streak to eight games. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Danny Green, and Furkan Korkmaz combined for 77 of the Sixers’ 106 points, and it was just enough for Philly to squeak by with a 3-point victory over the Clippers. 

Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Tobias Harris (right knee soreness), Seth Curry (left hip flexor tightness), Dwight Howard (left knee soreness), and George Hill (right thumb surgery). Before the game, Doc Rivers revealed that Hill was able to participate in practice and could potentially make his debut next week. Rivers started Ben Simmons, Furkan Korkmaz, Danny Green, Mike Scott, and Joel Embiid.

The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard (right foot soreness), Patrick Beverley (fractured left hand), and Serge Ibaka (lower back tightness). Tyronn Lue started Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac.

First Half

The Sixers were the beneficiaries of a nearly perfect start to the game. They converted 7 of their first 8 field goal attempts and jumped out to a 20-3 lead just four minutes into the affair. It looked like they were going to run away with this one early. The defense was cooperating with the offense, as Philly was completing well-timed rotations to blow up Clipper possessions and generate transition opportunities.

Joel Embiid was charged with a flagrant 1 foul after failing to give Marcus Morris room to land on a close-out. I think the rule is reasonable and fairly protective. It’s not flawless, but I get it. You have to protect the shooter and take away the psychological advantage defenders would theoretically have if they could just sneak their feet in to make shooters worry about their landings. The call was a bit deflating for the Sixers’ energy, as the momentum escaped them and the Clippers made their run to get back into this game.

Rivers gave Paul Reed some early minutes in this game, but they were largely negative because of the way the Clippers exploited the rookie. It’s difficult to proclaim whether the coaching staff wanted him to lift up or Reed just did it on his own volition, but the Clippers were sending traps at him when he caught the ball thirty feet from the basket. Reed’s lack of experience and limited options to break the trap resulted in live turnovers, and the Clippers were able to pounce on the opportunities. 

“I know that’s something he wants, he wants so much and he deserves it. He deserves to be Defensive Player of the Year.”

I saw the essence of Simmons’ candidacy for the Defensive Player of the Year award in the second quarter. There were a number of plays in which he rotated on the perimeter to stunt dribble penetration after the Clippers secured 50-50 balls, and then recovered back to the open shooter to block the shot and save what would’ve been open looks. I think Rudy Gobert’s rim presence on the defensive end of the floor is the gold standard for what you want in a candidate. But, Simmons’ motor to sprint to tie up loose ends and then recover, agility to change directions rapidly and guard in space, and then length and size to affect scorers across multiple positions is unrivaled. I don’t know that I think he’ll win it, but I’m damn sure there aren’t two players in the league that are better defenders than he is.

After the victory, Embiid made it clear who he thinks should win the Defensive Player of the Year award. “We are monsters in the half-court,” Embiid said. “We’ve got someone in Ben who should be the Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been dominant all season on that end of the floor. I know that’s something he wants, he wants so much and he deserves it. He deserves to be Defensive Player of the Year.”

Embiid Needs To Protect His Body

I can admire and appreciate Embiid’s evident will to sacrifice his body to win every possession. But, look around the NBA. It’s pretty obvious that the schedule is leaving players abnormally susceptible to injury. The top seed is important, but it means nothing if Embiid suffers a catastrophic injury before the playoffs. He can be an effective player without jeopardizing his body going for blocks, attacking the rim, and diving for loose balls. He doesn’t even need to completely eliminate it. But, it would be good business to play with a bit more awareness in crowded spaces.

Second Half

Danny Green’s ability to stay in front of Paul George on the perimeter gave me some degree of confidence that he could actually hold his own in a Nets series. Obviously, Harden and Durant are different animals. But, George still profiles as a long, athletic wing with elite skills as a shot-creator. Green was able to dig deep and get under George. The multi-time All-Star was still able to get his throughout the quarter (15 in the third). But, Green was able to make George pivot out of face-ups and turn away from the basket to protect the ball. Fans, analysts, and media diagnose a variety of weaknesses that they expect will hurt the Sixers in the playoffs. The most important thing, in my mind, is the team’s ability to deploy four credible perimeter defenders. I think it might be one of their most underrated strengths.

Ben Simmons praised Green’s dependability on the defensive side of the floor. “He’s one of those guys I feel really comfortable with,” Simmons said. “If we ever get a switch, he’s one of those guys who’s gonna communicate it. He’s gonna be able to defend his man, which is great. So, it helps in the long run.”

“Schematically, we had some mistakes.”

The Sixers let the Clippers back into this game on the defensive end of the floor. The offense wasn’t particularly great, either. But, Philadelphia allowed the league’s best three-point shooting team to establish a rhythm on the perimeter with extra passes. Philly stopped chasing the Clippers off of the arc and started forfeiting high-quality looks. The Clippers deposited 19 of their 39 looks from deep. When you give up that many triples on efficient volume, your margin of error on both ends of the floor is minimized. Philly felt that pressure as LA’s threes continued to drop in the second half.

After the game, Rivers expressed some dissatisfaction with his team’s three-point defense in this game. “Schematically, we had some mistakes,” Rivers said. “They were running the pick-and-roll up at the top. We were supposed to show, we kept getting tangled up. Guy kept slipping loose or rolling and it really hurt us. So, the good news is we won the game. We can work on it. But those are things that we made mistakes that we don’t make in pick-and-roll coverage and we did over and over. We did in the first half and they didn’t take advantage of it. Give Ty credit–he saw it, and then they started doing it.”

Furkan Korkmaz put the nail in the coffin with an and-1 over Marcus Morris in the final minute of regulation. It felt poetic, as one of the less intimidating players in the league was able to sneak one over a perceived tough guy. Sometimes, the beauty of basketball is the poetic nature of the game as it progresses organically to its conclusion.

The Sixers (39-17) will host the Golden State Warriors (28-28) on Monday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch it on ESPN.