The Philadelphia 76ers (23-12) hosted the Utah Jazz (27-8) on Wednesday night. It was both teams’ final game before the All-Star break. Joel Embiid did not play in the first matchup of the season between the two teams. But, the Sixers were able to hang tough courtesy of a combined 78 points from Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. Simmons, you might recall, contributed 42 of those 78 points–a career-high for the point forward. The Sixers were looking to take the momentum of a two-game winning streak into the break. The Jazz were looking to finish on a positive note after a setback against the Pelicans on Monday. Joel Embiid capped off his phenomenal first half of the season with 40 points and 19 rebounds to power the Sixers to victory in overtime, 131-123.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
This feels like a rarity, but both teams were fully healthy for this matchup. That means Tobias Harris returned for Philadelphia after missing the previous two games with a right knee contusion.
Few players could use the All-Star break more than Seth Curry. The marksman has made thirteen of his last 41 three-point attempts, and 33 of his last 86 field goal attempts overall. It’s fair to look at a slump like the one Curry is in as maybe a byproduct of a rough first half from a physical standpoint. Curry has dealt with COVID and some injuries throughout this season. Given his small frame and lack of athleticism, however, those ailments can severely limit him. It’s harder for shooters to find a rhythm when they cannot get into a rhythm or are fighting through injuries than it is for more athletically or physically gifted players.
Curry is still cashing in nearly 45 percent of his three-point looks, which is objectively excellent. But his hesitance to shoot from deep and the indecisiveness he often portrays with the ball in his hands cripple the offense. For a team that is ranked 28th in the league in three-point attempts and makes, any type of lengthy struggle for Curry stands out.
The Dreaded All-Bench Lineup
I totally understand the frustration with Doc Rivers’ lineups. Tonight, he utilized an all-bench lineup of Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, and Dwight Howard in the late first and early second quarters. As you can probably imagine, the lack of ball-handling and scoring instinct brutalized the Sixers. The Jazz countered with a staggered bench unit consisting of multiple ball-handlers and shot-makers, and they capitalized on the absence of the Sixers’ big three. Now, should Doc have ever inserted that lineup? Probably not. But, consider the alternative. There aren’t really any better options to occupy those reserve minutes.
He could stagger Embiid, Simmons, and Harris like the Jazz staggered Mitchell, Ingles, and Conley, but then at least one third of those three has to play extended minutes because the team lacks depth. Doc isn’t without his flaws, no coach is. But, this all comes back to depth. The Sixers have a total of two experienced ball-handlers. The Jazz have at least three capable of putting the ball on the floor and manufacturing offense.
This is not nearly as much about Rivers as it is about the team lacking flexibility off the bench. They have a handful of trustworthy players that can do one or two things very well. That’s not nearly enough. The lack of depth reveals itself most significantly against teams like the Jazz, who are supremely deep. Again, it’s fair to question Rivers, but it’s important to also wonder “why” he uses the lineups that he does.
Prior to the game, Rivers told reporters that he cares more about shot quality than he does about hunting three-point shots. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that train of thought. However, it means that you have to field an elite perimeter defense. The Sixers are exactly average in opponent three-point attempts, and that’s nowhere close to good enough to abide by that offensive philosophy. The Jazz connected on ten triples in the first half. Simple math says that’s a very difficult game to win.
To the Sixers’ credit, they didn’t mail it in on the cusp of Spring Break. They made a run to get back in this game in the third frame. Even when Philly closed the gap, the Jazz punched back and pushed the lead back to double digits. Even when Joel Embiid went to the locker room for an extended period of time for an undisclosed reason, they didn’t mail it in. They kept it just close enough to strike in the final frame.
“We ran into the screen and, when you’re in drop coverage, you have to get over.”
Remember just a few paragraphs ago I talked about a particularly terrible bench lineup? Well, what if I told you that exact same lineup stabilized the Sixers in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter? A Howard triple (yes, rub your eyes, you didn’t misread), a Korkmaz floater (yes, double-take, you didn’t misread), and some stellar defense changed the momentum of this contest as time ticked away. The enormous boost the second unit provided was almost in vain, however. The Sixers elected to deploy drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. The drop, as it usually does, funneled Utah into dribble penetration. Their attacks elicited help rotations, and that afforded open triples. The Sixers just couldn’t pull away.
After the game, Rivers commented on the decision to deploy drop coverage. “I liked it, except for they got three threes that I can remember where we didn’t get over the screen,” Rivers said. “We ran into the screen and, when you’re in a drop coverage, you have to get over. What we wanted to do was make them have to take contested twos. So, they should never get a three off a pick-and-roll, and I thought they got three the second half that I remember because we fell back. Other than that, I liked the coverage.”
“He was absolutely unbelievable.”
The Jazz canned triple after triple against the Sixers’ drop. But, Philly still had Joel Embiid. When you’re having an MVP-caliber season, things are obviously going your way. Things have unquestionably gone Embiid’s way this season. Wednesday was no different. Embiid punished Gobert with a variety of moves in the post courtesy of footwork discipline and second-effort stamina.
There were a number of plays in which you just had to marvel at Embiid’s ability to bully the long Gobert out of his way en route to the rim. Gobert has earned the reputation as quite the force at the rim. His Defensive Player of the Year awards support that reputation. But, Embiid was just bigger and stronger on Wednesday. Gobert simply couldn’t hang with him at times.
Embiid knocked in the game-tying triple with five seconds remaining in regulation. The affair proceeded to overtime when Mike Conley’s righty floater rimmed out at the buzzer. The box score reads as just another forty-point game for the MVP-favorite. But, this game will go down as one of the most dominant performances of Embiid’s career, given who he was matched up with all night.
Rivers was in awe of Embiid after the victory. “He was absolutely unbelievable,” Rivers said. “Just got what he wanted, when he wanted it, made the right plays. Just so many little things tonight when you think about with the way Joel was playing. Then, Tobias gets it going, and Joel wanted us to go there. That’s a really big team win for us. We were fortunate we got a three by Joel, which was huge for us.”
“I just kept feeding him and he made a second one and made a third one.”
The Sixers seized control in the extra session, where Tobias Harris earned his credit. Harris, in his return from a right knee contusion, scored eleven of his 22 points in overtime to seal the victory for Philadelphia. Particularly encouraging was the way in which Harris selected his shots in crunch time. He appeared entirely comfortable with identifying Bojan Bogdanovic as a mismatch in the low post and using his size to overpower the more wiry forward. He also had no issue with turning back to his left shoulder and attacking the rim for a two-handed dunk. To cap it off, Harris gave the Sixers a three-point lead on a fading turn-around jumper from the right baseline.
The manner in which Harris’ crunch time scores came was a very encouraging look into how healthy his knee is following a two-game layoff. It was also impressive to see Harris step up after a very quiet regulation and take the game over when his team needed a closer.
Embiid praised Harris’ overtime after the victory. “It was huge in overtime,” Embiid said. “I had a great fourth quarter. But, as we started overtime, I kind of knew that Utah was going to send double-teams to me, especially with the Defensive Player of the Year on me. So, he made the first one, and that’s what we got to keep doing. I just kept feeding him and he made a second one and made a third one. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s tough, he’s making shots. Gotta keep feeding him.”
“But anytime you win a game that you could possibly lose, and you steal it in some ways, just says a lot about your mental toughness.”
The Jazz connected on thirteen more triples than the Sixers did. They led for nearly the entirety of regulation. Yet, the Sixers clawed back and stayed resilient. This will go down as a signature victory for the 2020-21 Philadelphia 76ers, and it’s one upon which they can build character, culture, and chemistry. According to Rivers, the victory showcased the group’s toughness. “I think we already know we can be good,” Rivers said after the game. “But anytime you win a game that you could possibly lose, and you steal it in some ways, just says a lot about your mental toughness. We’re gonna have games like this in the second half where it looks like we may be out of it. But, if you hang in there, you can still win it. So moving forward, I think it’s a big message for our team.”
The Sixers head into the All-Star break at 24-12, redeemable at first place in the Eastern Conference. They will face the Chicago Bulls in their building in their return from the break on Thursday, March 11th. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.