The Sixers (39-24) hosted the Chicago Bulls (39-25) on Monday. Philadelphia intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the Heat on Saturday. Chicago aimed to snap a 4-game losing streak. Joel Embiid registered a 43-point, 14-rebound double-double to lead the Sixers to a sweep of the season series against the Bulls, 121-106.
Before we get to the action, some house-keeping.
The Bulls were without Lonzo Ball (torn meniscus in left knee), Alex Caruso (fractured right wrist), and Patrick Williams (torn ligament in left wrist).
Nikola Vucevic missed the game with a strained right hamstring.
Tyler Cook (Two-Way) and Marko Simonovic were on G-League assignments with the Windy City Bulls and were unavailable.
Billy Donovan started Ayo Dosunmu, Zach LaVine, Javonte Green, DeMar DeRozan, and Tristan Thompson.
The Sixers were without Paul Millsap, who missed the game due to personal reasons.
Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), Myles Powell (Two-Way), Charles Bassey, and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Joel Embiid seemed to roll an ankle after barreling to the basket on a mismatch out of a pick-and-pop with James Harden. He missed one of the two ensuing free throws, but stayed in the game.
Doc Rivers opened the game with Tobias Harris guarding DeMar DeRozan. That’s MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan. It went as you would expect. Chicago’s first points came when Harris went under a screen on DeRozan in the midrange — basically a layup for the All-Star Bull. What was more startling was that it took Rivers quite a bit of time to adjust. Along the way, the first move was giving slow-footed Georges Niang the DeRozan assignment. There was also a possession in which Danny Green picked the former Raptor and Spur up full-court.
Matisse Thybulle eventually ended up on DeRozan, but it seemed like an unnecessary waste of time to not have Thybulle on him from the start. You could certainly make a case for the logic that you want to protect against the possibility that Thybulle picks up a pair of early fouls on DeRozan’s herky-jerky play. But when you see DeRozan heating up without breaking a sweat early in the game, it makes sense to temporarily deviate from your plan to extinguish the fire. It was akin to Rivers’ decision to give Danny Green duties against Trae Young in Game 1 of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Harden has developed a knack for bringing the house down in his first few games as a Sixer. He starts games quiet, feeling out what the defense is going to do and getting Embiid and other teammates their touches. He has taken a liking to cooking late in the first quarter thus far. But, he heats up very fast. He splashed a signature step-back triple before serving a pair of threes to Niang to give the Sixers a lead and get the building buzzing after a slow start.
One of the more sneakily dangerous things that Harden does is slow his downhill pace as he attacks in transition before ripping aggressive pass-fakes. That quick change of pace got Chicago off balance and granted the Sixers gravity to space out or cut to the basket unabated. Those plays don’t always materialize. Or, maybe they don’t always result in a pass. Maybe Harden’s back-pedaling defender is thrown off, giving Harden the space to fire a pull-up triple in transition. But, it’s the machine-gun pace with which he shifts gears that creates space for everyone on run-outs.
Harden has been somewhat of a disappointment as a rebounder early in his Sixers tenure. Granted, you must evaluate relative to what he’s done in the past and what resources were available to you. He’s certainly an upgrade over what they had — but they didn’t have much. He was never going to change your life on the offensive glass, but he could make an effort to not be a space cadet on the defensive glass. He surrendered offensive rebounds to the Bulls on a number of occasions in the second quarter.
But the whole team did, too. Tobias Harris permitted one on a missed free throw. There were a couple other instances that Chicago generated additional possessions just by sneaking behind ill-positioned Sixers. Philadelphia was out-rebounded 27-17 in the first half. A 15-11 Chicago advantage in the second quarter prevented the Sixers from taking complete control of the game before halftime.
The Sixers had success disrupting Chicago’s possessions with good hands in the second quarter. Embiid irritated a DeRozan isolation with a slap-down as he was dribbling to loosen the ball. Green came up with a strip right under the basket and forced a jump-ball on DeRozan in the quarter. As slow and athletically-limited as the Sixers are, having those quick hands is an excellent way to make up for the shortcomings they have with their feet.
The Sixers finally created some separation between themselves and the Bulls through Harden’s mastery of the pick-and-roll. Tallying 6 assists before halftime, Harden took it up a notch in the third frame. Teasing pressure at the rim after peeling off Embiid’s ball screens, Harden dimed his big man on the way to the cup with some gorgeous passes on a rope. Except for in his debut against the Timberwolves, Harden hasn’t really shocked anyone as a scorer in his short time as a Sixer.
Don’t be fooled, he’s averaging well over 20 points per game with his new team. But, Harden has mostly lived on the playmaking side. And his prowess as a scorer has done as much heavy-lifting as actively hunting scores would. The Sixers had no problem staging a 21-point comeback against the Cavaliers on Friday. They trailed the Knicks by as many as 17 on Wednesday before coming back to win, as well. Harden’s playmaking was outstanding in those games — and, really, every game thus far. But the Sixers made basketball look like rocket science in Miami, when Harden sat out. His mere presence in the pick-and-roll bends defenses exactly as he wants, and he makes the right play far more often than not.
After moping through the Cleveland and Miami games, Embiid was certainly hunting the scores that Harden wasn’t in the third quarter. Contributing 19 of the team’s 59 points before halftime, Embiid scored 19 of the Sixers’ 29 points in the third quarter. Most of those buckets were courtesy of rolling hard to the cup after screening for Harden. As such, many of Embiid’s scores came on high-quality shots (at the rim, against smaller matchups). And if the Bulls didn’t surrender easy field goal attempts to Embiid, they sent him to the line for free throws.
Whatever Niang signs for on his next contract, a portion of that should go to paying for Harden’s dinners for a year. They’ve developed a two-man game that has been quite potent in the early-goings, and it’s the same play every time. They run pick-and-pops, Harden draws two guys, and it’s a behind-the-back bouncer to Niang for triples. Even when it’s not a pick-and-pop, Harden draws two defenders by pressing the lane and kicks to Niang. They’ve developed an incredible chemistry on the court in a very short period of time. I suppose, from Harden’s perspective, it isn’t all that surprising. Harden has played with a number of small-ball gunners in his career. Niang is just another puzzle piece that fills the mold. But in Harden’s short time with the team, Niang has become perhaps the best three-point shooter on the team.
Harden and Thybulle also showcased a surprisingly strong small-small pick-and-roll. They went to it mostly when the lane was vacant, so that Thybulle could crash to the cup with little adversity off of Harden’s passes. That’s something I would like to see more of when the Sixers are in transition. You can slow the pace just a bit and run a single Drag screen for Thybulle instead of having him space out for threes. Given Thybulle’s limitations on offense, there’s a very short window of opportunities in which you can pull that play. But, running it towards the middle of the floor when the other side is empty is a golden opportunity to go to that small-ball pick-and-roll. Thybulle is certainly athletic enough to finish above the rim if there isn’t a ton of activity around him.
DeAndre Jordan looked every bit a big who was thrown into a new offense on short notice. But defensively, he also looked every bit the best candidate to back Embiid. He came out of nowhere to alter shots at the rim from the weak side of the paint. Even if he didn’t get the block, and was called for a foul or goaltend instead, Jordan’s legs looked extremely fresh. His head was certainly in the right place, as he rotated from spot to spot out of Chicago’s swing passes.
The Sixers (40-24) will host the Brooklyn Nets (32-33) on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.