Home Sports Basketball Harden and Embiid lead Sixers in thrilling victory against Grizzlies: Likes and...

Harden and Embiid lead Sixers in thrilling victory against Grizzlies: Likes and dislikes

James Harden gets ready for tip-off against Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and the Memphis Grizzlies, Feb 23, 2023; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (38-19) hosted the Memphis Grizzlies (35-22) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to five games. Memphis wanted to build on its victory over the Jazz before the All-Star break. The Sixers rallied from 17 points down to win a thriller in their first game after the All-Star break, 110-105.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Grizzlies were without the services of Steven Adams, who has a sprained PCL in his right knee.

Luke Kennard has a non-COVID illness and was unavailable.

Jake LaRavia and Ziaire Williams are on assignments with Memphis’ G-League affiliate and were out. Kenneth Lofton Jr. is on a Two-Way assignment with the Grizzlies’ G-League affiliate and was out.

Taylor Jenkins started Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr.

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

Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.


It wasn’t difficult to figure out which guy had been snubbed of an All-Star spot and has a chance to be a free agent this offseason. Only one guy in a blue jersey was ready to go in the first half. There was Harden, changing directions and pace with each dribble as if he were a hibachi chef, searching for his advantage by getting mismatched defenders off balance as they tried to guard no. 1 in space.

Harden proved that his legs are feeling spry, planting his left foot in the driving lane and bursting forward for attacks on the basket. He didn’t shy away from bigger Memphis defenders, either. Harden attacked right at the chests of Memphis’ interior, using his own upper body strength and physicality to displace the likes of Jackson Jr., Clark, and other big defenders in his way. Even if he couldn’t shake them entirely, Harden was strong with the ball, finishing through contact throughout the first quarter.

And when no one could hit the water falling out of a boat, there was Harden, knocking down difficult threes both off the catch and off the dribble. Harden was really the only reason Philadelphia had a pulse after the first frame, trailing the Grizzlies 37-22.

The night, in general, belonged to Harden. Absolutely nothing went well in the first half. Harden, like a true point guard, took the pulse of his team and knew that he needed to step up before it was too late. He dialed up the aggression to keep the Sixers within striking distance of the Grizzlies, directing the traffic and toggling through screeners until he got the mismatch he wanted. It was precisely what you need out of a second star — sense that running everything through the top dog isn’t working at that time, and slide into the driver’s seat to mitigate the damage. 

But, Harden didn’t try to do it all by himself, either. With a chance to reset and take a deep breath at intermission, Harden began to re-integrate Embiid into the offense by way of the pick-and-roll. Once they got the mismatch they liked — often Morant, John Konchar, or Santi Aldama — Harden flipped the ball back to Embiid to execute the advantage. Embiid did much of his work from the free throw line in the first half. But, getting back to that pick-and-roll into isolations against mismatches was how they went about establishing the big guy within the offense in the second half.

On the topic of Embiid, the story of his game has a plot twist akin to a Hitchcock, De Palma, or Shyamalan movie. You could not have drawn up a worse first half of offense for the big man if you tried. But, the plot twist is his response to those struggles. More importantly, how his response differed from the way he would’ve approached a rough night in previous seasons. There was no slumping of the shoulders for Embiid. He didn’t put his head down and mope around. Embiid simply controlled what he could control through the struggles. That is, his defensive intensity and attitude.

Embiid stayed aggressive, albeit still taking bad shots. But, he made his impact on defense. He had double-digit rebounds at halftime, and finished the night with 19 boards. Every defensive rebound he could get to, he retrieved. He made himself wide in the paint, discouraging the Grizzlies from even trying to crash at times because they knew he had the advantage. Embiid also did a tremendous job guarding, taking matchups such as Morant in isolation and winning. He also defended at the rim without fouling, showing body but keeping his arms straight to challenge the Grizzlies to make contested shots over him. Embiid leveraged his physical presence, not trying to do too much when he didn’t have an angle to block a shot. He just kept his balance and stayed discipline with his limbs, scaring the Grizzlies into rushing shots to the effect of self-inflicted misses around the basket. 

But, that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave his imprint on the game as a shot-blocker. Embiid rejected six shots, rotating over to the weak-side block to punch the ball off the backboard on weak layups. He guarded all the way through shots, forcing the likes of Jackson Jr. to shoot from difficult angles and then spiking the ball into the crowd. Embiid saved his best for last, though. Morant had trouble lighting the fuse all night. But, he sought opportunities to apply his athleticism with the game hanging in the balance. It seemed like he was going to have a monstrous dunk in the final two minutes of regulation. But, there was Embiid, rotating to the ball and deflecting the shot away from the basket to make a play.

We can argue about who has the best individual defensive performance of the season. But, Embiid’s display has to be on the short list of best this season. 

Oh, by the way, he eventually found his way back into the game on offense. It started with the pick-and-roll, the Sixers abusing mismatches to get Embiid the ball in high-value spots. But, he didn’t settle for jumpers. The big fella saw he had clear physical advantages and attacked, fighting to get to the rim for finishes or earn trips to the charity stripe. And when he finally found a rhythm, Embiid dabbled in the outside game, knocking down a fistful of midrange jumpers. The last one tied the game with three minutes to go.

As terribly as he played on offense — and he played mostly terrible on that end — Embiid was undeniable on defense. In many ways, it was a sign that he understands his role as face of this team. The way in which he battled through adversity set the tone for his teammates, letting them know that they couldn’t just give in. It is that type of leadership from the top dog, and the wide-spread impact it has on the team, that the Sixers will need to break through their ceiling of this era. Philadelphia doesn’t get anywhere close to the winner’s circle without Embiid staying locked in on Thursday.

Kudos are in order for Rivers in this game. First, no all-bench lineups. Praise the lord. Second, he went with a small-ball lineup featuring Tucker as the de facto center, trying something new in a high-leverage moment. Finally, he recognized that the Horns action the Sixers were running was basically the only thing working on offense. More importantly, it was helping Embiid find his rhythm in the game. As such, Rivers rode that package into the floor in the second half as Philadelphia mounted its comeback.

Harris was great when it mattered most, on both ends of the floor. He did a fine job of staying in front of Morant. But of greater consequence was that he fought through some of his own mental demons in the fourth quarter. He had a bad airball on a catch-and-shoot triple late in the fourth quarter, granted I thought Embiid’s terrible pass was more to blame for the shot’s outcome. Rather than let it eat at him, Harris kept going. He laced a big triple a few possessions later.

Harris ran into some trouble in the final two minutes of play, turning down an open catch-and-shoot corner three and dribbling into nothingness before Harden bailed him out with one of the more incredible shots of the season. But, with less than a minute to play, Harris ripped the cord on a corner three under very similar circumstances. He didn’t let two fresh failures get the better of him. Harris stayed focused on the next play, and delivered a pair of massive threes for the Sixers in the game’s decisive minutes.


Tucker opening the scoring with a corner triple only to later catch the ball inside twice and totally reverse the progression of the plays with inexplicable passes out to the perimeter is not what you want to see. If you catch the ball around the basket, at least survey your surroundings and try to make something of being in the paint.

As the first half went on, I legitimately wondered if I had slipped into some alternate upside down universe. That was how bad the Sixers’ offense was. On one hand, they all looked rusty. On the other hand, they looked sluggish and uninspired. As much as Embiid contributed to the win, the story is not complete without a discussion on how awful he was on offense in the first half. He looked absolutely lost and out of sync, making horrendous decision after horrendous decision.

His jumper was off the mark, so he decided to continue to settle for outside shots against good defenders. When he did drive, he attacked into the help instead of taking what they gave him. Perhaps the best summary of the dreck that was the first-half offense was a stepback three he took near the top of the arc that barely grazed the backboard. It was maybe the worst half of offense of his career. As much as Philadelphia played through him, the repeated mind-boggling decisions completely dried up the offense. While the Sixers don’t win without him, he certainly was front and center in diagnosing why they fell into the hole they did. 

Melton is very much up-and-down. When he’s hot, Melton is a back-breaking sniper and all-world catalyst of team defense. When he’s cold, Melton barely does anything more than get cardio. He got beat off the dribble all night long, and then worsened the issue by fouling. His fifth foul was whistled with more than eight minutes to go in the third quarter on a putback layup from Brooks. That he committed his fifth foul that early is one problem. That the Sixers had to go to Tyrese Maxey so heavily was another problem resulting from the first problem. The Grizzlies got a healthy chunk of their offense in the second half by bringing Maxey into the action and picking on him. Whether it was Morant or someone else, they had their way against the young guard all half. 

I overestimated Melton’s strength as an individual defender, but he needs to be better than he was in this game. The domino effect is severe, and the Sixers were lucky it didn’t prove fatal on Thursday.

The Sixers (39-19) will host the Boston Celtics (43-17) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ABC.



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