The Sixers (18-12) hosted the Los Angeles Clippers (19-14) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to sweep its seven-game home-stand. Los Angeles aimed to win its third consecutive game. James Harden went for 20 points, 21 assists, and 11 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a massive comeback victory over the Clippers, 119-114.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Clippers were without Brandon Boston Jr. and Jason Preston, who are on assignments with Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate. Moussa Diabate is on a Two-Way assignment with the Clippers’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
John Wall missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Tyronn Lue started Reggie Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who continues to ramp up for a return from a small fracture in his left foot.
Before the game, Doc Rivers expressed doubt that Maxey would be ready in time for Christmas Day’s game against the Knicks. But, he claimed that Maxey is close to suiting up for the Sixers.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers have ridden some roller-coasters to get to 6-0 on this seven-game home-stand. But, there weren’t many impressive performances because the opposition either wasn’t that good or was down its best players. The Clippers, with both Leonard and George available — something that has become increasingly uncommon — provided a taller task. It could’ve been a rude awakening from the jump, the Sixers thinking a little too highly of themselves in the midst of a hot stretch only to come out and get punched in the face.
But, Embiid was ready to go from the start. He poured in 15 points in his first run, setting the tone in the early-goings for his team. But, talking about that, alone, loses the lede. Embiid and Leonard went back and forth all quarter, with George picking up the slack when the two checked out for their respective teams. A great display of shotmaking from stars in the first quarter, a nice change in pace form the imbalance that favored the Sixers on this home-stand.
Embiid’s early heater made Harden’s job quite easy. Find the big fella early and often. And that was what he did. Embiid did a nice job of beating the Clippers down the court, getting early advantage on the inside so that Harden could throw touchdown passes for him to get easy baskets at the rim. One of the best things you can do for Embiid is get him the ball within 15 feet of the basket early in the shot clock, and Harden did that throughout their opening stint together. Might be the easiest six assists he ever gets in a quarter.
I have to give the Sixers, as a whole team, credit for what they did after falling behind by 20. They didn’t mail the game in, conceding a loss to cap an outstanding home-stand before heading into a Christmas Day date with the Knicks in New York. Rather, they chipped away slowly, trying to win every minute remaining in the first half. And then suddenly, the deficit was just 12 points heading into intermission.
The Sixers were a totally different team after halftime. The Clippers offered a quick punch early in the quarter, pushing the deficit back to 16 points. But, the Sixers weren’t bothered. They just fought back. Embiid wasn’t always able to get all the way to the basket against the rock-solid Zubac. But, Harden and other teammates found him at the elbows. Zubac got him a few times, sending his jumpers back where they came from to force the Sixers to reset. But, Embiid’s jumper otherwise worked quite well.
Among other mechanisms of offensive success was the pick-and-roll partnership between the big guy and his point guard. Just as the Clippers did against the Sixers’ second unit in the first half, Philadelphia attacked mismatches. And when the Sixers liked what a switch would do if Embiid screened for Harden, they went to it. The big guy glided to the rim upon receiving the ball from the bearded one out of a roll, getting easy, high-quality shots at the cup without having to work too hard. Even if Embiid popped, it wasn’t always a jumper. He found pockets of space on the catch, driving the slot when he saw opportunities to get to the rim.
It wasn’t just Embiid who had a blip on Harden’s radar. He leveraged his creative gravity like a magician, rifling the ball to teammates when Los Angeles helped towards the nail. Harden also challenged himself to use his burst more, aggressively pursuing opportunities to get his feet in the paint when he liked his matchup on isolation plays. Between punishing shades or hard helps approaching the nail and fighting his way into the paint to make Los Angeles converge on the ball, Harden’s playmaking was absolutely phenomenal for the entirety of the game.
He catalyzed the Sixers turning a 20-point deficit into a tied game in less than a quarter’s time, spitting the ball around the floor to open shooters. Harden orchestrated the offense by mastering the pace as the situation called for. He sped his team up when the Clippers missed shots or turned the ball over in the open floor. If Los Angeles had a chance to set its defense, no problem. He slowed things down, finding ways to crack the first line of defense off the dribble before speeding up or drawing Los Angeles into a lull before firing the ball across the floor.
It wasn’t the cleanest shooting night for the bearded guy, but the Sixers don’t come close to winning on Friday without his conducting the choir. It was the point guard game of Harden’s life. His 21 assists were not only a career-best output, but they also tied Mo Cheeks and Wilt Chamberlain for the franchise’s individual record for most in a game.
I don’t know how much credit Rivers deserves for simply doing the opposite of the mistake he made in the first half, going to Paul Reed to open the fourth quarter instead of Harrell. The players have to play better. But, they also just are who they are, especially as your eyes travel further down the bench. Rivers should’ve never put Harrell in with this matchup, and then compounded the issue with an all-bench unit. So even though he corrected himself when Philadelphia found new life, heading into the fourth quarter with a tied game, he deserves some criticism for the hole they were in to begin with.
Nonetheless, the head coach made the right call. Rivers acknowledged that Harrell’s minutes were a disaster, going to Reed for meaningful play for the first time since December 9. The vote of confidence paid off, Reed finishing a lob for a bucket and recording a pair of blocks in five minutes. Most important of all, the Sixers were plus-4 in his minutes. After being overwhelmed by the storm without Embiid in the first half, they kept their heads above water while he rested to start the game’s decisive frame.
The Clippers weren’t done, even when the Sixers pushed the lead to nine points. You’re never done when you have Leonard and George. They threatened, trading threes with the Sixers for a few possessions to eventually retake the lead. But, the Sixers decided that Leonard wouldn’t just beat them in isolation anymore.
They trapped him high, forcing the ball out of his hands and betting against other Clippers making plays. To the Clippers’ credit, they did ultimately cash in on the Sixers’ defensive imbalance a few times. But, Zubac making plays out of the short roll is only going to be effective so many times. And after a blistering first half, the shots from the perimeter that once found the mark rimmed out for the Clippers in the game’s final few minutes to secure a Sixers’ comeback victory.
All of the good in the first half came to a dramatic stop as soon as Rivers made his first big rotation decision. The Sixers were never going to replicate Embiid’s production (15 of his 23 first-half points in the first quarter), but they fell off a cliff when Montrezl Harrell checked into the game.
Drop coverage, poor rim-protection, and horrendous rebounding — killer traits against good teams. The default coverage whenever Harrell is on the floor has to be drop because he can’t move his feet well enough to play up on the screen. Even if Los Angeles declined the option to walk into pull-up midrange shots, they got to the rim, challenging Harrell to protect the basket. They didn’t just kill the Sixers’ defense there. The other problem was that Los Angeles got Philadelphia into rotation with swing passes. The Clippers were torrid from three-point range in the first half. But even when they missed, Harrell wasn’t winning battles on the glass. Zubac absolutely ate him alive in that regard. So, Los Angeles got additional opportunities to capitalize on having possession.
Things really began to slip when Rivers rolled with an all-bench unit towards the end of the first quarter. Simply put, the Sixers are limited on shot-creation as is. They might hit the lottery on any single night, one player stepping up to provide the gas needed to hold down the fort. But on the nights when that isn’t the case, going all-bench takes away any hub of offense. Going with your worst interior presence on defense and stripping your offense of any hub is not a recipe for a well-cooked meal, especially against a good team. So, Philadelphia fell down nine points before Harden returned, and even more after, all while Leonard recharged on the bench.
Ed Malloy has to be high in the rankings of the NBA’s worst referees. His whistle consistently stinks, and this game was no different.
The Sixers will visit the New York Knicks on Christmas Day. Tip-off is scheduled for 12 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ABC and ESPN.