The Sixers (48-22) hosted the Chicago Bulls (33-37) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to nine games. Chicago wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Another monster night from Joel Embiid was not enough to offset a total stinker from James Harden as the Sixers fell in double overtime, 109-105.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Bulls were without Lonzo Ball, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Alex Caruso was out with a sore left midfoot.
Justin Lewis had surgery to reconstruct the ACL in his right knee and was unavailable.
Carlik Jones and Marko Simonovic are on G-League assignments with the Windy City Bulls and were out. Terry Taylor is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Windy City Bulls and was unavailable.
Billy Donovan started Patrick Beverly, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic.
The Sixers were without the services of PJ Tucker, who has a sore left ankle.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danuel House Jr., Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The one thing the Sixers did exceptionally well in the first quarter was pressure DeRozan. In their eyes, it wasn’t good enough to simply pressure him on the catch or take away space once DeRozan got to his sweet spots around the nail, extended. They denied him the positioning he wanted, forcing him to catch at the three-point arc. As such, his first couple catches of the game were three-point looks to beat the shot clock. It wasn’t until the second quarter that DeRozan found his groove…by getting to his preferred spots against the Sixers’ non-Embiid lineup.
The Sixers, to their credit, found a temporary band aid to the offensive issues in the second quarter. It came courtesy of Harris, who worked the dunker’s spot in space quite well. His teammates did a great job of attacking spaces to force the low man to lift, opening up the space for Harris. From there, all he had to do was make himself available, plant strong, and go up. Scores have been difficult for Harris to come by lately, but he notched a couple quick dunks lurking around the rim.
Even with his struggles this season, I will say that those plays in the dunker’s spot are just another example of how Harris has bought into being versatile on offense without being guaranteed touches. Success certainly hasn’t been a constant, but he has approached anything the Sixers have asked him to do with open arms. Even with box score production taking a dip, Harris has exhibited versatility and professionalism throughout this campaign. If nothing else, he’s leading by example for his comrades.
Speaking of versatility, there’s no better example of how Maxey has grown as a shooter than him coming off a pin-away screen and draining a contested three a la JJ Redick to tie the game in crunch time. That youngster can shoot it, period. Context does not matter.
You’re not going to bat 1.000 on the highlight-reel dunk attempts. But I, for one, appreciate House’s desire to kill anyone in his way when he’s otherwise got a runway to the basket. Sometimes, he’ll attack the basket without any plan but to go up strong. And sometimes it works, there’s your highlight-reel play. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you’re left wondering what you just watched. Regardless of outcome, I always have to adjust my glasses when I see him get a head of steam going to the hoop.
I was impressed by how seamlessly Philadelphia adjusted its offense once Embiid fouled out. They could’ve easily become undone the moment he committed his sixth foul, the primary hub of points on the night suddenly disqualified. But, the Sixers weren’t shell-shocked or without a paddle after they lost their superstar. Rather, they just moved on to the next cog in the wheel. Harden moved over to the nail, operating as if he were Embiid. Paul Reed, inserted for the departing Embiid, spaced to the dunker’s spot. The Sixers actually got a couple buckets out of that base, Harden having an open floor to decide what he wanted to do. It was a good counter that I wasn’t quite sure they had in them.
If anyone knows whether there was butter on the basketball, kindly message me on Twitter. I say that because neither team could keep control of the rock. Strips on drives, counter-moves, regular dribbles, bad passes. It was so bizarre you almost had to wonder whether there was a problem gripping the basketball. No wonder no one could score; nine turnovers combined, the Sixers only made seven shots, and that was enough to out-shoot the Bulls through the first 12 minutes.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, things didn’t get markedly better for Chicago in the second quarter. 12 turnovers for the Sixers in the first half, they shot 14-for-32 from the field, and only trailed by four points at intermission. That’ll get you killed against good teams. But, it was a win in this game, even if an ugly one.
Rivers will tell you that there is a flat note in the first game after a road trip. Of course, that’s difficult to prove in this particular medium. But, there were some turnovers that made you wonder if the chemistry was a bit shaken up by something. Some Sixers cut at the wrong times, unable to handle cross-court passes because the ball hit them away from the target. They also blew up a couple of their own possessions by botching the connection on basic DHOs and other passes.
It was as if the white jerseys weren’t mentally ready to execute at the exact moments they were required to. Usually, I would chalk up those types of lulls to effort — perhaps the Sixers aren’t taking their opponent seriously enough on that given night. But, the effort was there on both ends. It was that the focus short-circuited in each players’ brains at the worst times on offense. Really bizarre game.
Harden has really struggled against the Bulls this season. Some of it is undoubtedly Williams, who has defended him quite well across three games. But, the other issue at play is that Chicago loads up really well on his drives. As such, they get hands on the ball and practically cement him to the floor. He’s really struggled to get the ball above the rim when trying to get downhill against them.
In this particular game, there were a couple fouls across the arms as he went up that should’ve been called. But, the Bulls also did a really good job of mixing up coverages and making it difficult for him to find the driving lanes. They had him very uncomfortable and unsure of himself, slowing down Harden’s decision-making as he tried to operate with the ball in his hands. Chicago has genuinely solved him better than pretty much any team has this season. All three games have been rough for no. 1.
No problem with Rivers not taking a timeout on the final play of regulation. It’s a more common choice now than I can ever remember. Coaches don’t want the opposition to have a chance to get their best defenders on the floor. So, if Rivers wants to make Chicago get a stop in crunch time with DeRozan and LaVine on the floor, fine. Regardless of outcome, that’s fine. I did think Embiid kind of blacked out on the final look.
There was no reason to reverse the ball to Harden and run a pick-and-roll with such little time left on the clock. Embiid should’ve just taken the ball himself and created a look. He’s such a good midrange shooter that you can trust him to create a look for himself in the guts of a game. But, reversing the ball to run a pick-and-roll was unnecessary and ate too much time off the clock. They slowed the ball down and then had to rush because they realized they used too much time slowing down. This time, it might’ve cost the Sixers a crunch time win.
The Sixers did ultimately have a chance to win after Embiid fouled out. Philadelphia even took a four-point lead with jumpers from Maxey and Harris as Harden triggered the offense from the nail a la no. 21. But, it was clear that Harden didn’t have it in this game, and he wasn’t particularly interested in attempting a takeover at the risk of yet another turnover or missed shot.
So, the ball was in Maxey’s hands out of the base framework of Harden catching at the nail. I thought Maxey forced quite a bit in an effort to be the Robin to Embiid’s Batman. He made a pair of jumpers far harder than they had to be, adding unnecessary footwork to create space that he didn’t need. Neither shot was anywhere close to going in. The final dagger in a long line of poor execution all night long.
The Sixers (48-23) will visit the Chicago Bulls (34-37) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.