The Sixers (49-23) continued their road trip with a late-night tip against the Golden State Warriors (38-36) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to build on Wednesday’s blowout win over the Bulls in Chicago. Golden State wanted to win its third game in a row. The Sixers couldn’t survive the non-Embiid minutes, falling 120-112 in Golden State despite a masterpiece from the big guy.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who missed his second consecutive game with a sore left achilles.
Danuel House Jr. was out with a sore right shoulder. Jalen McDaniels missed the game with a sore right hip.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Warriors were without the services of Andrew Wiggins, who is on an extended absence due to personal reasons.
Gary Payton II has a sore right adductor and was out. Andre Iguodala had surgery on his left wrist and was unavailable.
Ryan Rollins had surgery on his right foot and was unable to play.
Steve Kerr started Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney.
Almost everything good for the Sixers began and ended with Embiid in this game. The touch on his jumper wasn’t there in the first half. No problem. He surgically destroyed an imposing Warriors interior defense with an array of scores at the rim. The genesis of all of it was impeccable footwork.
Jonathan Kuminga on a switch at the free throw line? A couple of pivots and reverse pivots later, Embiid found the crack and forced his way through a corridor to finish at the rim. A double-team from Green and Looney in the post? A pivot and turn for a short hook over his shoulder. It was a dominant display combining traditional big-man touch and interior bully ball through the first 24 minutes. Great to see, given that he missed the second half of the Chicago game with a tight calf.
Tasked with leading the charge these past two games without Harden, Embiid has been quite mature in his offensive approach. He senses that he needs to do heavy lifting as a scorer when his team is in a rut. But, he knows he’s going to need to keep his comrades engaged to record wins.
In a league that only notices when Nikola Jokic makes nice passes, there was Embiid, reading double-teams to near perfection. He found open teammates all night long. Whether it was catch-and-shoot threes, cutting hard in space, or flashing to spots, Embiid found the open man, leveraging the extra attention he garnered to create open shots for others. He pulled almost every right string all night long.
Embiid’s partner in crime in this one was Harris, who had his best offensive game in quite some time. He only took one triple in the game, but I didn’t feel like he necessarily turned down a bunch of good looks from deep, either. Harris was forceful in getting to the rim, attacking frisky Golden State defenders off the dribble if the three wasn’t immediately there and getting inside. Harris was also masterful in the post, backing down various Warriors before turning over for fading jumpers. He converted pull-ups in the midrange in the guts of the game, finishing strong to help stabilize the Sixers’ offense with tough shotmaking when things weren’t working throughout the affair.
Maxey’s knack for hitting back-breaking pull-up threes is a storyline that doesn’t get enough spotlight in conversations about this team. He was responsible for half of Philadelphia’s three-point makes in this game, capitalizing on Embiid’s passes or drilling outside jumpers on the move.
Speaking of topics that don’t get enough attention, Melton is sneakily a very good crasher on the offensive glass. He comes in out of nowhere to climb with the trees inside and finds ways to steal the ball off the miss to keep possessions alive for Philadelphia.
To suffer the wrath of Curry’s off-ball movement is to be one of hundreds of men before you that the Warriors legend has punished for defending too closely away from the action. That being said, with Harden missing his second game in a row, the Sixers were going to need to tighten up the defense to counter for a less potent offense. Curry is an inevitable presence, it’s just a matter of when he comes fully alive. But, you can’t let him get away with the easy scores. Melton put his teammates in compromised positions with defensive mistakes a couple times in the first quarter.
If it wasn’t him tilting towards sleep ever so slightly when Curry settled down away from the play only to slowly surrender a back-cut, it was an over-play from the wrong angle. Curry got loose a couple times for scores at the rim in the first frame, sneaking into the back-side spaces towards the rim because Melton’s pressure points gave him those angles.
I think you can also lump Harris into the blame pool for the outcomes of some of those back-cuts. The low man on the weak side of the floor is supposed to slide over and tag the cutter, and Harris froze in space with Curry approaching. But, given the shooting power the Warriors have, his position is compromised. If he rotates to tag Curry, Thompson is open. Curry becomes a decoy, and Green or whoever has the ball is firing to the weak-side corner for an open three. Harris being compromised points back to Melton being unable to deny Curry the backdoor off the ball. So, that’s why the genesis of the blame goes to back to where the initial defensive breakdown happened.
Ultimately not a huge deal given that the Sixers trailed by two points at halftime. But, an example of how the Sixers weren’t all the way locked in on some of the minute details. Every single detail matters when you’re dealing with the likes of Curry and Thompson. It was just a little too easy for the more central star to score at times in the first half.
In the first set of minutes during which Embiid was on the bench, Maxey did not attempt a single shot. Staying stable in those minutes without Harden’s guidance is difficult enough. And Golden State operated several tiers above the Sixers in those minutes. That Maxey didn’t take a single shot as the theoretical catalyst in those minutes is baffling and cannot happen.
Speaking of those non-Embiid minutes, that was one of the central reasons why Philadelphia came up short in this one. It’s a tough ask for the defense to keep the Warriors at bay when Embiid is on the floor. The motion and flow of their offense is going to be that much better when the rim-protector is recharging on the bench. So, no one is expecting them to thwart the Warriors on defense regardless of where Embiid is.
What you do need is for that unit to piece together passable-enough offense to not get totally blown out while the big man is resting. The Sixers couldn’t even do that in this game. You might point to the minutes that Embiid sat in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors cut an 11-point Philadelphia advantage to just 2 points.
If you want to view it from the position that it’s unlikely an extra two minutes in the fourth quarter will leave Embiid susceptible to aggravating the tight calf that caused him to miss the second half of the Bulls game on Wednesday, you’ll probably blame Rivers for not sensing that the reinforcements weren’t good enough to let no. 21 rest until his normal substitution time.
Personally, if the franchise player that lifts and drops this team with every fiber of his being just missed half a game with soft tissue discomfort, I’m probably cutting back his minutes instead of letting him play his normal load. The Sixers have far bigger fish to fry than a late-March regular-season game.
So, that Rivers let him rest as long as he did in the fourth quarter is not something I blame the head coach for. There are times when players in the rotation on a contender are responsible for digging in and finding ways to contribute. It is difficult, but you just have to get it done. Regardless of salary, draft status, or role, you have to do your part while the big fella does everything else. The guys on the floor while Embiid rested simply couldn’t get anything done on offense. They failed, full stop. And that’s one of the big reasons the Sixers lost a game in the standings on Friday.
The Sixers were only plus-13 in a game in which Embiid went for 46 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and two steals in nearly 38 minutes of action. They lost by eight. The guys responsible for trying to keep the boat afloat while Embiid rested were outscored by 21 points in the ten minutes he sat. That’s not going to get it done against a Warriors team that is amongst the best in the league on their home floor.
Embiid returning obviously wasn’t the end-all, though. The Warriors won those fourth-quarter minutes by 10 points. That’s the other major reason that the Sixers lost this one. But, beyond the math, look no further than how the Warriors defended Tucker to see why the Sixers ended up on the short end of the stick.
There was a possession in the third quarter in which Embiid passed ahead to Tucker who had an open transition three on the right wing. He passed it back to Embiid and then kept running to the corner to complete his transition route. Embiid passed it back to him, and Tucker returned the ball to the big man, passing up another three. That cannot happen. More gravely, it foreshadowed how the Warriors would close out the game.
Embiid couldn’t get to his sweet spot at the left elbow because the Warriors elected to help all the way off of Tucker in crunch time. That pushed the big guy out to the perimeter. He had to catch the ball beyond the three-point arc to initiate the possession. But even as he toggled through decisions, Embiid didn’t really have anywhere to go because Tucker’s man left home to apply secondary pressure on the ball.
Even when Embiid had no choice but to trust Tucker, the 37-year-old forward couldn’t make the Warriors pay on wide-open shots from his coveted corner spot. He had chances to shoot practice-level threes from the corner, either turning them down to spit the ball back to Embiid or missing the mark.
Tucker may never be precise enough as a shooter to make teams question whether it’s smart to use his man as a roamer to apply pressure on a superstar. But, he has to capitalize when they’re disrespecting him that much. He failed to do that in this game. And it completely junked up Philadelphia’s offense in the guts of the game.
I really thought there were opportunities to switch more on screens in this game. That probably would’ve mitigated some of Golden State’s ball movement and open threes. It’s difficult to flow into threes moving off a DHO if the defense is switching. It’s also difficult to get feet in the paint if you switch. Hindsight is always 20/20. But, with all of the side actions the Warriors run, switching makes life so much easier on the defense.
A real shame the Sixers couldn’t get enough stops down the stretch to put this one away. They probably would’ve won if Harden had been available. But, they had ample opportunities to get it done without him. A waste of a masterful Embiid performance.
The Sixers (49-24) will look to get back on track against the Suns (38-35) in Phoenix on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 10 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.