The Philadelphia 76ers (12-6) returned home after splitting their two-game road series with Detroit. They welcomed the Los Angeles Lakers (14-4) to town. The Lakers, of course, are the defending champions. Head coach Doc Rivers didn’t view this game as a measuring stick. But, the public undoubtedly used the competition as a barometer for how good the Sixers truly are this season.
Before we get to the action, I will set the stage.
Joel Embiid was available after missing Monday’s game with back tightness. Seth Curry was also available after missing the fourth quarter on Monday night with right ankle soreness. Mike Scott (right knee swelling) and Vincent Poirier (h/s protocol) remained out for Philly. The Sixers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Lakers were without Kostas Antetokounmpo (patellar tendinitis in right knee) and Jared Dudley (sore right calf). Frank Vogel started Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Marc Gasol.
Before the game, the Sixers held a moment of silence to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, Gigi Bryant, and the others who passed away in last January’s helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.
Ben Simmons opened the game guarding LeBron James exclusively, with Tobias Harris assigned to Anthony Davis. That was a sign of Rivers’ willingness to make game-to-game adjustments. Simmons is often used as a roamer on the perimeter, instead of being assigned to one man.
Watch The Backdoor
Early in the game, LeBron James scored three consecutive baskets on backdoor cuts. They were attempting to deny LeBron the ball so as to disrupt the Lakers’ normal flow on offense and put the ball in the hands of other Lakers. It helped LeBron that Gasol, one of the best passing bigs ever, was facilitating those backdoor scores.
Ultimately, there are two ways to mitigate those backdoor plays. First, you can adjust away from that strategy and just not deny LeBron, but then you let him play his game. Alternatively–and the better strategy–you can adjust your positioning in denying those lanes so that you can maintain your pressure on LeBron and protect against those cuts.
In some sense, he is the exception to traditional defensive strategies. If you play off of him, he burns you with the jumper. If you overplay him, he burns you to the rim. Having said that, the Sixers did not put themselves in favorable positioning with their man coverages. Normally, that’s the type of thing you correct in a timeout. But, with LeBron James being the beneficiary, three easy buckets early in the game could very well be the kiss of death. It may, however, be just another example of how LeBron’s athleticism at his age is bordering on scientific with how freaky it is.
A Big Moment For Embiid’s Confidence
On Embiid’s second score of the game, he drew a shooting foul on Marc Gasol to force the and-one opportunity. Upon converting the basket, Embiid was rather demonstrative in his excitement about the three-point opportunity. Normally, you might not think anything of it, but that it came against Marc Gasol certainly lends the thought that that bucket was special for Embiid’s confidence. He has historically struggled quite a bit against Gasol, and it seemed to matter to him that he was able to just completely overpower his counterpart. While Embiid may have had a bit of a mental milestone to reach, Doc Rivers was unbothered by any history within the matchup. Prior to the game, Rivers said, “I’m very comfortable with Joel going up with anyone.”
Embiid Goes Out, It All Goes To Hell
The Sixers continued to struggle on both ends of the floor as soon as Embiid checked out. Rivers went to the Howard, Simmons, Thybulle lineup for a few minutes. Once it was clear that wouldn’t work, Rivers actually elected to go to Simmons as a small-ball center. While the offense seemed to flow better, there still wasn’t really any shot creation. By the time Embiid checked back into the game, a sixteen-point Philadelphia lead had been cut to single digits.
The struggle that the Sixers endure when Embiid sits underscore what has become a very clear need for this team. Simmons and Howard do not fit together. While Howard has been tremendous for culture and energy off the bench, he makes too many mistakes for a veteran of his experience. Those mistakes are compounded by a lack of spacing with Simmons the floor. There are combinations in which Howard can surely fit in the lineup, but the Sixers need to add a stretch big man to play alongside Simmons when Embiid rotates out.
When Embiid and Simmons are resting together, they can go to Howard. But, leads are shriveling rapidly when Simmons and Howard are two of the five players on the floor. Adding the likes of PJ Tucker or Luke Kornet before the trade deadline for those Simmons minutes with the second unit could help alleviate the burden of those stretches of time when Embiid sits.
As much of a show as the first quarter was, the Lakers were always going to fight back, and they did so in the second quarter. Philly led by just four points at halftime.
The Sixers were able to rebuild that lead back up to thirteen points early in the third quarter with succinct rotations in help defense. Those rotations helped curtail dribble penetration from the Lakers, especially from Dennis Schroder. Stopping dribble penetration has been a weakness for the Sixers this season. It has often resulted in foul trouble for those Sixers crowding the paint. That they were able to make those help rotations and turn ball-handlers away from the rim was a really encouraging sign for progress on the defensive end of the floor.
“Those are tough plays and I just thought it should’ve been a flagrant 2.”
Joel Embiid went down very hard on his back after attempting an emphatic dunk and writhed in pain after he landed. LeBron James was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul for his contact with the airborne Embiid. Joel was able to stay in the game. He continued to wince and move slowly at various moments before he checked out for Howard. He was able to return in the fourth quarter. Given the violent nature of the fall, though, I imagine we’ll be keeping tabs on Embiid’s status over the next couple days.
Just a few plays later, Embiid was assessed the same foul for an elbow to Anthony Davis’ face.
After the victory, Embiid expressed much displeasure with the events that transpired on that play. “First of all, you look at it, that’s a very dangerous play,” Embiid said. “Guarantee you that if it was me I probably would’ve been ejected from the game, which has happened in the past with me getting flagrant fouls, really for nothing. So, when you compare that to the one that I got whistled, I thought I didn’t really hit him. I didn’t elbow him. I might’ve touched him, but I don’t think it deserved a flagrant. Maybe they should compare those two. Those are tough plays and I just thought it should’ve been a flagrant 2.”
The Growing Chemistry Between Embiid And Simmons
It appears the chemistry that Joel Embiid has hinted at with Ben Simmons is real. Embiid has spoken of exchanging texts with Simmons about where to position himself when Embiid is double-teamed. While battling a double in the fourth quarter, Embiid was able to locate Simmons for a duck-in, and Ben was able to convert an easy layup.
After a rust-less return against the Celtics last week, Seth Curry has cooled quite a bit. He struggled yet again on Wednesday, battling indecisiveness with his field goal attempts and being unable to convert open looks. I imagine he’ll be just fine when all is said and done, but he could certainly help bridge the gap when the Sixers’ offense runs into mud.
“That’s a shot I work on time and time again.”
Journalists and reporter are supposed to root for stories. It’s considered unprofessional to root for teams. As Tobias Harris landed and watched his jumper snap the nylon to put the Sixers in front of the Lakers, 107-106, with two seconds remaining, I couldn’t help but be happy for Harris. After signing a maximum contract two off-seasons ago, a maddeningly heavy load of the criticism for the team’s struggles was shoveled in his direction.
From slumps to receiving endless slander on social media, it undoubtedly hasn’t been easy for Harris to do his job with the weight of his contract pulling down every shot. In his first season back under the guidance of Doc Rivers, Harris has gotten back to the all-star level he played at with the Clippers in 2018-19. On Wednesday, even if just for a night, Harris got to walk off the court as a hero after connecting on the game-winning basket.
After the victory, Harris spoke about his game-winning shot. “That’s a shot I work on time and time again,” Harris said. “But in those moments, just being confident enough to let it go and being okay with the result. Tonight, I fared well.”
The Sixers (13-6) will head to Minnesota for a Friday night showing with the Timberwolves (4-12). Tip-off is set for 8 PM. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.