3 observations after 40-20 Embiid afternoon in Sixers' penultimate game


Just like most of the 49 wins that preceded it, the Sixers' 133-120 victory Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center over the Pacers was dominated by Joel Embiid.

The MVP contender scored 41 points on 14-for-17 shooting and grabbed 20 rebounds. When he reached the 40-20 mark and subbed out of the game with under a minute left, Embiid got hearty cheers from the home crowd.

The Sixers will end the season as either the No. 4 or No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. To finish third and face the sixth-seeded Bulls, the Sixers need to beat the Pistons on Sunday night and have the Celtics lose to the Grizzlies.

Any other scenario would mean a first-round playoff matchup against the Raptors. Regardless of Sunday's results, the Sixers will have home-court advantage in Round 1. 

James Harden posted 22 points on 7-for-16 shooting and 14 assists. Every Sixers starter scored in double figures. 

Embiid and Harden both said after the win that they wanted to play against Detroit, though they were unsure if they would. 

“I want to," Embiid said. “At the same time, it’s also a back-to-back and we’ve got to get ready for the playoffs. I just hyperextended my knee last time against Indiana . So I’m going to see how I feel, but I want to play. I feel like we still need to work on … whether it’s our spacing or our chemistry. Whatever we can get out of these last games, I think we’ll be good.”

Georges Niang missed Saturday’s game with left knee patella tendinopathy. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Niang would’ve played if it had been a postseason game and that the 28-year-old forward’s absence was “precautionary.”

Many of Indiana’s top players were out with injuries, including Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren. 

Here are observations on the Sixers' victory over Indiana in their penultimate regular-season outing: 

Going with Green again 

Danny Green (15 points, four rebounds, three steals) started a second consecutive game. Before Matisse Thybulle was ineligible to play Thursday in Toronto, the 25-year-old wing had 26 straight starts. 

The Sixers opened strong and Green played his part. He hit a transition corner three-pointer to give the team a 13-3 lead, then shortly after nabbed a back-court steal and fed Embiid for a layup. Green also dutifully stuck with T.J. McConnell on his frequent cycles along the baseline. 

We now wait to see how Rivers handles the starting small forward spot for the postseason. If the Sixers face the Raptors and Thybulle remains ineligible in Canada, Green would be the clear choice for road games. Should he be the Sixers’ top wing in all situations? It’s never been tough to make the case that Green should start, or at least that he should play key minutes alongside the Sixers’ stars. At his best, he’s a low-maintenance veteran who plays solid defense across multiple positions and makes catch-and-shoot jumpers. Green’s comfort shooting in transition is also a nice asset when Harden and the Sixers are successful at advancing the ball and maintaining good tempo. 

Of course, Thybulle’s an All-Defensive team contender again. He’s also shown occasional promise offensively next to Harden; the Sixers ran a double drag action with Thybulle and Embiid screening a few times Saturday, and it’s evident they think Thybulle’s screening, rolling, cutting and open-floor speed can be useful and sometimes mitigate the disadvantage of opponents correctly not viewing him as a scoring threat. 

On Saturday, Green and Thybulle played stretches together in both halves. That’s historically yielded excellent results for the Sixers and would likely make sense in the playoffs even with Niang back.

Embiid just about locks up scoring crown 

Embiid took the court at his usual pregame routine time with his full uniform on. He then tossed up a few layups and almost immediately went back to the locker room.

His explanation after the game was simple.

“I didn’t feel like warming up," Embiid said with a smile. “Really, I just went out there and I just wanted to touch the ball — that was it. Early game and I just didn’t feel like warming up.”

Outside of a missed foul shot, there was nothing off about Embiid in the early going. The big man drew three fouls in the first 89 seconds, scored the Sixers’ first six points, and looked able to get wherever he wanted.

Any scoring title outcome besides an Embiid win would be stunning. Through a career-high 68 games, he’s averaged 30.6 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s average before the Bucks’ season finale Sunday against the Cavs was 29.9. You can investigate various improbable hypotheticals if you're so inclined, but Embiid is on track to be the Sixers' first scoring champion since Allen Iverson and the first center to win since Shaquille O'Neal. 

After Embiid kicked the ball out to him, Harden passed up an open catch-and-shoot three-pointer in the first quarter, eventually dishing to Green in the corner instead and committing a turnover. Following the play, Embiid motioned to the 10-time All-Star to shoot. Embiid’s messaging has been consistent there throughout the season, and Harden’s been the teammate most noticeably turning down open looks lately. 

Harden has acknowledged that catch-and-shoot chances are relatively unfamiliar to him. He said Saturday he's been working on those shots every day.

“Continue to work my ass off," Harden said. “Ain’t no other choice. Ain’t no time to feel sorry for nobody, feel sorry for myself. Continue to put the work in, continue to (keep) your ass in that gym, and you’ll live with the results. And that’s how I’m built.”

He called himself “one of the most confident players we have in this league, because I put the work in" and indicated he's focused on shooting fundamentals.

“Just going back to the basics — staying with the shot," Harden said. “There were a couple of times I can recall throughout the game today where I was kind of leaning out of my shot. I’ve got to stick the landing. ... When shots are going in and you’re hitting shots that are tough shots, you’re falling away and things are going great. But when they’re not, you’ve got to get back to the basis, get back to the simple things. And that’s where I am right now.”

Harden wasn’t reluctant to try jumpers off the dribble, but his struggles persisted in a 2-for-9 start. He took six first-quarter foul shots but was frustrated by the lack of whistles after that, complaining about back-to-back no-calls in the third quarter. 

For the optimistic fan, there were hints that the Sixers’ stars can come through when needed. After the Pacers cut a deficit as high as 21 points to five, Embiid replied with a difficult three-pointer late in the shot clock. On the team’s next trip, Harden got rookie big man Isaiah Jackson on a switch and blew past him for a layup. 

Backup center will sure be interesting 

Paul Reed backed up Embiid for a second game in a row and played about as eventful a first stint as imaginable.

In his opening six minutes, Reed recorded eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, three rebounds, three steals and four fouls. 

Every possession, it seemed Reed was the central figure. His energy is dependable and everything else appears to be a wild card. Not an ideal description of a backup center in the playoffs, but Reed does provide unique positives. And DeAndre Jordan certainly did not cement the spot. 

Before the game, Rivers indicated matchups would determine his decisions behind Embiid, with Jordan the pick against bigger centers and several options in other situations, including Reed, Paul Millsap, and small-ball lineups. Any choice he makes will be heavily scrutinized. 

Reed's five fouls in 11 minutes didn't concern Rivers to a great degree. He alluded to a couple of the calls against Reed being harsh and praised the 22-year-old for his development.

“I don’t worry about it, honestly," Rivers said. “I told him that: I said, ‘I don’t care about your fouls.’ That’s where he struggles with bigger guys. Today it was small lineups, so you would think he wouldn’t get in foul trouble. But to me, he’s too young to try to tell him to play a different way, so just let him play the way he plays.

“It’s taken him a while. He’s really starting to figure out where to be on the floor, how to run a set. He had one where he got the rebound and went to a dribble handoff. A month ago, he would’ve tried a spin move or something like that. Getting guys to just understand who they are and their role on the team is very hard ... and he’s doing it. And he’s like Tyrese (Maxey), too. He’s another worker.

“The guy just works his butt off, so really good to see. He’ll be better with the fouls. I actually thought two of those were Paul Reed fouls, meaning … you know what I mean. I don’t want to say anything, but he had his hands back — but they called them anyway."

Isaiah Joe, Reed's fellow NBA sophomore, also cracked the Sixers' rotation Saturday and had a couple of bright moments with a backdoor layup and a drawn charge. Furkan Korkmaz played five first-half minutes but didn't appear in the second half until garbage time.

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