The Sixers have plenty of reasons to feel swell entering Christmas.
They completed a 7-0 homestand Friday night by storming back for a 119-114 win at Wells Fargo Center over the Clippers.
Both of their stars were brilliant. Joel Embiid scored 44 points. James Harden had his first triple-double of the season with 20 points, a career-high 21 assists and 11 rebounds.
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Kawhi Leonard posted 28 points, Paul George 22.
Kentucky products Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) and John Wall (right ankle sprain) were out. Doc Rivers classified Maxey’s return as “close,” though the Sixers' head coach said pregame he was not confident the 22-year-old would be back for the team's matchup Sunday against the Knicks. Maxey on Friday was named the NBA’s Community Cares Assist Award winner for the month of November. The league will donate $10,000 to the Tyrese Maxey Foundation.
Before the 19-12 Sixers feature in the Christmas Day spotlight at Madison Square Garden, here are observations on their comeback victory Friday:
Embiid, Leonard as advertised early
Embiid and Leonard were each ruthlessly efficient in the mid-range during the game’s opening stint. Leonard started 4 for 4 from the floor, Embiid 5 for 7.
The Sixers made the logical call to target the Embiid vs. Ivica Zubac matchup. The middle of the floor was a clear soft spot with Zubac in drop coverage and Embiid exploited that space comfortably by sinking jumpers from the elbows. He also got a dunk off of a pick-and-roll with Harden, who had six first-quarter assists.
As for Leonard, the Sixers know through painful playoff experience that he’s incredibly strong and masterful at subtly shifting gears to squeeze off jumpers. P.J. Tucker was the initial defender on Leonard, though the Sixers were switch-heavy and the two-time Finals MVP looked typically unbothered regardless of matchup.
When Zubac subbed out, the Clippers put Nicolas Batum at center and asked the veteran Frenchman to front Embiid. After a couple of empty Sixers possessions, Tobias Harris found Embiid for a layup with a textbook high-low pass. Outside of Embiid, however, the Sixers sorely lacked offensive success. Embiid in the first quarter scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting. His teammates had nine points on 4-for-15 shooting. The Sixers trailed by six when Embiid exited after slightly over 11 minutes and that deficit seemed quite likely to widen given the team’s reliance on its star big man.
First-half problems for second unit
Rivers played Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell next to Harden early in the second quarter. The Sixers’ bench struggled in just about every facet of the game.
Harrell fouled Luke Kennard on a made three, conceded a jump hook to Zubac, missed a runner attempt, and grabbed no rebounds in the second. The Clippers, meanwhile, showed off their depth and sustained momentum even once Embiid subbed back in. Staggering their stars' minutes helped, but the disparity in offensive skill between the second units was also significant. While Batum, Kennard, Norman Powell and Terance Mann all know their limitations, Los Angeles’ bench had more viable options and superior offensive variety. Powell hit a three-pointer off of a Leonard drive-and-kick, made a fast-break layup, and drained a long two over Milton that gave the Clippers a 19-point lead. They went up 20 on a George three.
The Clippers’ bench outscored the Sixers’ by a 24-4 margin in the first half. It sometimes might be harsh to highlight insufficient scoring as a major issue for the Sixers’ bench, since Harden often carries the load when Embiid sits. The team’s second unit has played well overall lately, too. Still, the Sixers need their bench players to move the ball, convert open threes and play passable defense. They didn’t manage any of that in the first half Friday.
The impact wasn’t completely disastrous because the Sixers’ stars finished the second quarter strong. Harden notched his 10th assist on the sort of impeccable long-distance pass that’s been routine for him recently, setting Harris up for a layup with 3.2 seconds to go in the second and cutting the Sixers’ deficit to 12 points.
Harden's passing keys comeback surge
Though the Sixers maintained a good level to begin the second half, Leonard and his line-drive jumpers held them off for a while. A tough shot for the average NBA player is just not a particularly tough shot for a locked-in Leonard, whose 18-footer gave L.A. a 74-61 edge.
Harden's playmaking then keyed an essential 8-0 Sixers run. He assisted a Georges Niang three and a Harris layup before burying a triple himself, prompting a timeout by Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue.
The Clippers didn't have any immediate satisfying answers, though. The home crowd loved De'Anthony Melton's three (off of a Harden drive and kick) to trim Los Angeles' lead to 77-75, but the Sixers played with excellent energy in the third quarter even when jumpers weren't falling. They made mistakes, sure — Niang leaving Marcus Morris Sr. open for a corner three was an obvious one — but they kept closing out hard, grabbing every defensive rebound, running the floor, and playing a forceful, fast-paced style.
The Sixers' time with Embiid on the bench went far better after halftime. Paul Reed justifiably replaced Harrell and the Sixers were plus-4 in his 5:12. Milton (13 points) hit two important leaners and strolled into a pull-up jumper early in the fourth. In his 959th NBA regular-season game, Harden reached 18 assists for the first time on a Niang three. Niang's put-back layup extended the Sixers' advantage to nine points.
Naturally, nothing was easy with Leonard in a groove; he made an and-one layup to tie the game at 103-all. The Sixers have seen him almost single-handedly steal games before, but they didn't allow that to happen Friday. Harris (14 points, eight rebounds) and Melton (13 points, three steals) each stepped up to nail important threes down the stretch. Leonard and the Clippers were relentless, but he missed a free throw with 23.6 seconds left that would've cut L.A's deficit down to two and Embiid then clinched an impressive win at the foul line.