Joel Embiid was the best player on the floor by a wide margin and the Sixers won their fourth straight game Monday night at Wells Fargo Center, a 133-113 victory over the Rockets.
Embiid had his third career triple-double with 31 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.
Furkan Korkmaz posted 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists.
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Houston’s Garrison Matthews scored 23 points on 6-for-10 shooting.
There was Sixers pregame news aplenty, including that Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle are sidelined because of health and safety protocols. Dan Burke served as acting head coach again with Doc Rivers in COVID-19 protocols.
The Rockets suspended Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. for Monday’s game after incidents with both players in a loss Saturday to the Nuggets.
The Sixers now sit at 20-16 and will face the Magic on Wednesday in Orlando. Here are observations on their win over Houston:
Without two key players in Maxey and Thybulle, the Sixers needed to do some rotation juggling.
Seth Curry started at point guard but subbed out with 9:18 left in the first quarter after fouling Matthews on a three-point try. Shake Milton replaced Curry and was also overzealous in his defense on the sharpshooting Matthews, giving up a four-point play.
Milton exited after falling to the floor with 7:26 left in the fourth. Per a team official, Milton suffered a lower-back contusion.
“He said he’s good," Burke said after the game, “but he barely could turn around to shake my hand. ... He’s in the locker room with everybody, so that’s good. He wasn’t with the doctor.”
Fouls and transition defense were problems for the Sixers in the first half; the team conceded 20 free throw attempts and 16 fast-break points before halftime. Too many plays when Houston had a clear path into the paint and no Sixer stopped the ball.
Korkmaz started on the wing and was an early bright spot with three first-period three-pointers and nine of the Sixers’ first 15 points. Burke put him at point guard in the second half, which Korkmaz enjoyed.
“When you have the ball in your hands, you feel the game more. ... When you dribble the ball down, instead of touching the ball every three, four minutes, you feel the ball every time," Korkmaz said. “Even if you don’t shoot it, you have the feeling of the ball. Sometimes it’s hard to get that feeling but when you’re a point guard, you have that control. … I feel really confident when I play point guard."
Isaiah Joe provided wing depth behind Danny Green and Korkmaz. He had a nice showing, too. Joe (18 points, 5 for 8 from three-point range) converted an and-one layup, sunk a long three and stepped in to take a charge on a Rockets fast break during a stretch at the beginning of the second quarter. The officials called the play a block, but the anticipation and defensive commitment were positives from Joe regardless. Those qualities were not in abundance among Joe’s teammates.
“He’s coming along," Burke said of Joe. “He’s got a lot to work on as far as he’s not as strong as a lot of these guys we end up putting him on. So use your length (and) space. He wants to be good, so we’ll take our chances.
“He’s getting that three up, I know that. So when it’s going in, we’ve got to find the right matchup for him, especially when we’re short (on) bodies. Like most of us, we’ve got a lot of work to do on that end. But he’s eager and has got tremendous heart. Good team player and teammate. He’ll come along.”
Paul Reed played three first-half minutes in an unusual frontcourt alongside Georges Niang and Embiid. His speed and defensive versatility were useful traits against Houston, although Burke still turned to Andre Drummond at backup center despite the Rockets playing small (6-foot-4 Jae’Sean Tate guarded Drummond).
Embiid still sharp, while Harris frustrates fans
Embiid was opposed by Daniel Theis, a familiar face from the German center’s Celtics days.
Embiid worked well for deep post position but missed three point-blank shots on one first-quarter possession. The big man was persistent, though, and found his touch soon enough. He fired up the home crowd with a thunderous first-quarter dunk that extended the Sixers’ lead to 22-17.
However Houston guarded him, the game looked easy to Embiid, who sustained the momentum from his stellar month of December.
As we've repeated time and time again this season, Embiid is flourishing as a passer. When the Sixers had him orchestrate from the top of the key, he looked exceedingly comfortable, though he wasn't pleased with his six turnovers.
“He’s started to read the game much better," Korkmaz said of Embiid. “I can tell from his eyes when I’m on the court with him, he knows where the guys are, where the defenders are coming from."
The players one would’ve expected to be the Sixers’ No. 2 and No. 3 scoring options couldn’t have shot much worse in the first half. Curry and Tobias Harris combined to go 3 for 16 from the floor.
Harris heard boos Monday night, and the exasperation was understandable. For a player who likes to lean on deliberate back-downs and is feasting less in transition without Ben Simmons, it’s glaringly problematic that he doesn’t draw many foul shots. He totaled four free throw attempts in the two games after he notched a career-high 14.
With that said, Harris isn’t always the only one culpable when the Sixers disappoint, even if he’s a logical (and fair) target because of his five-year, $180 million contract. And, though it’s not the only factor relevant, it remains worth noting that Harris said last month, “I still feel like every day I have a cold” after testing positive for COVID-19 in November.
Curry made three jumpers in the early stages of the third, including a triple that built the Sixers’ edge to 82-71. The team trailed by a point at halftime but didn’t seem in serious danger of a loss to the 10-win Rockets unless both Curry and Harris continued to struggle.
Handling business against zone
No. 2 pick Jalen Green managed 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
In his first game back from COVID-19, Danny Green opened up on the rookie. Joe, Milton and Korkmaz also guarded the 19-year-old and limited his opportunities to thrive with open-floor athleticism.
As covered above, this was not the Sixers’ finest defensive effort as a whole. However, the team mostly handled Houston’s zone defense well. Milton and Joe made consecutive threes against the zone late in the third.
Zone offense has been an issue at times this season, so give the Sixers credit for moving the ball effectively, shooting 17 for 40 from three-point range and having a strong offensive night across the board.
In the end, they handily beat a team they were supposed to handily beat, which hasn't been common during the 2021-22 campaign.