Lehigh University product CJ McCollum enjoyed the best three-point shooting night of his career Friday in New Orleans.
The 31-year-old McCollum torched the Sixers all evening from long range in a 127-116 Pelicans win at Smoothie King Center, sinking a career-best 11 threes and finishing with 42 points. Zion Williamson didn't try a three, but he added 36 points on 13-for-19 shooting as New Orleans improved to 23-12 with a fifth consecutive victory.
The Sixers, who dropped to 20-14, got 37 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid. James Harden had 20 points, 10 assists and seven turnovers.
Tyrese Maxey returned after missing 18 games with a left foot fracture. He played 19 minutes and scored nine points on 4-for-10 shooting.
New Orleans was down Brandon Ingram (left great toe contusion) and Larry Nance Jr. (neck spasms).
The Sixers will travel to Oklahoma City and play the Thunder on New Year’s Eve. Here are observations on their loss Friday:
Rough return for Maxey
Though Maxey was back, De’Anthony Melton retained his starting spot.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said last week the team didn’t plan to “throw (Maxey) right in.” We’ll get a better sense soon of which lineups Rivers now wants Maxey to feature in, but it would be premature to draw major conclusions.
Maxey’s opening run was what you’d expect from a player not accustomed to coming back from injuries. He was deferential to Embiid at first, then missed three-pointers on consecutive possessions. Rookie Dyson Daniels took advantage of Maxey falling well behind the play after a Willy Hernangomez screen, dishing to the big man for a layup.
Maxey was also a “Grand Theft Alvarado” victim. As he dribbled the ball up the floor, Maxey appeared oblivious to Jose Alvarado’s patented sneak attack until it was too late.
While he did hit a tough fadeaway jumper over Williamson, Maxey lacked his usual comfort and confidence offensively. That’s obviously no reason to panic, but everyone would’ve preferred a smoother transition back into action. Rivers opting to play Maxey with Embiid off the floor and Shake Milton the one guard next to him early in the second quarter didn’t make things easy.
With Embiid sitting, Williamson started scoring inside on almost every New Orleans possession. The Sixers’ zone defense was ineffective because Williamson kept finding seams to drive and Montrezl Harrell didn’t trouble him at the rim. Zone has tended to work for the Sixers this season as a change-of-pace option, but the notion of Harrell as back-line insurance wasn’t helpful Friday against Williamson. The Pelicans outscored the Sixers by 15 points in Maxey’s first stint.
Maxey had a few encouraging plays after halftime, including a swift baseline drive and reverse lay-in, but we imagine he’ll be disappointed with his night overall. Of course, there’s no question the 22-year-old is also grateful to be playing basketball again.
An "average" Embiid scoring night
Embiid’s greatness briefly seemed like it might overshadow everything else.
He scored 10 points in under five minutes, gave the Sixers a 16-6 lead with a fast-break dunk, and shot 6 for 7 from the field in the first quarter.
Those kinds of first-period stat lines are now somewhat routine for Embiid, who has so many options against anything resembling single coverage. When teams plan to throw help defenders at him on the dribble, his mid-range game often leads that idea to look worthless.
Drawing fouls is a very reliable tool for Embiid, too. He's attempted fewer than seven free throws in a game just once this year. Hernangomez stepped in when Jonas Valanciunas was called for his fourth foul early in the third quarter, and an Embiid dunk or layup on each possession felt almost inevitable over the next few minutes.
A Sixers comeback seemed unlikely by the middle of the fourth quarter, but Embiid ended the game poorly. He missed his final three shots, committed two late turnovers, and couldn't stop Williamson on a couple of switches. The Sixers ask a lot of him and against good teams like the Pelicans, dips in Embiid's level can be costly.
Essentially, Friday was a typical statistical night for Embiid this December. A 37-point performance didn't change his scoring average in the month at all.
First-half turnovers do serious damage
Turnovers were a monstrous problem for the Sixers in the first half.
Harden was bothered by Jaxson Hayes' size on switches and by Alvarado’s peskiness. After slightly over 18 minutes, the Pelicans had 23 points off of 11 Sixers turnovers and a 20-4 advantage in fast-break points. McCollum nailed three straight threes in a mere 42 seconds, suddenly stretching New Orleans’ lead to 56-40. By that point, the Sixers were backpedaling so much that half-court scheme didn’t really seem to matter.
The Sixers clearly couldn't afford to be stubborn about keeping Embiid in drop coverage against McCollum. They threw some blitzes at him in the second half and mixed up their looks, but he punished mistakes. When Melton couldn’t navigate around a Hernangomez ball screen and Embiid wasn't up high enough, McCollum made the Sixers pay with a four-point play.
In isolation, Tucker had quite a few positive moments on Williamson. He sagged off Williamson, used savvy upper-body bumps, and wasn't overwhelmed by his incredible strength. Williamson made several difficult leaners, though, and he accumulated a game-high 16 free-throw attempts through relentless rim attacks. Tucker was assessed a technical foul early in the fourth quarter when he thought he'd cleanly stripped away the ball and the officials ruled otherwise.
The Sixers cut down on their turnovers in the second half and played better transition defense, but Alvarado grabbed an Embiid miss in the fourth quarter and inexcusably went coast to coast for an unencumbered layup. He’s a player who will gleefully expose issues with focus and effort. Less than a minute later, McCollum canned his 10th three. His pull-up jumper with 2:30 to go broke New Orleans’ franchise record.
Friday was another subpar defensive showing for the Sixers — a loss in which you shoot 56 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from three-point range is generally unacceptable — but it's a game they still might have won without McCollum's brilliance. While he shot 11 for 16 from beyond the arc, his teammates went just 4 for 15.