WASHINGTON — The Sixers' comeback magic ran out Tuesday night.
Though the Sixers made a serious push to extend their winning streak to nine games, they fell to a 116-111 loss to the Wizards at Capital One Arena, dropping to 20-13 this season.
Joel Embiid was the night's standout by a wide margin in recording 48 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
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James Harden had 26 points and 13 assists. Kristaps Porzingis (24 points) and Bradley Beal (19 points) were Washington's top scorers.
Tyrese Maxey was the only player on either team sidelined at the beginning of Tuesday's contest with an injury. Maxey has sat out 17 consecutive games after fracturing his left foot, though Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that he’s “getting closer.” According to Rivers, Maxey participated in a scrimmage Monday with the Sixers’ low-minute players and that went well. The 22-year-old fired three-pointers following the team’s Tuesday morning shootaround.
The Sixers will end the calendar year with a road back-to-back against the Pelicans on Friday and Thunder on Saturday. Here are observations on their loss to the Wizards:
Sixers can't capitalize on big-time Embiid start
Unlike Sunday in New York, Embiid started off at his typical level and immediately made the Wizards appear seriously overmatched.
Daniel Gafford, Taj Gibson and Rui Hachimura all had trouble guarding him during a first quarter in which he posted 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Washington’s double teams weren’t nearly swift or bothersome enough. The Wizards also helped fuel the Sixers’ transition game by committing six turnovers in a little over five minutes. A scintillating Sixers highlight was wiped away after Harden pushed the ball up the floor and dropped off a between-the-legs, Magic Johnson-esque pass to Embiid, who steamrolled in for a slam. Much to the Sixers’ chagrin, Harden got called for an offensive foul.
Though the Sixers often seemed capable of taking any shot they pleased, their offensive ease didn’t translate to a first-quarter lead. Tobias Harris missed a couple of scoring chances — a fast-break layup and an open three — and the Sixers began 1 for 11 from long range as a team overall.
The Sixers have been stronger than normal the past month at maximizing the stretches in which Embiid's dominance should reflect what's on the scoreboard, but that was not the case in D.C. They shot under 20 percent from three-point range (6 for 31) for the second time this season. The first was a tight home win over the Jazz in which Embiid scored 59 points and played an all-time great regular-season game.
“I think early in the game, we knew we could score on them," Harris said. “It’s just one of those things where I think we said, ‘We can score more points than this team.’ It ended up not happening. They were able to get a flow, get a rhythm. And a team with confidence … I don’t care who you’re playing against in the NBA. Any team that has some confidence and some rhythm has the chance to beat you. Tonight, we had to learn that the hard way.”
Plan A doesn't work on defense
De’Anthony Melton opened on Beal and Matisse Thybulle checked in to assume that assignment late in the first quarter.
The team’s defense wasn’t very good during Embiid’s initial run, and it expectedly worsened once he exited and Rivers played an all-bench lineup. Montrezl Harrell did his thing as a scorer (seven points on 3-for-3 shooting in his first stint), but he picked up three quick fouls and was generally ineffective defensively. As the Sixers already understood well from their two earlier matchups against Washington this season, the Wizards have significant size advantages at several positions. That was especially pronounced when Embiid sat on the bench and the Wizards played Porzinigis. The 7-foot-3 Latvian’s jumper over Harden gave Washington a 42-32 lead.
The Wizards still looked ill-equipped to handle the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll once the five-time All-Star checked back in, but they kept on scoring. Defensive rebounding was a familiar issue for the Sixers, who allowed a third-chance Beal three and a second-chance Hachimura layup about a minute apart. The Wizards built their lead to 60-46 late in the second quarter on a top-of-the-key Porzingis three against the Sixers’ zone.
There’s essentially nothing guards at the top of a zone can do to impact that tall of a shooter. The Sixers stuck with the zone, though, which has frequently been a nice alternative for them this year, and they were relatively successful on defense in the first half’s final few minutes. However, Rivers inserted Reed for Embiid with 33.4 seconds remaining in the second period, presumably wanting to ensure Embiid didn't get a third foul. A blatant miscommunication left Beal wide open for a three, and he drained it to put Washington back up 11 points.
Rivers didn't see size as a valid excuse for the Sixers again falling behind in the first half and again having defensive rebounding struggles.
“I don’t think rebounding comes from size," he said. “I think rebounding comes from keeping the ball in front of you. And when you keep the ball in front of you, then your big is on a big. If you’re getting beat off the dribble every single time, then your bigs are going to help and now their bigs have a guard. Then you do get small.
“I thought in the second half they didn’t drive as much and they didn’t get as many offensive rebounds. Same thing in the Knicks game. But if we’re going to get beat off the dribble, then offensive rebounds are going to be a problem. We’ve got to contain the ball better than we did tonight.”
Comeback not in the cards
The Wizards also used plenty of zone Tuesday night and the Sixers played a couple of hesitant, excessively unselfish possessions early in the third quarter.
P.J. Tucker passed up a close-range opportunity late in the shot clock and the Sixers subbed him out 2:13 into the third. Tucker has said he’s playing through a “pinched nerve” and “dead hand,” and that certainly looked problematic Tuesday.
Tucker eventually headed to the locker room at the start of the fourth quarter and didn't return to the game. He was not available to speak with reporters postgame and the Sixers had no official update to offer on his status.
“He got a stinger," Rivers said. “I could see it right when it happened. So I think it’s a stinger. I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to linger, but I didn’t check, so I’ll find that out.”
Meanwhile, Embiid didn't score in the first half of the third quarter and went 0 for 4 from the floor to begin the second half. Without his usual production, the Sixers fell behind 15 points. For better and for worse, the Sixers' self-belief in those kinds of situations has grown lately after they came back from a 20-point deficit Friday vs. the Clippers and a 14-point deficit Sunday against the Knicks. Harden and Embiid each made aggressive, impressive plays on both ends of the court during an immediate Sixers run in response.
Neither Tucker nor Embiid were on the bench to begin the fourth period, though any physical issues for Embiid did not contribute to diminished impact. Embiid had gone down hard after biting on a Gibson pump fake late in the third quarter, but he rose with a grimace, stayed in the game, and later jogged back out of the tunnel to play the final seven minutes and change. Embiid said after the game that he was “good" physically.
While not flawless, Embiid was again excellent for much of his time in the fourth. The Sixers put themselves in a position where near-perfection was required, though. Down 111-108 in the game's last minute, the team probed the defense for most of the shot clock but didn't manage a clean attempt. Embiid pump faked a three from the left wing and had the ball stripped away by Deni Avdija on his drive.
“It was all on me," Embiid said. “I had a bad last two minutes. That was on me.”
After two Monte Morris free throws, Georges Niang saw a long-distance try go in and out. Embiid hit a triple with 6.0 seconds left to extend the game, but his individual brilliance ultimately was insufficient for the first time in a rather long time.
“Listen, it would’ve been great to steal the game tonight, but they deserved it so much more than us," Rivers said. “They played so much harder. Really, I was just disappointed with how we approached the game tonight.”