3 observations after Sixers come back, escape with win over Kings

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The Sixers avoided an ugly loss Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center, coming back to earn their fourth straight victory. They escaped with a 103-101 win over the Kings, improving to 30-19.

Harrison Barnes missed a potential game-winning three-pointer for Sacramento at the buzzer.

Joel Embiid scored 25 or more points for a 17th straight game, recording 36 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton played an outstanding game, posting a career-high 38 points and seven assists. 

Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox was out with left ankle soreness. Shake Milton has been sidelined since suffering a back contusion on Jan. 3. 

The penultimate game of the Sixers’ five-game homestand is Monday against the Grizzlies. Here are observations on their win Saturday:

Curry returns, Sixers struggle with turnovers 

For the third consecutive game, the Sixers got a key player back from injury as Seth Curry started after a four-game absence with left ankle soreness. Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle had returned the two outings prior.

Curry exhibited expected rust early, committing a turnover and missing one of the pull-up jumpers he’s drained so often this season. Sacramento took a 9-4 lead on back-to-back Barnes threes.

Turnovers were a major issue for the Sixers; they gave the ball away nine times within the first 14 minutes. Sacramento’s first turnover didn’t come until 5:28 left in the second quarter. As a team, the Sixers made many rushed decisions whenever the Kings' defense swarmed.  

Curry hit his first basket of the game on a trailing transition three assisted by Tobias Harris, knotting the game at 13-all. He had a tough defensive assignment to start against the 6-foot-5 Haliburton, while Tyrese Maxey guarded the 6-foot rookie Davion Mitchell.

The Sixers tried to flip that matchup at one point, but there are some defensive weak spots difficult to scheme around with the team’s first-choice backcourt of Maxey and Curry. Haliburton kept the game suspenseful until the final seconds with supreme shotmaking.

With Curry off the floor, Haliburton cut the Sixers' edge to 103-101 on a very difficult corner three with 11.1 seconds to go. The Sixers committed a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play, setting up Sacramento's unsuccessful final possession.

Though Curry shot 3 for 10 from the field, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers liked his night overall.

“I thought he kind of just let the game come to him instead of trying to force action," Rivers said. “He kind of let it come, he got his wind, he got his rhythm, and then he started playing. I thought that was very smart in the way he approached the game tonight.”

Kings more ready to play on weird day 

When the Sixers fall behind to opponents that are inferior on paper, transition defense is a common issue.

Relatedly, the Sixers can’t usually afford to give away as many possessions as they did in the first half. They’ve been a middling team in terms of forcing turnovers, so the margin of error with sloppiness generally isn’t high. 

The lead-up to Saturday’s game wasn’t typical. The Sixers canceled shootaround because of the snow in the Philadelphia area, and the Flyers game in the afternoon prevented them from holding a normal pregame walkthrough. The circumstances were essentially identical for both teams, though. No good excuses for such a rough start at home against a team that entered with five straight losses (and Fox out). 

The Sixers went down as many as 17 points in the second quarter and trailed by 11 at halftime. Frustration was plentiful from players and fans alike. It’s become normal for Embiid to push the Sixers through whatever adversity they might face. On Saturday, Sacramento held off the five-time All-Star and the Sixers longer than anyone anticipated. 

With not much to play for, the Halliburton-led Kings showed greater focus than the Sixers in the first half. And once the Kings grabbed a lead, they gained confidence that a surprising win was possible. 

“It’s the NBA, so everybody’s talented, everybody’s skilled," Maxey said. “That team plays free. They play free and they play at a fast pace. They jumped out early. … Basketball’s always been a game of runs at any level, honestly. We just weathered the storm.

“We kept saying, ‘Weather the storm, weather the storm.’ Danny Green kept saying, ‘Cut it by six before this timeout. Cut it by eight by this timeout. OK, boom — take the lead, go up four right here.’ Just little nuggets like that, the game within the game. And then you go out there and you end up victorious.”

Embiid (and Maxey) attack in second half 

Sacramento sent immediate double teams on Embiid post catches and helped opportunistically when the big man was in the middle of the floor, too.

Though the Kings have been one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams over the past two seasons, they guarded Embiid well in the first half. He only managed two first-quarter points and missed his first four field goals. 

Sacramento’s physicality was especially effective. Embiid took 12 free throws before halftime, but he didn’t draw several whistles he thought he’d earned and clearly had trouble settling into a rhythm. Unlike most games during his tremendous run since December, he didn’t seem to have all the time in the world. 

Maxey (13 points, seven assists) bailed out Embiid early in the third quarter by jumping high to catch a cross-court pass and then hitting a runner that cut the Kings’ lead to 62-52. Embiid trimmed the deficit to single digits with a driving, and-one layup, though he grimaced and grabbed the back of his neck after the play. 

“I'm doing good," Embiid said. “After the and-one, I went into Tyrese (Haliburton) and kind of snapped it a little bit, but I’m fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Overall, Embiid was in an aggressive, ticked-off mood after intermission, determined to plow through contact and reach the rim. He got some timely scoring assistance from Green and Georges Niang, who nailed consecutive threes to make it 79-76 Kings. Embiid maintained the momentum with an and-one hoop to tie the game at 81 apiece. 

“Just being aggressive," he said. “Obviously they doubled and tripled me all over the floor, whether I was in the post or at the three-point (line) — and they just kept coming and coming and coming. So I think the difference in the second half was to just get deeper position, and then also attack off the dribble."

Maxey stepped up with Embiid on the bench to start the fourth, feeding Andre Drummond for a go-ahead basket and turning a steal into a fast-break layup. He extended the Sixers' advantage to 93-87 with a three once Embiid checked back in, too.

As anyone who's followed the Sixers this year knows, Maxey wants the ball and a chance to make game-turning plays when things are tight. It's a great trait, even if it doesn't always mean he'll be the hero. Against Sacramento, his second-half contributions were pivotal.

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