3 observations after Sixers score 80 in first half, blow out Kings


With the defending champions the next team in town, the Sixers improved to 3-0 on their homestand Tuesday night.

They earned a 123-103 win over the Kings in their third game of seven in a row at Wells Fargo Center. The Warriors will visit Friday night. 

Joel Embiid had 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting. 

James Harden put together a 21-point, 15-assist, five-steal performance. Tobias Harris scored 21 points and handed out nine assists. 

Domantas Sabonis’ 22 points and 10 rebounds led Sacramento. 

The Sixers were down Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture), Danuel House Jr. (left foot laceration) and De’Anthony Melton (back stiffness). Kings big man Alex Len was out with a non-COVID illness. 

Melton, who’d started 12 straight games and appeared in 13 straight, has had a bothersome back for over a month. House sat out a third consecutive contest despite being officially listed as probable for most of the day and taking jumpers both after shootaround and about two hours before tip-off. 

Here are observations on the 15-12 Sixers' blowout victory Tuesday:

Routine Embiid dominance early 

The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week again began the game like a player fully capable of scoring 53 points. Embiid drained a fadeaway jumper on the Sixers’ opening possession and posted the team’s first six points. 

Sacramento’s initial game plan was to send hard help at Embiid off the dribble, but that approach allowed Embiid time to survey the floor, identify driving angles, and draw contact. Sabonis and No. 4 overall pick Keegan Murray each picked up two early fouls. A little over two minutes after entering, Neemias Queta had three. 

Embiid recorded 16 first-quarter points and attempted nine free throws in under eight minutes. His efforts to punish Sacramento before the Kings’ defense could set up were impressive. Harden threw a nice pass ahead to Embiid, who hustled down the court, got a deep paint touch, and laid the ball in through contact. Embiid later started a fast break by blocking a Davion Mitchell floater, and he then dished to Harris for a dunk that gave the Sixers a 29-21 advantage. 

Embiid only had two of the Sixers' season-high 34 assists, but he clearly cared about deferring to teammates and keeping everyone involved following yet another huge first quarter as a scorer. 

“It’s not always about scoring," he said after the game. “Half of the time, I don’t feel like scoring; I don’t want to score. I want to make sure the ball is always moving. That’s been one of my jobs, and that’s how we need to play. ... For us to win, we need to move the ball and we need to play together. And obviously (Harden is) doing a fantastic job just getting everybody else easy shots.”

Harris steps up, does strong job on Fox 

Matisse Thybulle’s start did not go as the Sixers envisioned. He was called for two fouls within 37 seconds.

Though Thybulle was undoubtedly the Sixers’ most nimble defender with Melton out, the team played decent transition defense and prevented De’Aaron Fox from an early outburst. P.J. Tucker pumped his fist after he hung with the speedy guard on a drive and stripped the ball off his leg and out of bounds. 

Harris was the Sixers’ next man up on Fox and did very solid work. He was diligent about sticking to Fox’s body without being excessively aggressive, and he took smart angles on the ball to avoid presenting Fox any inviting lanes. Rust was likely a factor for Fox, who’d missed the past two games because of right foot soreness, and the Sixers benefited from Sacramento having a woeful night from three-point range (10 for 42). Still, Harris deserves credit for how he handled the Fox matchup, as well as his improved defensive versatility overall since joining the Sixers.

Head coach Doc Rivers said the Sixers didn't know Melton and House would each be unavailable until late in the day, which forced the team to adjust. He liked the idea of Harris' size on Fox and appreciated his veteran forward's performance.

“Just to present my length and size by bothering him, make some of those looks a little different," Harris said of his approach to guarding Fox. “Obviously he’s one of the fastest — if not the fastest — player in the NBA, so just stay in front and be able to present my length. … Outside of that, it was really our whole group getting back on defense. We know they’re a team that gets out in transition and can run, so we had to get back.”

Thybulle has seen a significant increase in Harris' defensive commitment over time. 

“He continues to surprise me. You know Tobias cares about defense when he starts sitting down (in a stance), putting his hands down," Thybulle said with a laugh. “That’s something he would never do, and now I swear every single game I see him do it a handful of times where they’re bringing the ball down and he’s really deep into a stance. It means something to him. He’s a talented enough player athletically and mentally to be able to adjust and make these transitions.”

Offensively, Harris also had quite a strong first period and notched 14 points. When Harris shows zero hesitation putting up long-range jumpers, his pump fakes and downhill drives unsurprisingly tend to appear a touch more effective. 

The Sixers’ one major weakness in the first half was defensive rebounding. Sacramento had 14 second-chance points in the game’s first 13 minutes. However, the Sixers mitigated that problem by being far more productive than the Kings in the open floor. They posted 15 of the evening’s first 17 fast-break points.  

Harden in a zone 

It’s always encouraging for the Sixers to see a lead balloon when Embiid sits.

That happened Tuesday early in the second quarter. While Montrezl Harrell was the one member of the Sixers’ nine-man rotation to go scoreless, Harden found a groove with him on the court, knocking down back-to-back three-pointers. Tucker also hit a couple of threes in the second. Thybulle chipped in 15 points on the night (six of them in garbage time) for his first double-figure scoring game of the season.

The Kings in the second quarter looked like a team resigned to defeat and thinking ahead to their game Wednesday in Toronto. The Sixers had wide-open spaces all over the floor and Harden pounced on Sacramento’s lack of energy. He was eager to turn defense into offense and extremely efficient at it. A smooth, buzzer-beating three from Harden gave the Sixers 80 first-half points and the 10-time All-Star a halftime stat line of 17 points, 10 assists, five steals and three rebounds. That shot also moved Harden past Sixers great Charles Barkley into 27th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Allen Iverson is 26th. 

“For me individually, I just try to pick up the pace and get the ball up as fast as we can, and just create opportunities before Joel gets down there," Harden said. “Once he gets down there, we all kind of know what to do. I think guys are doing a really good job of just moving their bodies, finding open spots, and then I’m just trying to hit them on target.”

Both Harden and the Sixers did not come close to maintaining their first-half standard out of intermission. Kevin Huerter ripped the ball from Harden, leading to a Sabonis layup that cut the Kings’ deficit to 20 points. After a successful challenge overturned Sabonis’ fifth foul, the Kings continued to make inroads. With Harden complaining in the backcourt about not getting a foul call, Malik Monk made a corner three. A Monk lay-in trimmed the Sixers’ lead down to 15.

Eventually, the Sixers summoned the necessary focus to erase the thought of a nervy finish. Harden converted a tough runner and assisted one of Georges Niang’s four made threes with a high-velocity skip pass from the mid-post. Harrell took a charge and also blocked a Monk layup, which fueled a Sixers fast break that Harris punctuated with a big slam. Shake Milton (14 points) drilled a corner three and Rivers was able to let his stars watch from the bench for around half a quarter. 

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