3 observations after stars' injury scares, Sixers' win over Lakers

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The game after winning despite zero points from their All-Stars, the Sixers received 54 combined points from Joel Embiid and James Harden.

That pair returned Wednesday night in Los Angeles and the Sixers improved to 45-27 with a 126-121 win over a Lakers team without LeBron James (left knee soreness/effusion), Anthony Davis (right mid-foot sprain) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise).

Embiid posted 30 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Harden went for 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Both stars had injury scares (details below) but finished the first outing of the Sixers' three-game road trip without issue. 

Tyrese Maxey recorded 21 points and Tobias Harris added 20. 

Dwight Howard scored 24 points, his most in a game since Dec. 16, 2018. Russell Westbrook had 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. 

The Sixers will stay in Los Angeles and play the Clippers on Friday night. Here are observations on their win over the Lakers: 

Embiid against Howard, small ball 

Embiid began the game facing Howard, his backup last season. When the Sixers visited Los Angeles last year, the 36-year-old was ejected in consecutive games.

Howard avoided that fate Wednesday night, though he did pick up a first-quarter technical after expressing disagreement with his second personal foul. Embiid scored 10 points in the opening period and also set Maxey up for a three-pointer when he blocked Howard’s layup attempt, led the fast break, and tossed the ball to the 21-year-old in the corner.

When Howard exited and the Lakers turned to small ball, the Sixers put Embiid on Stanley Johnson, who tied his season high of three made three-pointers during the first quarter. Johnson started 5 for 5 from the floor and enabled the Lakers to initially knock off some of the 30 points per game James provides. 

The Lakers mixed in zone defense and Embiid earned a deep catch against it late in the second quarter. Johnson grabbed Embiid instead of conceding a layup and the five-time All-Star then immediately held his lower back, a somewhat worrisome sight given his recent back soreness. Embiid missed the ensuing free throws and grimaced several times over the next few minutes. He helped the Sixers take a nine-point halftime lead but again reached for his back as soon as the second-quarter buzzer sounded.

Embiid’s durability is not a constant concern the way it was early in his career. Before sitting out the Sixers’ victory Monday over Miami, he’d played in 49 of their last 51 games. Still, his health isn’t a sure thing. Though the Sixers have excellent shorthanded wins and now have another All-Star on their roster in Harden, caution remains necessary and warranted with Embiid. It’s hard to imagine the Sixers making a deep playoff run with anyone besides Embiid at center. 

Neither Embiid nor the Sixers were at their peak Wednesday, but that didn't matter. He played 34 minutes, seemed to move fine in the second half, and notched another 30-point game without much apparent difficulty. 

Star-less minutes by choice 

The Sixers played DeAndre Jordan in a lineup with Maxey, Harris, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz early in the second quarter. The unit had an ineffective start and a Malik Monk three built the Lakers’ lead to 39-32.

That was as good as the night got for Los Angeles, though. Korkmaz’s baseline jumper cut the Sixers’ deficit to 41-40. After an 18-point game against Miami, Korkmaz stayed in the Sixers' full-strength, 10-man rotation and scored six points on 3-for-4 shooting. Georges Niang shifted from a starting role back to the bench and sunk three long-distance shots in the first quarter. 

The Sixers' second unit didn't look particularly steady in the second half, but Maxey hit a big three early in the fourth to make the Sixers' advantage 98-93.

As an outside shooter, his leap in effectiveness obviously stands out most — after going 30.1 percent from three-point range last year, he now sits at 41.7 percent — but Maxey's expanded variety is also a big deal. In transition off the catch and off the dribble; punishing defenders wary of his speed and driving ability; catching and shooting in the corners or from the wings; contested, step-back, clutch jumpers. All of that seems comfortable for Maxey, which is truly difficult to fathom for a player not regarded as an especially strong shooter after his single college season.

We'll see whether head coach Doc Rivers further experiments with lineups that feature zero All-Stars. Perhaps Maxey can make those viable in some instances. 

Not the worst-case scenario with Harden 

Following a 2-for-10 first half from the floor, Harden found a scoring groove in the third quarter.

He posted 16 points in the period, including two driving hoops and a step-back three over Howard. He also sunk a long-range floater, a shot we’ve seen him work on with Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell. Though Harden likes to seek contact in the paint, it would be great for the Sixers if his floater is an efficient alternative option in the postseason. 

When Harden went down in pain and held his right leg after a drive late in the third quarter, it appeared the game's result might become practically irrelevant. However, he eventually headed to the bench and returned in the fourth quarter. Clearly, it's vital for the Sixers that Harden is at or close to 100 percent for the playoffs. That's still on the table after a brief moment of potential doubt. 

Harden told reporters after the game that he was kneed in the quad and hoped to be ready to play Friday, per The Philadelphia Inquirer's Gina Mizell. 

Harden was among the Sixers' defenders on Westbrook, who committed seven turnovers. The Sixers only had seven as a team. 

Maxey committed just one. For the second straight game, he was central to the Sixers cementing a win as he scored five straight points on a scoop off the backboard and three-pointer to stretch the team's lead to 114-105. He's an extraordinarily good-natured personality, but Maxey's shown that he enjoys slamming the door shut on opponents. 

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