With the Sixers 12-12, preparing for a seven-game homestand and coping with constant injury concerns, head coach Doc Rivers certainly wasn’t guaranteeing anything.
“If we were all intact, it would be one that you’d say, ‘Let’s win ‘em all.’ We’re still in that game-to-game phase until we get our guys back intact,” Rivers said on Dec. 7.
Well, the Sixers won ‘em all.
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They’re not fully healthy yet — Tyrese Maxey remains out with a left foot fracture, though Rivers said Friday night he’s “close” to returning — but the team just played perhaps its best half of the season. Led by Joel Embiid (44 points) and James Harden (20 points, career-high 21 assists, 11 rebounds), the Sixers erased a 20-point deficit to beat the Clippers. When their Christmas Day game tips off at Madison Square Garden, they’ll be fifth in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the Knicks and three behind the No. 1 Celtics.
What changed in the second half Friday?
“We just actually started playing,” Tobias Harris said. “Our defense was awful. Offensively, we were slow, sluggish. Once we were able to actually get some stops, get out and run, get some momentum, get the crowd into the game and create some energy, that was all she wrote right there. We just needed to get going. We had some life to the game.”
While the Sixers’ defense was indeed not sparkling before halftime, they haven't lapsed much on that end of the floor. They’re second in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
That statistic might be skewed a bit by stretches against opponents on their way to sizable losses in Philadelphia like the Hornets (18-point defeat), Kings (20) and Pistons (20). Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time, has the Sixers fourth in defensive rating. Of course, it would make little sense to discredit the Sixers’ defense because the team has recently accumulated several decisive wins.
“I feel like it’s overlooked, but it’s fine,” Embiid said. “We’ve been doing our job. Everybody on the team has been following what they need to do. Guys coming back from injury and everybody buying in, that’s been the key. Everybody buying in, everybody being on the same page, everybody just being physical. My job obviously is just to control everything, whether it’s to protect the rim or call out plays.
“That’s what we’ve got to keep doing. We’ve got a long way to go before actually being the best defense in the league. But being second is not bad.”
Harden has also been doing his job very well for the Sixers. Few players in the league are capable these days of outshining Embiid, but Harden’s fantastic point-guard play Friday grabbed a good chunk of deserved attention. The Sixers now have the NBA’s leader in both points per game (Embiid’s 33.0) and assists per game (Harden’s 10.9).
The 33-year-old tied Maurice Cheeks and Wilt Chamberlain for the Sixers’ single-game franchise record.
“A lot of people can’t transform their game, if you want to call it that," Harden said. “If you’re a scorer, there’s only a handful of guys that can still score the basketball but (also) just be a really good facilitator. So that’s a credit to the amount of work I’ve put in, my feel, my IQ, and going out there and just being a playmaker again.
“I’ve always been a playmaker, but in other scenarios I had to score a lot more. So that’s one of the reasons why I’m here, and it’s working well. Just trying to keep being aggressive. I think my aggressiveness allows my playmaking to work.”
Back in November, Rivers said, “High clarity equals high performance.” It’s a basic, almost self-evident concept, but that phrase again seems pertinent as the Sixers’ stars learn more about what works (and what doesn't) against different defensive schemes.
Heading into the game, they knew Clippers big man Ivica Zubac would play drop coverage and Embiid could feast in the mid-range.
“It’s great,” Rivers said of Harden and Embiid’s chemistry. “And tonight they had a big in Zu, so they didn’t want to switch that, right? We went into the game where we had a pretty good idea of who to attack in pick-and-roll. Zu, even though he’s a hell of a defender, it allows our guards to go down. And then (Luke) Kennard. We knew where we wanted to go with the ball tonight. I thought that in the second half really showed its head.”
Rivers himself had a strong second half, too. He’s faced fair criticism at times for inflexibility, but Rivers struck a nice balance between making logical tweaks and not doing anything desperate. Using Harris alongside Harden with his second-unit players, playing Paul Reed over Montrezl Harrell, and trapping Kawhi Leonard and Paul George late in the fourth quarter were all effective moves.
Harden said Rivers is “allowing me to just be me. Run the team, run the show.”
Unlike those aforementioned cruise-control wins, the Sixers had significant stress Friday in the closing minutes. The Sixers’ finish was steadier than their late-game meltdown in a wild overtime win over the Lakers to start the homestand, but they committed a few costly fouls. In a little over a minute, the Clippers turned a 117-108 deficit with 90 seconds left into a three-point game.
Fortunately, Leonard missed a free throw, Harden sealed his triple-double with the defensive rebound, and the Sixers ultimately got a win that they truly earned.
“That’s a good team right there,” Embiid said. “They’ve got all the talent in the world, from starting five to guys coming off the bench. They’re probably the favorites to come out of the West based on what they have. And Kawhi, I’m sure he’s still on a minute restriction, but he’s been doing it for so many years. Having played against him in the playoffs — especially in the playoffs — he just turns into freaking Michael Jordan. When you’ve got a guy like that, you’ve got a good chance.
“So for us to come back from down 20 or whatever that was, that’s big-time for us. That just shows that we’re staying together, we trust each other, and we know what we have to do. We started off the game soft, especially defensively. And as soon as we turned it up, it changed the whole game.”
As Harris said, the Sixers started playing in the second half. And that version of the team has absolutely looked worth watching.
“Especially the way we started the season, the NBA wanted to get us off Christmas,” Harris said with a laugh. “But they stuck with us, so here we are.”