In today's newsletter:
- About last night's 120-110 win.
- The major takeaway.
- The turning point.
- Top performances.
- Key stats.
- Stray thoughts.
- Link roundup.
The Sixers improved to 3-0 to start their five game West Coast road trip, this one a 120-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers (23-23). It was the first game of this trip that wasn't decided at the buzzer.
The win is the Sixers' fifth in their last six games, their eight in the last 10, and their 16th of the last 20. They are now 28-16 on the season and have moved to within a half game of the Milwaukee Bucks for second place in the Eastern Conference, despite the injuries they have sustained in the first half of the season.
The key takeaway
When Joel Embiid is hitting his midrange jumpers, there isn't a team in the league that's going to stop him.
Despite being a .500 team on the season, the Clippers are a good defensive squad. They move from good to excellent when both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are available, as the Clippers give up just 108.3 points per 100 possessions when George and Leonard are on the floor, per CleaningTheGlass, which ranks in the 94th percentile of all lineups, and a rate which is better than the best defensive team in the league.
Add in a big man in Ivica Zubac who at least has enough physicality to not get completely humiliated inside and that's a combination that in prior years might have frustrated Embiid, at least a little bit. But Embiid has evolved too much for those old tricks to work, and the Sixers' MVP candidate has dropped 40+ in both games against the (mostly healthy) Clippers, averaging 42.5 points and shooting 57.7% (30-52) from the field.
The development of Embiid's midrange game, along with the continued evolution of the Embiid/Harden pick-and-pop, is driving much of that. Embiid made five jumpers in the paint last night, along with two above-the-break 3s, to create much of his offense. He's getting so deep in those short rolls against Zubac that they might as well be layups for him, exploiting the biggest defensive weakness in LAC's otherwise stout starting five. Add in a version of Embiid who was a more committed rim runner in transition than we normally see and Embiid's 41 point outing seemed impressively effortless.
The Clippers tried just about everything they could to minimize the mismatch, but none of it worked. At times they tried to put a smaller player in Paul George on Embiid and switch as many actions as they could, but Embiid went to work inside. When Zubac was on him Embiid short-rolled his way to short midrange jumpers. At one point in the third the Clippers started being more aggressive in having their wings help off the Sixers' perimeter shooters to get a hand in Embiid's face, and he calmly swung the ball to Georges Niang for an open 3.
Through the first four years of Joel Embiid's career he shot just 38.7% on shots between 16' and the 3-point line, and just 40.1% on shots from 10' to 16', per Basketball-Reference. Those were shots opposing defenses were more than willing to concede, given the way Embiid could punish them down low. But over the last three years those percentages have spiked to 46.2% and 45.6%, respectively, and it's made Embiid virtually unguaradable.