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Sixers defeat Clippers in best game of the Harden, Embiid era

Joel Embiid and James Harden played better than they ever have together as the Sixers extended their winning streak to seven games.

In today's newsletter:

  • About last night's win.
  • Key stats.
  • Stray thoughts on the game.
  • Quotes and press conference audio.
  • Stats from the 7 game winning streak.
  • Link roundup.

The Philadelphia 76ers started this seven game homestand off in frustrating fashion, with a near-collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers that was not exactly the most reassuring response to the uninspired three-game losing streak that preceded it.

But over the course of this two-week stint in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center the Sixers slowly, but steadily, found their footing. Initially that meant workmanlike wins against overmatched competition. Those were praiseworthy performances, since taking care of business against the Charlotte and Detroit's of the world is a required characteristic for teams who wish to solidify themselves as NBA contenders. But the performances didn't do much to signify one way or the other whether the Sixers could hold up against the elite teams they'd have to topple if they wished to make a deep playoff run.

Prior to last night it was the consistency of the Sixers' performances that was notable, not really the presence of any signature win.

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If the Sixers impressed with their consistency over the first six games of the homestand, they built upon that by showing off their high-end upside last night. The Clippers came into the game having won five of their last six games, with an 8-2 record on the season in the rare instances that both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were available. They have a +21.8 net rating when their two stars share the floor, with a defensive rating of just 94.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 100th percentile leaguewide, per CleaningTheGlass. They've been elite together.

And the Clippers looked every bit of elite in the first half, when they raced out to a 58-38 lead with 3:37 left in the second quarter. The Clippers were shooting 64% from the field up to that point, including 9-16 from 3. The Sixers, by contrast, had just 38 points on 40 field goal attempts, futility which was even more pronounced when you consider that Embiid had 19 points on 13 shots, and the rest of his teammates had just 19 points on 8-27 shooting from the field, to that point.

The Sixers closed the half on a mini 13-5 run, which not only cut the lead to 12 but picked up the mood heading into the locker room. They then came out and played one of the best, if not the best, halves of basketball they've played all season.

Prior to this winning streak the narrative around the team, including from yours truly, was how Harden and Embiid didn't look in sync at all, and how when they did win it was mostly due to their overpowering talent level and individual brilliance. But their ability to mesh their skill sets into a collective whole was well behind schedule, and that any ability to contend against the best teams in the league required them to make up that ground.

This homestand as a whole, and last night in particular, was perhaps the best example of the upside of the Embiid/Harden tandem that we have seen to date. Not only was it against a world-class defense, but one that has the personnel to afford them with real diversity in their defensive schemes.

But the Sixers picked them apart with surgical precision in the second half, showing off their own offensive diversity in the process. When the Clippers played Zubac in a drop, the Sixers went to the Embiid/Harden pick-and-roll and Embiid calmly sank silky smooth midrange jumpers over the outstretched arms of Los Angeles' 7-foot center. When the Clippers went small and tried to switch everything, the Sixers ran their offense through Embiid at the elbow, letting him operate in the facilitator role that he's increasingly grown comfortable in.

When all was said and done Embiid dropped 44 points on 18-30 shooting, and Harden set a new career-high (and tied the franchise record) for 21 assists on the night.

The precision of the Sixers' offensive attack down the stretch was very encouraging to see, and it seems like the team is finally building the identity that they were missing to start the season.

On last night's win

Box score

Key stats

  • After shooting 61% from the field and 10-19 from 3 in the first half, the Clippers shot just 40% overall, and 4-19 from 3, after intermission.
  • Paul George shot just 1-8 from the field for 8 points when defended by De'Anthony Melton.
  • Over half (57.1%) of the Sixers' jumpers were catch-and-shoot Js last night, compared to just 46% for the Clippers, highlighting the differences in how the two teams create their shots.
  • The Sixers actually won the rebounding battle, grabbing 24.4% of their available offensive rebounds, compared to 15% for the Clippers. It is just the 3rd time that has happened in the month of December, per CleaningTheGlass.
  • In another rarity, the Sixers won the transition game 16-10. LAC actually averaged more points per 100 plays in the half-court, per CTG, at 110.8 to 106.0. But winning the rebounding and turnover battles, even by relatively small margins, helped the Sixers overcome that. Usually, that script is reversed.

Stray thoughts

  • Harden was really struggling as a scorer early, starting the game shooting just 3-10 from the field. Those struggles hurt the Sixers, not only because they left points on the board that the struggling Sixers desperately needed to remain close, but also because it created some transition opportunities for the Clippers, which they capitalized on.
  • I commented on Twitter (and received deserved pushback) that Harden played a poor first half. That was a poorly worded tweet on my part. He struggled as a scorer, but the process on most of those shot attempts was mostly sound, and his floor game was excellent.
  • What makes Harden such a great passer is that he's able to combine elite vision and creativity with good timing. Some of the over-the-shoulder passes he made (once to Embiid, who had a defender sealed off inside early in the shot clock, and another gorgeous one to Tobias Harris to end the first half) were incredible. But 11 of his assists were also to Joel Embiid, and few of them were of the highlight reel variety. That doesn't mean they weren't impressive in their own right, though, as his timing on the passes, on when he had the defense just far enough out of position, was on point.
  • The combination of PJ Tucker not scoring, not playing at all in the 4th quarter, and Kawhi Leonard going off is going to lead to more PJ Tucker debate over the coming days. But I thought Tucker's defense was fine for most of the night, and Kawhi was just in one of those zones where if Kawhi's shot wasn't blocked, then his shot wasn't altered. The Sixers started trapping late in the game, hoping that the Clippers' perimeter shooters wouldn't make them pay for doing so, and that was probably their only chance of slowing Leonard down when he's that locked in.
  • The Sixers got good minutes from virtually everyone last night. Shake Milton continues to give them a spark by pushing the ball in transition and scoring in early offense.  De'Anthony Melton was incredible defensively down the stretch. Georges Niang shot 3-5 from 3 and Paul Reed gave them some good minutes in the 4th, in a matchup that really didn't favor Montrezl Harrell at all. And credit to Doc Rivers for adjusting in the second half, as he veered away from both the all-bench lineup that struggled in the first half, and also didn't go back to Montrezl Harrell when the Clippers went small.


  • "I didn't think we played with any pace in the first half. Zero physicality...I thought in the second half we got up and pressured the ball up the floor, we made (their) catches harder, they were later in the clock, we got misses and it allowed us to play." – Doc Rivers, on the halftime adjustments.
  • "This is a generational scorer that has taken to, and decided to be, a point guard, who still scores, but to be a point guard for this team. That's hard to do. A lot of people, most people, can't do that, or will not do it is a better way of saying it. The fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, is huge for us." – Rivers, on James Harden's mindset.
  • "I think his arm, or something. Nothing bad. We were going to go smaller, with more spacing, anyway at that point." – Rivers, on PJ Tucker not playing in the fourth quarter.
  • "We went into the game where we kinda had a pretty good idea who to attack in pick-and-rolls...We knew where we wanted to go with the ball tonight. I thought that, in the second half, really showed its head." – Rivers on their strategy in the pick-and-roll.
  • "We can't have enough of these...These games are good for us. Every one we get in we learn something." – Rivers, on executing in close games down the stretch.
  • "I've always been a playmaker, but other scenarios I had to score a lot more. So that's one of the reasons why I'm here. It's working well. Just gotta keep being aggressive. I think my aggressiveness allows my playmaking to happen." – James Harden, on his career-high 21 assists.
  • "I wish somebody would have told me that, I would have tried to get 22. Or I would have gotten pissed at one of my teammates for missing a layup or easy shot." – Harden, joking about tying the franchise record for 21 assists in a game.
  • "That's some great company. Mo Cheeks was one of my coaches in OKC, and then Wilt, I feel like he has every record. So just being in the conversation with some of the best basketball players to ever touch a basketball is always a blessing." – Harden, on tying the franchise record for assists in a game.
  • "We did a really good job. It didn't matter who we played against. We took every opponent serious. We focused on ourselves." – Harden, on the seven game winning streak.
  • "It was a good test for us. They caught us in that first half. The second half we picked up our defensive intensity, got out in transition and it made the game a lot easier for us." – Harden, on the second-half turnaround.
  • "They do a really good job of switching, so I tried to press the paint and tried to find matchups that work in our advantage to make the game easier for all of us." – Harden, on his approach against the Clippers.
  • "He makes my life easier, and I sure hope I do the same for him. I think being down 20 early in the game, we had to be more involved in getting things done. It was a team effort." – Joel Embiid, on James Harden's passing, and on the comeback.
  • "We needed to go on a run, especially with seven games at home and a lot of days off in-between. We took care of business. It's all about maintaining and keep doing it, especially when we go on the road." – Embiid, on the success of this homestand.
  • "That's a good team right there. They got all the talent in the world, from the starting five to guys coming off the bench. They're probably the favorites to come out of of the West...(To) come back down 20, that's big-time for us. That just shows that we stayed 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." – Embiid, on the comeback.

Press Conference audio

Stats from the 7 game homestand
  • The Sixers have averaged 116.3 points per 100 possessions over this seven game homestand/winning streak, the 6th best offense in the league over that stretch.
  • They have allowed just 104.3 points per 100, the third best defense during that span.
  • Their +12.0 net rating is the third highest in the league, behind the Memphis Grizzlies (4-2, +13.5 net rating) and their next opponent, the New York Knicks (!) (6-2, +12.1).
  • The Sixers outshot opponents from the 3-point line 40.3% (2nd best) to 32.4% (4th lowest) over that stretch, scoring an average of 8.7 more points per game from behind the 3-point line during this seven game winning streak.
  • Joel Embiid is averaging 35.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists during this stretch, shooting 55.9% from the field, 52.6% from 3 and 90.9% from the free-throw line.
  • James Harden's averaging 12.7 assists per night during the run, and is making 40% of his 7.1 3-point attempts per night. Overall, he has a line of 20.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 12.7 assists per night over this winning streak.
  • Over the last seven games, the Sixers have both the league's leading scorer (Embiid, 35.7 per game. Next up: SGA at 33.3) and leading setup man (Harden, 12.7. Next up: Trae Young at 11.4).
  • The Sixers have six players who attempted at least 2.5 3-pointers per game over this stretch. All six of them are shooting at least 38.9% from deep during the run, with five of the six shooting over 40% from 3.
  • The Sixers have actually been (kind of) decent on the defensive glass during this stretch, with the 18th best defensive rebounding rate over the last seven games. Okay, mid-pack isn't necessarily something to write home about, but it's more competitive than they've been for most of the season.
  • The Sixers are second in the league at forcing turnovers over the last seven games.
  • They've actually taken the sixth fewest midrange shots over the last seven games, and the second most corner 3s. By contrast, they've forced teams into taking the most long midrange jumpers during this run.
  • Overall, you can make the case that the Sixers are both outperforming their expected FG% (and that opponents are also underperforming), but it's also true that the Sixers are doing a better job of creating high-value shots (and denying high-value ones to their opponents). Shooting variance luck does not deny that the process which led to those shots is trending in the right direction.
  • Opponents are still running a lot in transition (30.7% of the time off of live-ball defensive rebounds), but that's at least respectable (20th in the league), not disastrous like it was to start the season. This is sort of like the rebounding "credit" given above: you're really just hoping they're competitive in this respect, and they've been more competitive lately.
Link roundup

Sixers writers

($) Gina Mizell, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Perhaps Embiid was simply doing his best James Harden impression. The All-NBA center’s dash of flair complemented a night when Harden provided the steadiest dose of assists in his future Hall of Fame career, notching 21 as part of his first triple-double of the season to engineer the Sixers’ improbable turnaround to win, 119-114, Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center to complete a perfect 7-0 homestand."

($) Keith Pompey, Philadelphia Inquirer: "This victory enabled the Sixers (19-12) to go 7-0 during their homestand. However, Friday’s victory over the Clippers (19-15) revealed that the Sixers’ winning streak wasn’t just the result of facing below .500 teams. It showed that they’re actually starting to live up to their preseason billing as an Eastern Conference contender."

Kyle Neubeck, PhillyVoice: "This was one of the more complete offensive games Embiid has played this season, and that's in a year where he has had a couple of the best games he has ever played. It never felt like the Clippers were able to settle into a defensive rhythm against him. Every time they tried to overplay or anticipate him setting up at one spot on the floor, Embiid managed to hurt them from somewhere else."

($) Rich Hofmann, The Athletic: "The Sixers utilized their role players to adjust the rotation. Georges Niang replaced a banged-up P.J. Tucker down the stretch, providing shooting but bumping Harris over the Leonard duty on defense. Melton handled George for most of the evening, holding him to 7-of-18 shooting. Shake Milton shot 5 of 5 from the field in the second half. He’s proving that he’s the rare role player who can mercilessly hunt and isolate against weaker defenders, as he did against Luke Kennard on Friday."

Noah Levick, NBC Sports Philadelphia: "The Sixers made the logical call to target the Embiid vs. Ivica Zubac matchup. The middle of the floor was a clear soft spot with Zubac in drop coverage and Embiid exploited that space comfortably by sinking jumpers from the elbows. He also got a dunk off of a pick-and-roll with Harden, who had six first-quarter assists."

Austin Krell, TPL: "I have to give the Sixers, as a whole team, credit for what they did after falling behind by 20. They didn’t mail the game in, conceding a loss to cap an outstanding home-stand before heading into a Christmas Day date with the Knicks in New York. Rather, they chipped away slowly, trying to win every minute remaining in the first half. And then suddenly, the deficit was just 12 points heading into intermission."