Instant observations: Sixers dominate Clippers from start to finish

The Sixers blew the Clippers away in the first quarter and never looked back, racing to a 122-97 victory behind big games from James Harden and Joel Embiid.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden’s first half is the sort of thing a lot of people have been waiting for since he arrived in Philadelphia. Yes, it always helps when a few stepback threes go down, but it took a little bit for that jumper to get going in the first place. To get to that moment, Harden beat up on the Clippers the old-fashioned way, bullying his way to the basket and hunting his own offense more instead of trying to play point guard at all times.

As brilliant as Harden is as a passer, it’s his all-around scoring the Sixers are really going to need when things get tight and rotations shorten in the playoffs. Concerns about his burst faded from view on Friday night, with Harden finding the edge and putting the Clippers in no-win territory by doing his best to get all the way to the rim. There were fewer loping Euro steps and a lot more plays where Harden saw space and tried to get through it immediately, which would end up paying off for Philadelphia.

Obviously, his passing is no less valuable on a night where the shot is going, and it’s amazing to watch the impact Harden has on a guy like Joel Embiid. There were moments in this game where the Sixers (deservedly) ran possessions through Embiid and came up empty, the big man struggling to find the range at times. Without a guy like Harden, the old Sixers would have had to keep going back to the well and hope that Embiid could dribble and shoot his way out of it. This group can put him in the pick-and-roll, get him going downhill, and trust Harden to find him, which he did for a few easy buckets in the win over the Clippers.

The messaging from Embiid, Doc Rivers, and the rest of this group has been clear – they want to see Harden hunting for his own looks more than he has. Perhaps this game was just as simple as the message sinking in and Harden not worrying so much about making everyone better. He has a feel for this group and this offense now, and he’s capable of toggling into playmaking mode when it’s necessary.

Beating up on this version of the Clippers is obviously not some monumental achievement, as they’s a much different outfit with even one of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard available. But no one should be looking at an elite James Harden performance and taking it for granted right now.

(One additional note on Harden’s night and his play of late – though he can be as lazy in transition as the rest of this group, the defensive effort since he started suiting up for Philadelphia has been much better than expected. He’s taking on the challenge when guys try to attack him in one-on-one situations, and he has been checked in away from the play more often than not, which is the bigger battle for him historically.I just liked the fire I saw from him on Friday night , and hope to see more of this Harden in the weeks to come.)

• Embiid being able to play merely decent and put up something like 17 points and seven rebounds in a half shows how far he has come on the offensive end, and in a lot of ways, reflects well on his improved conditioning. He can win in early offense by running the floor or sealing a smaller defender, he can win late in the clock with shotmaking, and he can win in the middle of a possession by partnering up with one of Harden or Tyrese Maxey coming downhill. There are no definitive answers for Embiid, who has even grown into the responsibility of playing out of double teams.

The defensive end is where you could argue they need him the most these days, and the team performance reflected well on his effort there. Attention to detail and effort were both at a much higher level for the Sixers in this game, coming off of a performance against the Lakers where they basically jogged through four quarters of basketball. Embiid, in spite of a foul he picked up in the first 40 seconds of the game, did an excellent job of playing smart, physical defense on the interior, trusting that his wingspan and positioning would win the day instead of risking a foul for the sake of preventing a mere two points. And his recovery speed when he’s locked in is special, with Embiid able to flash across the lane and deny would-be finishers the opportunity to even sniff the rim.

I did not necessarily love Embiid’s approach to this game on offense, where he did a lot of dawdling and played a bit too much hero ball throughout the first half. Embiid has the skills and the resume to justify playing that way, and it’s not like the Sixers suffered for it against the Clippers. But just as Harden would be expected to step aside and let him cook if he was the guy on a heater, he probably could have set the runway up for his costar during one of his best scoring performances in a Sixers uniform.

(Despite going with a Maxey / Harris led second unit in the first half, Rivers went back to a stagger that kept one of Embiid or Harden on the floor at all times in the second half, and perhaps that was partially to make sure both guys had some time to run the show themselves, on top of recognizing how bad the bench minutes went in the first half. I do not think they can go wrong here, and I did like seeing Rivers change things up a bit within a single game .)

Of course, all of those first-half decisions ended up looking justified when Embiid caught fire in the third quarter, delivering another body blow to the Clippers with his inside-outside game. Trips to the line continued, and a pair of highlight-reel threes were the best thing from the third quarter from either team, with Embiid hitting a sidestep three off of a feed from Harden before hitting a deep, late-clock three late in the period, doing the airplane run down the floor in celebration of the moment. Not many bigs are pulling off moves like this:

Any problems they have regarding each guy wanting to cook in isolation is a good problem, because they have two of the most dominant individual players in the league. Embiid spent a lot of time getting to and attacking around the rim, and he was honestly unfortunate to not see a few more of his shots go down from in close. With their two best players at this level, the Sixers will have an honest shot at the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference coming down the stretch, even though there are a lot of people who would view that as a dicey proposition, matchups pending.

• I really like how Tobias Harris is playing right now, regardless of whether his shots are going down or not. It helps that Harden is making a pointed effort to get the ball to Harris right in his hands with space to shoot, but we’ve seen Harris psych himself out of plenty of open looks throughout his Sixers tenure. He’s getting them up with this group now, and he’s still getting a smaller diet of clearouts and post-ups to take advantage of favorable matchups for him near the basket.

Between Embiid and Harden, it seems like they have a good feel for when and how to get Harris involved without going away from what’s working. Harris was able to bully poor Reggie Jackson a few times in this one, and there has been little hesitation to get him the ball when he got a guard on him in a spot like that. It’s that sort of understanding that leads to broader buy-in, the sort of thing that makes it easier for you to go to Harris and tell him to shoot the damn ball if the catch and shoot opportunity is there.

Quiet and steady is all they need from him.

Philadelphia having a good defensive game often hinges on whether Matisse Thybulle is playable or not. He was far beyond that on Friday night in LA, playing disruptive defense to open the game and finding pockets of space as an off-ball player on the other end. Doc Rivers has said recently (and I agree with him) that it does not really change the offense when Thybulle makes shots, because teams are going to continue to ignore him unless his numbers get way better over time. It’s everywhere else that really matters, and he’s beginning to find his niche with this group.

For once, he was able to avoid getting tagged with the “dumb fouls” label thanks to a smart challenge from his head coach, one that saved the Sixers Thybulle’s fourth foul, wiped three free throws off of the board, and earned Philly the possession outright. Probably the highest-value challenge Rivers has had since they instituted the rule.

• I do not care if it came in blowout minutes where the game was out of reach, Danny Green seeing a few shots go down is a good thing for him and this group. If he can stack a few of these together by the end of the year – and Philadelphia has a soft closing schedule to make that happen – they just might get a lift from him in the playoffs.

• Georges Niang is the king of the lobbed entry to Embiid. The conversion rate is absolutely through the roof.

• The Sixers are not without issues, but their starting lineup continues to beat teams up when they share the floor. That bodes well for the games that matter in April, May, and June.

The Bad

• Tyrese Maxey is allowed to have a bad game every so often, and this one definitely qualifies, with the second-year guard sputtering through most of this one. Not a whole lot to analyze here, his touch was just off in a big way, including on a move where he sent Robert Covington almost out of the picture before clanging a shot from around eight feet out.

Of course, he still managed to hit a couple of threes in the second half and ultimately make this a respectable night in the box score, because that’s the sort of season he’s having.

• I think James Harden does not like Joel Embiid’s tendency to bring the ball up in transition. I tend to agree with him that the big man needs to cut it out, because it’s no longer a necessity with the Harden / Maxey backcourt in place. Run the floor, and I bet you will have more success as an off-ball guy, big guy.

The Ugly

• I might as well rename this section after DeAndre Jordan. Isaiah Hartenstein made him look like Frankenstein for most of the minutes where they shared the floor, popping up on the offensive glass and running past the elder player in transition for easy points. Jordan is doing nothing to make up for his defensive incompetence on the other end, so I will say once again that it is insane that he is basically just a guaranteed rotation choice every night. To not even make the guy compete for this spot is beyond belief.

This says more about Doc Rivers than it does about Jordan. By all accounts, Jordan is a good teammate and someone people like having around the locker room. There’s just a reason (and really, multiple reasons) why he was available to be had for nothing when a bad Lakers team let him go. If he could not get it done for one of the worst LeBron teams ever, he’s not going to cut it for a team with title aspirations. Please, look at somebody else, even if it’s Paul Millsap.

My guy Josh Lloyd has a simple solution:

I think he’s onto something!

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