Instant observations: Sixers open road trip with win over Lakers

The Sixers did not play a whole lot of defense but managed to get a 126-121 victory over a shorthanded Lakers team anyway, riding their starters to a win that moves them to within 1.5 games of the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• Up to this point in the James Harden experience, Doc Rivers has made it a clear goal for the Sixers to have one of Harden or Embiid on the floor at the same time. Against an undermanned Lakers team, Rivers decided now was the time to tinker a little bit, and he gave Tyrese Maxey the chance to run the second unit out west.

There’s plenty to like about this, even if the Embiid and Harden minutes did not go especially well early. For one, it gives them more time to tinker with that Embiid / Harden pairing that is going to be essential to their title hopes. The other half of the equation is Maxey getting the freedom to do what he wants on offense, and as we’ve seen throughout this season, that can be a great thing for the young kid and his team.

We’re at the point now where Maxey gets a clean look at a three in transition and he falls in the, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely going in” category of players. I feel like I say this fairly often, but that’s a pretty wild development in a short period of time. Teams see that and then fly out at him on closeouts, which Maxey has already figured out how to counter with ease, flowing out of a pump fake into a clean mid-range jumper, a floater, or the occasional rapid rise to the rim.

My only complaint – the ball got away from him too much in the second half. As soon as the Sixers started running a bit of offense through him in the fourth quarter, Maxey went on another quick individual scoring run, punishing the Lakers for refusing to show him the proper respect as a shooter. On two separate occasions in the second half, Los Angeles conceded space to Maxey and dared him to shoot, and he buried triples both times, showing the killer instinct they need from him in those moments.

Can’t say enough about how well he has played over the last month. Just imagine how good he might be next season.

• The Lakers entered the night without a credible defender for Joel Embiid on the roster. They ended the night learning how poorly it goes when that’s the case and you do not constantly commit multiple players to defend him, because Embiid had an absolute field day even when the Sixers did not run much offense for him.

Matched up with former teammate Dwight Howard, Embiid imposed his will on the Lakers throughout this one, even though his defensive effort lagged behind until he checked in for his closing kick in the second quarter. With Harden struggling to find his shot, Embiid was often left to pick up the loose change and finish second-chance opportunities, which he did in expert fashion throughout the first half, even when those offensive rebounds came on plays where he had to run the floor in transition.

Seeing Embiid doing that, and seeing Embiid doing that even as he grimaced in pain from a back issue, shows a lot of the difference between this Embiid and the player he was early in his career. Despite being in visible discomfort late in the first half, Embiid blocked a shot, ran the floor for a putback on the break, helped create another turnover on the ensuing Lakers possession, and then sparked the break that led to a lob finish for Tobias Harris . Whatever he’s dealing with, it wasn’t used as an excuse to back down and check out, and with the No. 1 seed suddenly within striking distance, Embiid put his head down and continued to work.

If Embiid was less concerned about protecting the rim and more interested in trying to dot up the box score across the board, he could have more games like this, where he toyed with a 5×5 game and came up with some hellacious rejections at the rim. You could see the limitation of that approach in the overall team performance, but hey, it might end up being useful if they roll out a more aggressive scheme at some point during the playoffs.

Not his best night, and still a pretty dominant night.

• This was a really solid performance from Tobias Harris on offense, even with his individual scoring only falling in the good, not great bucket. In addition to starring in his role as a floor spacer and off-ball option, Harris managed to do some good work as a playmaker for the Sixers, generating two different scoring plays for DeAndre Jordan when bench lineups are on the floor.

While I’m hardly expecting Harris to be a reliable playmaker on a nightly basis, it does exemplify the effort he has made to try to fill in the blanks (not always successfully) since Harden joined the team. Some nights that means locking in on defense and picking up a guy like DeMar DeRozan, other nights it means he has to be a secondary playmaker because Rivers has changed the rotation and asked him to do more creation as a result.

I get it, he has floundered at times and has earned the criticism when he plays poorly. But he was excellent at picking his spots against the Lakers, hunting smaller defenders and finishing strong at the hoop to make up for what he could not get done from beyond the arc early in the game. And when his number was called for a key corner three late in this game, Harris showed no hesitation, rising and canning a shot that helped keep the Sixers out in front until the final horn went off. Perhaps he’ll be the real beneficiary of the Maxey / Harris and Harden / Embiid pairings, with more latitude to run offense and get himself into a rhythm as a result.

• Genuinely love the simplicity of Georges Niang’s game. Set a screen, get set, the shot goes up. Get to the corner, get set, the shot goes up. Position yourself on the wing, look for Embiid, entry pass is lobbed in. He has discernible skills, knows where he needed, and he executes more often than not.

Entry passing is not a thing people tend to think a lot about, but he has to be one of the best on the team at it, especially at the lobbed pass over the top that falls gently into Embiid’s hands. When the big man seals his defender and Niang has the ball, I would bet on it getting where it needs to go probably 9/10 times.

• I have fallen into the trap of reading too much into late-season basketball in the past, most certainly with Jimmy Butler, who clearly had another gear to get to when the Sixers started playoff games instead of regular-season games. It could be that simple for James Harden, who has helped the Sixers win games and improved their offense considerably since coming here. Until we see what playoff Harden looks like, I do not see any reason to panic when he has slow-ish stretches.

I’m not going to pretend, though, that I’m watching him play and seeing a guy who looks like a no-doubt, high-level scorer that will help carry them when defenses get tougher and the pressure mounts. In the first half, he looked downright slow a lot of the time, and there’s not a lot of explosiveness to his game right now. When he uses a Euro step to create separation, the burst out of that plant foot is nowhere near where it has been in the past, and he’s flipping up shots that are falling off of the rim or getting blocked as a result.

Even with all of that being said, Harden came out in the third quarter and put on a nice scoring display, using his strength to burrow through Lakers defenders and taking advantage of a Dwight Howard matchup to drop a corner three on the Lakers with some flair . Power is going to be how Harden wins most of the time now, and thankfully, he still has a lot of that when he puts his shoulder into a guy and makes a concerted effort to go through somebody.

One thing that was nice to see in this game was the understanding between Harden and Embiid when the other guy had a good opportunity to cook. There were more designed or organic post-ups for Embiid, leading to some isolation play for the big man, and some switches that got Harden a favorable matchup, causing Embiid to simply get out of his way and free up the paint for Harden to attack at his leisure. And it did not feel like a “Your turn, my turn” offense, but a partnership between two guys who know they both have to be at their best to win a title.

• Left for dead and out of the rotation as of last week, Furkan Korkmaz has had a nice couple of games off of the bench for Philly. I will not get overexcited beyond that.

The Bad

• This was an outright terrible defensive performance for most of the night. Offensive execution was at a high level for most of the night, and against a Lakers team missing both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that should be enough for a blowout victory. Guess again.

There were breakdowns all over the floor for all different reasons. Basic effort was a problem early in the game, with Embiid easing himself into this one in a major way. Even when the big man’s effort picked up, there were a lot of off-script gambles that looked excellent when they paid off but left the Sixers exposed when they did not, leading in part to Dwight Howard’s big around the basket.

Elsewhere, it was not much better. Attention to detail was bad on cuts, with the Lakers not exactly exploding through space and still catching players off-guard anyway. Philadelphia’s dearth of trustworthy perimeter defenders added up to some blow-bys throughout the game, with players ranging from Tyrese Maxey to Danny Green being left in the dust by a collection of bad-to-okay players taking up minutes for LA I Can’t emphasize this enough – Green looks so far off the pace right now, and they need to pray that he can find it within the next few weeks before the playoffs, or they’re effectively down another useful bench guy.

This could and perhaps should have been a total laugher. That it was not an indictment of their defensive performance.

• Joel Embiid standing flat-footed and allowing Austin Reaves to get an easy offensive rebound was one of the most infuriating moments of the game. I hope they show that one in the next team film study and all laugh together.

• James Harden had some absolutely bewildering turnovers, including a critical one in the final minute that Russell Westbrook deposited for a quick score.

• Matisse Thybulle has to be the best defender who commits the highest volume of dumb fouls per good play he makes. There’s never a happy middle ground for him, it seems like. Either he’s a flying octopus coming up with steals and blocks on every other possession, or he’s just simply diving and jumping into players who get him with a simple pump fake. I wish I could predict which guy was going to show up on a night-to-night basis, but he’s a total wild card.

The Ugly

• Honestly impressive how little effort the Sixers gave for most of this game. I hope most of you went to sleep and did not bother with this one, because you would have basically matched the urgency of the local team.

• The top priority for the Sixers (and basically any other team that matters) at the moment is to simply get to the end of the season healthy. They are not doing a great job of it right now, with this game featuring some scares for both of their two best players.

Embiid was the first guy to worry everyone watching this game, grabbing the lower back area that has been bothering him after Stanley Johnson grabbed him in midair to avoid an Embiid layup in the first half. Though he would go on to play well (at least offensively) the rest of the game, everyone naturally has a bit of PTSD with the big man, whose availability has been a concern in the past. Something to monitor moving forward.

At the tail end of the third quarter, it was Harden who ended up in pain on the baseline, seemingly after knocking knees with Lakers players on a drive to the hoop. Considering he came back into the game and played in the back half of the fourth, it does not seem like anything to worry about, but I can understand anyone who was in total panic mode.

• Watching DeAndre Jordan trying to defend pick-and-rolls is painful. Take a wild guess what teams are going to force him to do if he plays in a playoff series.

(In fairness to Jordan, I did think his activity on the boards was good again tonight. I should probably be less hostile to him considering how poor the overall defensive performance was from the team. Can’t blame him for everything, that’s for sure .)

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