Sixers vs. Clippers: Joel Embiid and James Harden lead comeback as team wins seventh straight place finish

The Sixers have plenty of reasons to feel good about Christmas.

They finished a 7-0 home record on Friday night by rushing back against the Clippers to a 119-114 win at the Wells Fargo Center.

Both stars were brilliant. Joel Embiid scored 44 points. James Harden had his first triple-double of the season with 20 points, a career-high 21 assists and 11 rebounds.

Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points, Paul George 22.

Kentucky products Tyrese Maxey (broken left foot) and John Wall (sprained right ankle) were out. Doc Rivers ranked Maxey’s return as “close,” though the Sixers head coach said before the game he wasn’t confident the 22-year-old would return for the team’s matchup against the Knicks on Sunday. Maxey on Friday was named the Winner of the NBA’s Community Cares Assist Award for the month of November. The league donates $10,000 to the Tyrese Maxey Foundation.

Before the 19-12 Sixers take the Christmas Day spotlight at Madison Square Garden, here are observations on their comeback win on Friday:

Embiid, Leonard as announced earlier

Embiid and Leonard were each ruthlessly efficient in midfield during the opening stint. Leonard started 4-4 from the floor, Embiid 5-7.

The Sixers made the logical call to target the Embiid vs. Ivica Zubac matchup. The center of the floor was a clear weak spot with Zubac in drop coverage and Embiid conveniently exploited that space, sinking jumpers from the elbows. He also got a dunk from a pick and roll with Harden, who had six assists in the first quarter.

As for Leonard, the Sixers know from painful playoff experience that he’s incredibly strong and adept at subtly shifting gears to pull jumpers. PJ Tucker was Leonard’s first defenseman, although the Sixers were heavily switchable and the two-time Finals MVP usually looked undisturbed regardless of the matchup.

When Zubac was substituted, the Clippers put Nicolas Batum in the middle and asked the experienced Frenchman to storm Embiid. After a few empty Sixers possessions, Tobias Harris found Embiid for a layup with a textbook high-low pass. Outside of Embiid, however, the Sixers were sorely lacking in offensive pursuits. Embiid scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the first quarter. His teammates had nine points in 4-for-15 shooting. The Sixers were down by six when Embiid was eliminated after just over 11 minutes, and that gap seemed to be widening quite a bit given the team’s reliance on their star big-man.

Problems in the first half for the second unit

Rivers played alongside Harden against Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell early in the second quarter. The Sixers’ bench struggled in almost every facet of the game.

Harrell fouled Luke Kennard in a three-pointer, conceded a jump hook to Zubac, missed a runner attempt and missed rebounds in the second. The Clippers, on the other hand, showed their depth and sustained momentum even after Embiid came on again. It helped stagger their stars’ minutes, but the differences in offensive ability between the second units were also significant. While Batum, Kennard, Norman Powell and Terance Mann all knew their limits, the Los Angeles bench had more viable options and superior offensive diversity. Powell hit a three-pointer from a drive-and-kick from Leonard, made a fast-break layup and deflated a long two over Milton that gave the Clippers a 19-point lead. They went up 20 to a George three.

The Clippers bench overtook the Sixers by a 24-4 lead in the first half. It might be hard at times to single out under-scoring as a key problem for the Sixers bench, as Harden often carries the burden when Embiid sits. The team’s second unit has also played well overall lately. Still, the Sixers need their benchers to move the ball, convert open threes, and play passable defense. They didn’t succeed in all of this in the first half of Friday.

The fallout wasn’t entirely disastrous, as the Sixers’ stars ended the second quarter strong. Harden hit his 10th assist on an impeccable long-range pass that has been routine for him lately, setting up Harris for a layup with 3.2 seconds left and cutting the Sixers’ lead to 12 points.

Harden’s passing keys comeback ramps up

Although the Sixers maintained a good level early in the second half, Leonard and his line drive jumpers held them off for a while. A tough shot for the average NBA player just isn’t a particularly tough shot for a locked-in Leonard, whose 18-footer gave LA a 74-61 advantage.

Harden’s playmaking then led to an important 8-0 run by the Sixers. He assisted a Georges Niang three-pointer and a Harris layup before burying a three-pointer himself, prompting a timeout from Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue.

However, the Clippers had no immediate satisfactory answers. The home crowd loved De’Anthony Melton’s three-pointer (from a Harden drive and kick) to cut Los Angeles’ lead to 77-75, but the Sixers played with excellent energy in the third quarter, even when the knights didn’t fall. They sure made mistakes – Niang left Marcus Morris Sr. open for a turn three, was obvious – but they closed hard, snagging every defensive rebound, running across the floor and playing a powerful, fast style.

The Sixers’ time with Embiid on the bench went much better after halftime. Paul Reed legitimately replaced Harrell and the Sixers were plus-4 in his 5:12. Milton (13 points) hit two key leaners and sauntered into a pull-up jumper early in the fourth. In his 959th NBA regular season game, Harden had his first 18 assists with a Niang three-pointer. Niang’s put-back layup extended the Sixers’ lead to nine points.

Of course, nothing was easy with Leonard in a groove; He made an and-one layup to tie the game at 103-all. The Sixers have seen him almost single-handedly steal games before, but they didn’t let that happen on Friday. Harris (14 points, eight rebounds) and Melton (13 points, three steals) each stepped up to pin key threes down the stretch. Leonard and the Clippers were relentless, but he missed a free throw with 23.6 seconds left that would have reduced LA’s deficit to two, and Embiid then clinched an impressive win at the foul line.

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