Joel Embiid and company held a one point 90-89 lead heading into the fourth quarter vs. the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday. Philadelphia possessed a 14 point second quarter lead, but they just couldn’t blow the game open, coughing up a few costly (mostly unforced, live ball variety) turnovers, bungling a rotation or two, missing wide open lobs, along with some general defenses miscues. But Embiid drained a buzzer beating triple before the break to keep it to double digits.
Joel Embiid knocks down the buzzer-beating three to end the first half, extending the Sixers lead to 11 points and giving Embiid 26 points of his own! pic.twitter.com/cgKTHmRTfa— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) January 18, 2023
And we’ll take it, even if Hakeem Olajuwon would rather see him try the jump hook there:
Olajuwon on Embiid:“He’s got all the moves, but leveraging the moves is different. Why would he be shooting threes?”— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) January 18, 2023
Hakeem on Jokic:“His shot, his fakes, they are very difficult to time. You don’t know when he’s faking and when it’s real. He has tricks! He’s the one.”
James Harden looked like he was either hurting, or had done too much L.A. partying. He was a shell of the player who helped the Sixers beat the Clippers back in December dropping a 21 dime triple-double; or the one we saw vs. Utah and the Lakers.
But maybe Jamal Crawford only tuned in for the one game last night, it sounds like he may have missed the last few weeks of Bearded rampaging.
"If Maxey and Tobias Harris are your second-leading guys, I'm not sure its gonna get you far in the playoffs" @JCrossover on his expectations for James Harden with the Sixers pic.twitter.com/kC0CJwB9On— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 18, 2023
But Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris picked up the slack. We’ve said all year, the best version of the Sixers is a multi-pronged offensive attack that doesn’t completely hinge on one player reaching a certain points threshold. Harris and Maxey stepping up during an off night for The Beard, all while Joel was completely dominant is a pretty good recipe for success.
Philadelphia’s defense hunkered down and held Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and co. to just 21 fourth quarter points, won the period by 9, and the game by 10.
Let’s take stock.
According to ESPN.com, the full top 10 in the East:
With Kevin Durant out for extended time with an MCL sprain, and Kyrie Irving now nursing some calf tightness, the Nets, who’d won 18 of 20 with KD in the lineup, have now dropped three consecutive battles. Maybe it’s Karma for Kyrie throwing some shade at Harden the other day, when talking about how things might be different this season during Durant’s absence.
The Milwaukee Bucks nearly lost to Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. But even without Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup, former Sixer Jrue Holiday has been straight up lethal lately, helping them win and keeping the Bucks afloat in second place.
Boston is still red hot, having won 8 of their last 10. It’s been a challenge for any Eastern team to gain much ground on the reigning Conference champs, sitting four games above second place and 4.5 above Philly. The Nets were threatening to overtake them but then KD went down and Jayson Tatum’s boys are sitting pretty once again.
The league wide look, per ESPN.com, notice the 76ers have the 5th best record overall:
[Side bar: As of today, the 2023 draft pick the Sixers sent to Brooklyn in the Ben Simmons-James Harden trade, which the Nets then sent to the Utah Jazz for swingman Royce O’Neal would be 26th overall. The Sixers playing as well as they have make parting with that pick a little less painful - for the time being.
Remember, the Sixers had the 23rd pick ahead of the 2022 draft and Nets’ GM Sean Marks opted to defer his option, hoping the Sixers’ ‘23 pick would have more value. So far it does not. Score! And if I were a Nets fan, I’d be wondering if we could have nabbed De’Anthony Melton with that pick had we NOT deferred. Goteem.
Also, the Nets still have a pretty massive incentive to trade the Sixers’ 2027 pick they acquired in the same blockbuster in order to help get KD, Irving, and Simmons some additional help; hopefully they won’t read this. It’s rarely safe to predict a specific single trade, but Brooklyn has an enormous incentive to further upgrade].
Stats and numbers
Scoring 114.7 point per 100 possessions, the Sixers are tied with Memphis for the 6th best offense in the NBA.
They still have the 4th best defensive rating, holding their opposition to 110.6 points per 100.
Tyrese Maxey may have reluctantly offered up his starting spot, and Doc Rivers sounds like he’s going to mix and match his fifth starter between one of P.J. Tucker, Melton, and Maxey depending on the night. Tyrese came off the bench vs. the Clippers and absolutely lit the place up. But part of me is still very suspicious of the lineups where neither Harden nor Embiid are on the floor. Maybe it’s fine for the regular season, and the Clippers are a terrific test, but can they bank on Maxey and Tobias Harris to shoot so well moving forwards, given the limitations of these Montrezl Harrell-backed units?
We’ve seen Doc Rivers go to this very unpopular and unorthodox Maxey-led bench unit recently. But in 268 possessions on the season, they’re a -4.9 differential (24th percentile) with Maxey and Trez on, while Embiid and Harden are off. Personally, I don’t see the merit in trying to force those units. But that’s the current preference of the man who ranks 9th all time in regular season wins.
In this piece we recently looked at how the team has so far fared with different potential starting combos. Maybe the offense will continue to click and the top four-ranked defense will regress a bit with Maxey back in the fold and likely to share the floor with Harden early and often.
Per Cleaningtheglass.com, the Sixers rank 6th overall in terms of expected wins given each team’s “efficiency differential:”
You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in statistics to know they’re in good company here.
Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Sixers a 9 percent chance to win the title.
It predicts them to finish with the three seed (shoutout Silversuns) in the East behind Boston and Milwaukee respectively, although it has the Bucks finishing with the same total of 50 wins.
Oddly, the Sixers have rattled off three out of four since last week and still dropped three percentage points in the title odds column, giving ground to the surging Denver Nuggets, and their MVP robbing superstar.
The Sixers ranked 3rd with 12 percent here one week ago. Maybe the algorithms hated the way they let Shai Gilgeous-Alexander torment them, or read that they may look to dump a player to slip the repeater tax ahead of the trade deadline and the algos are now worried ownership isn’t all in. Artificial intelligence is getting scarier and scarier lately. It’s probably that.
Just like we learned last week, the Sixers still have the hardest strength of schedule remaining in the NBA. Per Tankathon.com:
(Side bar: I still get nostalgic for the halcyon processing days of running lottery pick sims on Tankathon.com once in a blue moon. But checking strength of schedule during years of true contention is ultimately more fun).
But snapping back to reality, this schedule ahead is brutal. While you may feel encouraged by recent road wins, that doesn’t mean they’ll maintain this level of success when the games get harder, and the league crams more games into each grueling week.
You know your Sixers have one of the highest injury risk profiles in the NBA. And you know they have absolutely zero interest in load management and preserving fresh legs for guys like Harden (third overall in minutes per game) or P.J. Tucker (needs three weeks in Aruba).
So the going is going to get rough.
According to NBA.com, the Sixers come in 5th overall in power rankings behind the Nuggets, Celtics, Grizzlies, and Nets. They’ve overtaken the Cleveland Cavaliers for this top five spot. On ESPN, they rank 6th overall, gaining ground on the Cavs here as well. Both rankings have the Nuggets, Celtics, Grizz, and Nets over Philly. Only ESPN has the Bucks still ahead as well.
The Sixers have had an easier schedule than some top teams and may not be as strong as this makes it appear.
Most books still have the Sixers as title long shots behind (in order) the Celtics, Nets, and Bucks in their conference. And behind the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Warriors and Clippers in the West. They’ve had the 8th best odds recently, (+1600 on DraftKings). I’m a little worried that they’re also less likely than some of those other top teams to add significant help before the deadline; especially if they’re focused on saving money more so than improving the rotation.
Buy, Sell, hold
Making weekly recommendations here, I think the sixers, who were a narrow buy a week ago are now a hold. Looking towards games at Portland, at Sacramento, then hosting the Nets, you have to hope a team in the top five of major power rankings can win two of those three. If they cannot beat a less than fully healthy Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving at the crib without Kevin Durant, then they don’t deserve all of these kudos anyway.
The schedule isn’t easy, but it’s not as difficult as we would have guessed when KD was still in the lineup:
If they went 6-5 over the next 11 you couldn’t be too upset. But certainly, they’ll be looking for 7-4 or better. Let’s hold this stock for now. The Sixers are looking pretty good.
I do worry about Embiid’s numerous scary falls per game, Harden’s lack of burst, conditioning, (he can still look a bit heavy and slow for long stretches), and Tucker’s legs, but we can finally begin to envision a world where this team makes a real run.