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With Joel Embiid out, Montrezl Harrell delivered vs. the Pacers

The widely-criticized backup center managed to fill the void left by Joel Embiid’s absence Wednesday night.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers were singing their praises of backup center Montrezl Harrell last night after his commanding performance in the Sixers’ 129-126 overtime victory over the Indiana Pacers.

With Joel Embiid out due to a foot injury, the Sixers were desperate for someone to step up in the paint in his absence, and Harrell was up to the task Wednesday night coming off the bench.

Harrell was subbed in likely earlier than planned in the contest after P.J. Tucker suffered a slight leg injury and had to come off shortly after the game started. Harrell went right to work in the paint on both ends of the floor, scoring 12 points and putting up three blocks in the first half.

What once was a 13-point lead for the Sixers was whittled away to nothing as time wound down in the fourth period, sending the game into overtime. With the Sixers holding a slight lead, Harrell’s night in the paint culminated in a brilliant sequence with just about a minute and a half left to play in overtime. Down the offensive end, Harrell snagged a contested offensive rebound for the second-chance slam to extend the Sixers’ lead to three. Then, he came up with a vicious two-handed block on Bennedict Mathurin.

“We talk about being a star in your role every night and he did exactly what his role said he should do: be the low man on defense,” head coach Doc Rivers praised postgame. “And we talked about that all film because [the Pacers] are so quick. They’re going to be tough to dribble and if the low man’s not there, they’re going to make layups, and I thought Trez got a charge, four blocks, he was there all night, and then we maxed out for him. So I was really happy with the way he played and he just has great hands. James really trusts. When he rolls, he comes up with the ball, and that’s good for us.”

In addition to his four blocks, Harrell finished with a season-high 19 points, shooting 8-for-9 from the floor with all his shots coming from within the paint. He pulled in five rebounds, including three offensive rebounds creating opportunities for second-chance points, an area of the game the Sixers’ have been dreadful at.

“With Joel being out, Montrezl was playing well both ends of the ball,” James Harden said of his teammate. “Even when he came out of the game and I think it was maybe overtime or something? Doc put him in for P.J., he finished the game extremely well, so this is a true win.”

Harrell has received some criticism from Sixers’ fans over the past few weeks for objectively poor performances off the bench over the beginning of this season, including committing costly fouls and a general lack of production. Harrell is averaging 5.3 points and 1.4 personal fouls in roughly 12 minutes played per game on the season.

But no one was criticizing Wednesday night.

“It’s just a testament to my teammates,” Harrell explained. “I go out there and just try to bring the energy, play the right way and hope my teammates do a great job of feeding off me. I’m on the floor with a lot of great scorers, guys who draw a lot of attention so really it’s about doing the little things that get them open.”

Well, something certainly worked for the Sixers. Almost the entire lineup — starters and bench — scored for the Sixers in Wednesday’s victory, including seven players with double figures.

With Embiid considered day-to-day and Tucker a bit banged up, Harrell may have just earned his chance to even start in their absences. Now, I wouldn’t go expecting this sort of performance every night from Harrell, and it’ll take a lot more than one performance to please Sixers’ fans, but it’s important to see the potential he has to go alongside the energy he brings to the Sixers’ every time he steps on the court.

Let’s hope it wasn’t a one-off.

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