James Harden, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 96 points in Milwaukee, snapping the Eastern Conference leader’s 16-game winning streak. That’s the type of power trio they’re looking for in order to knock off some titan’s of the industry this spring.
Things looked like they were getting out of hand for Philadelphia in that third period when the Bucks led 95-77. Grayson Allen had 20 points in the third quarter alone, and the Sixers hadn’t even turned to their reserve unit yet. Uh oh.
Making the task feel even more impossible, P.J. Tucker left the game with back spasms and Tobias Harris was scratched at the half with calf soreness. That left them relying on guys like Georges Niang, who has been arctic frigid from distance over the last handful of games, and newcomer Jalen McDaniels who had yet to make a real impact before the weekend.
But somehow the Sixers came storming back anyway and left Fiserv Forum with their best win of the season, breaking the hearts of a frenzied Milwaukee crowd, desperate for win No. 17.
James Harden likely played his best game in a Sixers uniform to date, leading the way with 38 points, 10 dimes, and nine boards, balancing precision passing with relentless aggression all night long:
What a night for James Harden ️— NBA (@NBA) March 5, 2023
Sixers win in Milwaukee. pic.twitter.com/SLY2NHbeWo
Per Ky Carlin of SixersWire: “[Harden] was big,” said Embiid “He made the right plays. Big-time shots, the ball moved as a team. We exploited some of the matchups and, like I said, he was great.”
But Embiid also struck the near-perfect balance between scoring and passing in the team’s 133-130 victory. The Harden-Embiid duo even looked impressed when ESPN’s Malika Andrews told them they made a bit of history, becoming just the second pair of teammates ever to each tally 30-plus points and 10 dimes in a single game.
their reaction to this stat >>>>> pic.twitter.com/3ic82kfy54— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 5, 2023
Sure, this season we have seen Joel Embiid routinely put on masterclass scoring performances. You think about his game-winner over the Utah Jazz:
In other news, not that any one seems to care at all anymore, but Joel Embiid hits a game winner to beat the Jazz in Utah tonight… #brotherlylove pic.twitter.com/PnA8Zmw2Z7— Ryan Rothstein (@WiseRye) January 15, 2023
Burying LeBron James and the Lakers late in crunch time.
His statement 47 burger in a big win over the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic:
His career-high 59-point game with seven blocks to go on the other end in just 37 minutes vs. the same Jazz team on a separate occasion:
And about a dozen others. This stuff is just getting silly.
Dude is averaging 33 points (0.4 less than Luka Doncic for the lead league), 10.3 rebounds, 4.1 dimes, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, on 53-34-85 shooting splits.
But really bringing it all together, truly elevating this team to a championship level, given how good teams like the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are, might mean Embiid becoming a better playmaker and decision maker than he has been throughout his career.
Over the team’s lackluster recent 14-game stretch prior to the Bucks game, they went just 8-6, and we witnessed Embiid getting his pocket picked from behind, or just throwing away careless passes, frazzled by a trapping defense too often.
Embiid doesn’t feel Garland who makes a nice dig for steal. pic.twitter.com/uDFynEM6Do— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 16, 2023
We’ve also seem him strand shooters, settling instead for long contested fadeaways forcing the action.
Nitpicking a bit here b/c Joel Embiid dropped 91 pts on 55 shots over his last 3 games (a loss and two wins vs. Orl, Orl, SAS.)— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 4, 2023
But I lost count of how many times he didn't anticipate a basic double team and turned it over or stranded open shooters settling for tougher long 2s pic.twitter.com/HrY5tseh4W
But you know he’s always studying and trying to improve.
“Hanlen said of all of his clients — including fellow MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine — he often jokes that Embiid is the neediest because he wants to work out about 50 times during the regular season, double what any of his other clients request.” https://t.co/yXbQWx22BF— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 1, 2023
And man, my personal choice for MVP over the last two seasons had it all going in Milwaukee. It was a masterclass performance of selfless and poised play. Let’s look at Embiid’s playmaking, specifically in a film study.
Embiid got his teammates going being a relentless and selfless screener
Known for his dominant isolation and post-up play for years, (James and Jo actually both rank in the top four of isolation points per game league wide) Embiid probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for becoming one of the most punishing screeners in the game, upon the team’s addition of The Beard.
According to ESPN.com Saturday, “Philadelphia generated 32 points directly off the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll combination, and at 1.70 points per chance, it was their most efficient game in the regular season since becoming teammates, according to Second Spectrum research.”
But it wasn’t only that one play type or iso attacks. Embiid also helped other teammates find a rhythm. We know that Embiid has resolved to help empower Maxey.
Joel Embiid said he asked Tyrese Maxey after the game how he can help him get going and it led to a good conversation. Said he told Maxey the team needs him to be aggressive to go where they want to go.— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) February 26, 2023
I thought he did a great job looking for ‘Rese.
Plenty of times we’ll see Joel catch the ball, predetermined to score. On numerous occasions vs. Giannis, Jrue Holiday and co. it looked like Embiid caught it and thought how can I get Tyrese, James, or Tobias cooking?
Embiid playing some pick-and-pop with Harden often produced a good look.
But at times, when that didn’t really go anywhere, Embiid quickly pivoted to second-side action, initiating a DHO with ‘Rese Lightning, charging over from the weak side giving their half court O a whole new and less predictable dimension; and keeping everyone engaged and in rhythm.
When you think back to the DHO rapport Jo had with snipers like JJ Redick and Seth Curry, you can see him finding more and more of that comfort running two-man action with Maxey, who loves to either pull the three or curl off the screen into the lane with a head of steam.
(I have no hard data to back this take up, but I feel keeping a guy like Maxey involved in the half court makes it more likely that the 22 year-old can calmly ice the game from the free throw line with seconds remaining in such a huge spot.)
Embiid trusting his guards to make the shot or get it back to him
In Milwaukee, the ball kept moving. Embiid didn’t simply hold it. He was decisive. He realized that a little two-man game with one of James, Maxey, or even Shake Milton might spring one of them for a good look. And he trusted his guards to get it back to him in the lane with a head of steam if the defense overplayed the ball-handler.
After pulling out the D with some silky midrange game, that opened the door for the give and go in heavy traffic:
Moving and freezing defenders with pass feints
My personal favorite: all of the pass and shot fakes we saw!
Unlike in some recent games, Embiid took full advantage of pump fakes and pass fakes to punish and confuse a gambling, trapping defense. Maybe his trainer Drew Hanlen reminded him that he could have done more of this vs. Miami last week.
Embiid is such a savant you’d think he could really focus and limit these plays at some point in his career. Still seem to happen little too often than is necessary . pic.twitter.com/mP29FaQqmw— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 28, 2023
This stuff is subtle, and it’s certainly not the first time he’s done it. But on Saturday, Embiid made these pump fakes consistently, and shots were falling.
“The offensive skill and touch that he has at his size is phenomenal and I just think his shot-making, his touch from 15-to-17 feet, it looks effortless,” Budenholzer said of Embiid. “It looks like a layup for him. He can take it out to the 3-point line, then he takes you off the dribble, incredibly crafty and creative about getting to the free-throw line.”
Notice above, Embiid, from a triple-threat, simply raise the ball over his head which freezes guys like Giannis, buying Joel enough space to drain that 15 foot “layup” Budenholzer describes.
Notice the six-time All-Star throw pass fakes towards the wing, manipulating spies like Jrue Holiday, Jae Crowder or Khris Middleton out of the picture, so he can go to work on a Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis one-on-one.
Notice in crunch time, Jo freeze Giannis (protecting the rim from the weakside) with the textbook two-handed backdoor pass fake to a cutting McDaniels, only to reel it back and wing it the other way to a now open Georges Niang, who let the clutch in as the Minivan surged forward.
And of course, watch Embiid send Middleton flying by, with ultra-calm, sociopathic poise, before draining a three-point dagger. That one wound up being the game-winner which snapped the Bucks’ 16-game win streak.
He looked comfortable in the elbow pocket all night like a Pro Bowl quarterback. He manipulated spies and safeties with a variety of fakes. Maybe Hanlen showed him some Tom Brady footage recently.
And some good old-fashioned selfless basketball, making the first easy read
Notice above, Embiid hitting a cutting P.J. Tucker, collapsing the defense with a paint touch before kicking it out to Maxey, running a break and finding Harden, getting it back, and swinging it right to Maxey in a corner, drawing two on a DHO and making the right read, and even trusting newcomer Jalen McDaniels to drain a big time transition bomb.
You’re not going to comeback from an 18-point third-quarter hole without multiple teammates getting hot. Embiid knew that and kept firing the ball to the open spot-up player.
Story of Sixers-Bucks 4th quarter was James Harden and the Sixers hunting and creating mismatches in a variety of ways.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 5, 2023
Philly exploited Milwaukee's perimeter issues, particularly that it has quite a few rotation players who can struggle to defend in space: pic.twitter.com/gCfzY5Igsp
Bringing it all together, with James Harden relentlessly punishing mismatches, it all made for an unstoppable recipe.
No doubt (and perhaps most importantly) all of that passing probably saved some juice in Embiid’s legs to bang with Giannis on the other end.
@jodymacman Embiid with a statement performance late in the game against the MVP Giannis with his defense! pic.twitter.com/vpvQdj1412— Dan Petersen (@dpetone) March 5, 2023
All in all, one of the most cerebral and impressive offensive games by perhaps, the game’s best player. That was some championship level b-ball IQ and decision-making on display.