Instead of wilting under some MVP race pressure, Embiid delivered not only one of his own personal best games, but he delivered one of the most efficient games in history. Dominant yes, we’re used to that. But dude was so clutch. No matter how they finished the final three games, there would have been all kinds of doomsday vibes if they allowed Boston to sweep the season series, and allow pundits to say “Embiid couldn’t even beat a Celtics team without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams at home!?”
The combined 5-of-26 shooting performance from Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed was ugly, and meant Embiid had to contend with the likes of basically two — and occasionally three — of Derrick White, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Grant Williams all night long.
James Harden was the lone member of the team to really get into that scoring column. The seven-time All-NBA pick dropped 20 points to go with 10 dimes.
But like most of his games since returning from an Achilles issue, Harden wasn’t able to offer much in the second half. He shot just 2 of 7 from the floor, scoring 5 of his 20 points after intermission.
Harden’s first half-second half splits are becoming almost jarring since returning. He’s nearly twice as productive and efficient in first halves through four games back.
So the Sixers desperately needed one guy to step up besides Embiid down the home stretch. And of all people, it was P.J. Tucker who drilled three monumental triples from his corner office to help Philly survive with a wild 103-101 win, and lock up at least the third seed in the East.
After the game, head coach Doc Rivers talked about the team’s 52nd win, on the back of Joel’s 52 points.
“[Joel] had to make tough shots. Just couldn’t get anything going and that’s something that we have to correct. A lot of 1-for-’s, I’m looking at our box score, other than James, we had a lot of 2-for-6’s, 2-for-8’s, 0-for-4, 0-for-3, 1-for-3, and then the guy that made the big shots for us was Tuck,” Rivers said.
Then the head coach gave a hat tip to his point guard for making a clutch suggestion.
“And that was a very great observation by James,” Rivers continued. “[James] said, ‘hey, let’s put Tuck in the corner, and let’s put Tobias in the dunker spot.’ And it really came through for us,” Rivers explained. “He’s been in big moments. He’s gonna shoot it. You know, they were gonna help off of him, we said in the timeout, and he stepped up and made ‘em.”
Typically it’s Tobias Harris platooned in a corner, while P.J. Tucker lurks around in the dunker spot, playing what former Sixers head coach Brett Brown used to call “peek-a-boo.”
The problem there is that P.J. isn’t exactly a big...well...dunker threat these days, and often winds up kicking it back out, or feeling forced to loft hot potato floaters as the shot clock winds down.
Harris, recently ill, had been struggling from distance, and is taller than Tucker. Harris measures in at 6-foot-7. Tucker is just 6-5.
Harris has shot 71 percent between 0-3 feet from the rim, while Tucker is just 47.4 percent within the same pointblank range.
As such, you can see Boston’s Marcus Smart is a lot more cognizant of keeping a body on Tobias until the last possible moment before sprinting to contest Tucker’s triple:
P.J. Tucker with three huge threes in the fourth quarter— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) April 5, 2023
Had Tucker been the one in the lane, Smart might have felt a little more free to roam, giving him an extra nano-second to contest Harris.
So, who should be in the corner more often? Here’s a fun one for you stat heads. Both P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris are an identical 54 out of 134 from corners this year, good for 40.3 percent each.
So I guess the answer is either one might suffice; but since Harris is significantly better around the rim, perhaps Harden should have suggested this one weeks ago.
“A few of those moments over to 17 [Tucker’s own jersey number], thanks to James. James is the one that set it up,” Tucker said, echoing Rivers. “Trusted and believed in me always, ’cause [James] knows me better than anybody probably on the team, [and then credit] Joel for making the plays.”
Is there any personal gratification Tucker derives from making those shots?
“No, my only gratification comes from winning the championship,” the former Raptor and Rocket said, matter of factly. “These single games don’t matter. I don’t chase points, I don’t chase rebounds, I chase wins. Making the right plays and doing [what it takes] for our team to win every night. Thats it.”
Coming from a guy who occasionally refers to himself as “17,” you get the sense this isn’t just lip service. It’s the name on the front, not the back of the jersey was the vibe. And if Tucker won’t derive gratification from an ending like that, perhaps Daryl Morey (who signed his former player to a three-year deal last summer) might.
Morey has already taken a bit of heat for that, since some feel Tucker, coming off a knee procedure following Miami’s playoff run, has underperformed to date; and at 37, is only getting older.
It’s fun to picture Morey sitting somewhere in the bowels of the arena like Brad Pitt portraying Billy Beane in “Moneyball” watching his FA acquisition deliver under the brightest lights, possibly helping his superstar and franchise player win his first ever MVP.
After the game, Harden was asked about what he personally offered in the huddle, when he was told that Doc gave him credit for drawing up the key play that won them the game.
“[I felt it was] just better for our team,” Harden said. “And P.J. is an excellent three-point corner shooter. Joel had it rolling all night to where he [could] pick and choose if he wanted to pass to myself or P.J., he made the right decisions, P.J. knocked three threes down. Joel made some great passes tonight.”
Next Harden was asked about Tucker possibly navigating a tough season. And here’s where your eyebrows might go up a bit.
“I know him like the back of my hand,” the 2018 MVP said. “There’s a lot of frustration as far as where he needs to be on the floor. And we’re still trying to work that out, but tonight was great, you gotta put him in the corner, ’cause like I said he’s an unbelievable corner three-point shooter, he’s been that way his whole career.”
Harden seems to reveal that Tucker may feel a certain way about playing as much as he has in the dunker spot. (Shoutout Ben Simmons!)
You get the sense Tucker would like to spend more time in those corners, like he did back in Houston, when it was current Hawks big Clint Capela playing under the rim. Tucker also got to run more short-roll action last year with the Miami Heat than he does in Philly. So maybe he’d like more diversity in his route tree to borrow a football phrase. And maybe Harden has been campaigning for as much too.
“Hopefully this game can build his confidence and we can keep going from there,” Harden said.
And then there’s the other side of things. If Harden felt like speaking up, suggesting Tucker play more in the corner, and less in the dunker, does that mean Harris will play more in the dunker spot and less in the corners moving forward?
Is it likely that Harris, who shot just 1-of-4 from downtown and 2-of-8 overall will be fine with that or might he have certain feelings? Harris has already done his best to “MoreyBall” his game on the fly when the team landed Harden. Does he need to sacrifice or modify further?
If you told me that Harden wasn’t frustrated with Harris even a little bit at times last night, I’m not sure I’d believe you....even if some fans are inclined to downplay this odd moment:
Harden pushing Tobias looks kinda weird! pic.twitter.com/UpJUQ9Qzde— Spike Eskin (@SpikeEskin) April 5, 2023
Rivers was asked about this moment (not the shove specifically just what was supposed to happen) and answered “...we wanted James to take the ball out, he’s our best passer.”
You can put your tinfoil hats on to suss out whatever was going on there. But if you want my quick takeaway, it was some version of this:
Tucker would prefer to play more in the corners than he has. Harden, having been to war with P.J. back in Houston and trusts him, agrees. Tobias has done all he’s been asked, but isn’t feeling 100 percent, was clearly struggling, perhaps went to the wrong spot at a critical time, and Harden got frustrated with him, maybe some inherent strain given two power-forwards sharing the floor all season... and voila, a little shove.
How about Joel, what does he think about Tucker stepping up in a huge moment.
“P.J. was huge. Three huge corner threes, I mean we don’t win that game without him,” Embiid said. It’s entirely possible Joel needed that win to swing fence-sitting voters and lock up an MVP. We may never know if he does indeed win, but he can thank Tucker just in case.
Rivers was asked by reporters if it felt especially good avoiding a sweep by the rival Celts, and in his answer he alluded to the possibility of these teams meeting in the Semi’s if they can each handle business in round one.
“There’s something they’ll take from this game. There’s something we’ll take from the game. But we hope to see each other again. And it’ll be 0-0. Nothing matters in the past. Nothing.”
If the Sixers do opt to try this wrinkle a bit more moving forward, with Harris in the dunker, with Tuck in the corner, that’s something both teams may take from this game.
And if you’re still wearing your tinfoil hat, I dunno, maybe there’s even something to ponder for this pending offseason as well. The days when the 76ers never had a real point guard but now with small forwards...or something.