Though Wednesday night’s game was never going to provide a definitive answer to whether the Sixers are a bona fide NBA title contender, it was the team’s most significant early-season test yet.
The Sixers just about passed it, earning a 107-106 win over the defending champion Lakers to improve to 13-6.
Tobias Harris’ pull-up jumper on the Sixers’ last possession won the team the game and saved it from what would’ve been a bitterly disappointing loss.
Up 14 points with a little over five minutes to go, the Sixers late-game execution simply wasn’t good enough as they seemed more eager to watch the clock wind down than score.
“It shouldn’t have gotten that close,” Danny Green said. “We were up double digits most of the game and us growing and showing some maturity, hopefully, throughout the season we’ll keep that lead and keep our foot on the gas. But we had too many lapses, too many lulls of not playing solid offense and moving the ball, too many turnovers and bad shots on goal. And then defensively, just a couple lapses.”
Harris ultimately saved the day, and an off-balance Anthony Davis heave at the buzzer came up short.
“I’m a person that visualizes myself in those spots,” Harris said. “When the opportunity came, we came out of the timeout and me and Seth (Curry) were talking and basically discussing how they’re more likely to switch that pick-and-roll coming off if Joel (Embiid) isn’t open, and just let me iso at the top and get to my spot.
“That’s a shot I work on time and time again. In those moments, being confident enough to let it go and being OK with the result. Tonight, it fared well.”
LeBron James posted 34 points, six rebounds and six assists in a losing effort, keeping Los Angeles competitive throughout the game.
The win is the 2020-21 Sixers’ best thus far, an impressive response to the notion that their place at the top of the Eastern Conference is attributable to an easy schedule.
Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was not at the game as he’s working remotely because of COVID-19 contact tracing unrelated to the Sixers, according to a report from The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey.
The Sixers next play on Friday night, a road matchup against the Timberwolves. Here are observations on their win over the Lakers:
Simmons vs. James
Ben Simmons was in attack mode from the jump, scoring six of the Sixers’ first nine points, quickly eating up the ample space James gave him to operate and setting the tone well.
James was predictably the focal point of the Lakers’ offense, and he burned Simmons and the Sixers’ zealous defense early by scoring off of multiple back cuts. James’ sense for when and how to use his wide array of skills remains special; he’s a basketball genius who happens to have extraordinary physical gifts. His aggression was necessary in the first half as Los Angeles shot 1 for 11 from three-point range and received no meaningful scoring from anyone besides James and Davis.
Though James scored much more than his mentee, Simmons left his mark on the game in many ways, recording a triple-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
“He was huge,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “The numbers will say the offense, but the defense and all these other little things he did was unbelievable. He’s playing great. It’s funny, on his low-scoring nights, you look at the game film and he’s flying all over the place.
“The stuff he does for us, the winning things he does, it’s hard to put into numbers, and unfortunately we’re in this numbers generation where everything’s numbers. His brilliance sometimes is missed by a lot of people.”
Green said after the Sixers’ shootaround Wednesday that he sees why people link James and Simmons, but that he thinks it’s “unfair” to compare anyone to James. We think that’s a reasonable assessment.
Embiid’s eventful evening
It didn’t take long for Embiid to frustrate Marc Gasol, the man who guarded him during his career-worst 0-for-11 performance last season, as the 35-year-old picked up a technical foul in the first quarter for objecting to an Embiid and-one. The Sixers’ All-Star center started rolling after that, squaring up and making his move in the post before double teams could arrive.
Rivers left Embiid in for over 10 minutes and played him in a lineup with no true power forward. That unit was excellent as the Sixers shaded help in the direction of whichever man was facing a size disadvantage on a particular defensive possession and continued to cook offensively, gaining a 34-18 lead.
The non-Embiid minutes that followed were a lot less fruitful for the Sixers as the Lakers went on an 8-0 run. Dwight Howard missed four throws during that stretch and didn’t play well, prompting Rivers to insert Simmons as his team’s defensive center. A member of the Los Angeles bench yelled out “No rim protection” upon seeing that decision and, with all due respect to Simmons and his diverse defensive talents, the sentiment wasn’t wrong.
That said, the Sixers were at least able to muster some offense and stabilize things a bit when Simmons replaced Howard. Rivers’ willingness to use Simmons at center is certainly a notable development; perhaps it’s a look the Sixers will start incorporating more if they envision featuring it in the playoffs. Rivers did give Howard his normal backup center minutes in the second half.
The Sixers welcomed back Embiid’s ability to draw fouls (along with his many other skills, of course) after he missed the team’s loss Monday to the Pistons with back tightness. Embiid was 11 for 13 from the foul line and is now averaging 10.9 free throw attempts per game through 15 contests.
Embiid (28 points, six rebounds, four assists) had an injury scare in the third period when he went up for a dunk and fell hard to the floor after James made contact with his chest. He pounded his fist into the floor and got up gingerly but stayed in the game and made both free throws. James was called for a Flagrant 1 foul, though Embiid said after the game he thought the 16-time All-Star should’ve been ejected.
Embiid was whistled for a Flagrant 1 foul of his own about a minute later when he hit Davis in the face with an elbow while looking to draw a foul on a drive.
Complementary pieces step up
In a star-centric game, the Sixers won in large part because their complementary players were better overall than the Lakers’.
At an important juncture early in the third quarter, Harris drove into Gasol’s body and laid the ball in to give the Sixers a 57-53 lead. Harris (24 points on 10-for-16 shooting) and Green (14 points on 5-for-11 shooting) both drained three-pointers shortly thereafter, helping the Sixers build their advantage back up to 12 points, forcing a Lakers timeout and removing some of the uneasiness that might have stemmed from the Lakers’ second-quarter comeback.
Though the Lakers didn’t go away, Harris was vital again later in the third, converting a lefty layup, stopping Davis one-on-one twice in the post and enabling the Sixers to maintain their lead. His All-Star case certainly grew a little stronger Wednesday night, especially with his clutch jumper to cap a high-drama game.
“I hope we do all make it together,” Harris said when asked about himself, Embiid and Simmons possibly all being All-Stars. “Obviously, this season we’ve been playing great basketball as a team. We have the MVP on our team in Joel. He’s been playing lights-out since Day 1. Ben has been a great player. This year he’s been playing at a great pace, really dictating everything and defensively, offensively, doing his thing all around.
“I hope we do all make the game. For myself, I’ve always just been about winning and letting that handle itself, but I’ve been playing consistently at an All-Star level every night. I’m not one to always toot my own horn but in the past I’ve had a couple times where I felt like I should’ve been there and didn’t make it, so that would be my little pitch for it right there.”