Although Wednesday night’s game was not going to provide a definitive answer to whether the Philadelphia 76ers are a NBA title contender, it was the team’s most significant early-season test yet.
And yes, the Sixers passed it in a 107-106 win over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to improve to 13-6.
Tobias Harris’ pull-up jumper on the Sixers’ last possession of the game won the team the game and saved it from would’ve been a very disappointing loss. The Sixers up by 14 points with a little over five minutes to go, the late-game execution simply wasn’t good enough as they seemed more eager to watch the clock wind down than score. Harris, in the end, saved the day, and an off-balance Anthony Davis heave at the buzzer came up short.
LeBron James posted 34 points, six rebounds, and six assists in a losing effort, keeping LA competitive throughout the game.
The win is the 2020-21 Sixers’ best thus far, a very good 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.
Here are three takeaways on their win over the Lakers:
Sixers point guard Ben Simmons was in attack mode from the start, scoring six points of the Sixers’ first nine, quickly eating up the available space James gave him to operate in and setting the tone well.
James was predictably the focal point of the Lakers’ offense, and he burned Simmons and the Sixers’ 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 the Lakers shot one for 11 from beyond the arch and received no meaningful scoring from anyone besides James and Anthony Davis.
Though James scored much more than his guarder, Simmons left his mark on the game in many ways as he recording his 31st career triple-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Danny 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.
Embiid’s plays like an MVP, again
It didn’t take long for 76ers center Joel Embiid to frustrate Lakers center 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.
Head coach Doc Rivers left Embiid in for over 10 minutes and played him in a lineup with no true power forward. The unit was excellent as the Sixers got help in the direction of whichever man was facing a size disadvantage on a particular defensive possession and continued to work offensively, gaining a 34-18 lead.
The non-Embiid minutes that followed were a lot less exciting as the Lakers went on an 8-0 run. Dwight Howard missed four free-throws during that stretch and didn’t play well, prompting Rivers to insert Simmons as his team’s defensive center.
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 on Monday to the Detroit Pistons with back tightness.
Embiid finished with 28 points, six rebounds, and four assists and was 11 for 13 from the foul line.
Embiid had an injury scare in the third quarter 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 one foul. Embiid was whistled for a flagrant one foul of his own just about a minute later when he hit Davis in the face with an elbow while looking to draw a foul on a drive.
Complementary player stepped 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 point early in the third quarter, Tobias Harris drove into Gasol’s body and laid the ball in the net to give the Sixers a 57-53 lead. Harris (24 points on 10-for-16 shooting) and Danny Green (14 points on five-for-11 shooting) both drained three-pointers shortly after, helping the Sixers build their advantage back up to 12 pointsThis forced 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 nice layup, stopping Davis one-on-one twice in the post, and enabling the Sixers to maintain their lead. His All-Star case grew a little stronger Wednesday night.
The Sixers (13-6) next play on Friday night, a road matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves (4-12).