Joel Embiid was the best player on the floor by far. And I mean by far.

Embiid had his third career triple-double with 31 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists as he led the Sixers to their fourth straight win in a 133-113 victory over the Houston Rockets Monday night.

Furkan Korkmaz posted 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting for the Sixers. 

Houston’s Garrison Matthews scored 23 points on 6-for-10 shooting. 

There was Sixers pregame news aplenty, including that Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle are sidelined because of health and safety protocols. Dan Burke served as acting head coach again with Doc Rivers in COVID-19 protocols.

The Rockets suspended Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. for Monday’s game after incidents with both players in a loss Saturday to the Denver Nuggets. 

Here’s three takeaways as the Sixers advanced to 20-16:

Mr. Triple-Double

Embiid was opposed by Daniel Theis, a familiar face from the center’s Boston Celtics days.  

Embiid worked well for deep post position but missed three point-blank shots on one first-quarter possession. The big man was persistent, though, and found his touch soon enough. He fired up the home crowd with a thunderous first-quarter dunk that extended the Sixers’ lead to 22-17.

Overall, however Houston guarded him, the game looked easy to Embiid, who kept the momentum from his stellar month of December.

As we’ve repeated time and time again this season, Embiid is growing as a passer. When the Sixers had him organize from the top of the key, he looked very comfortable. 

Making adjustments

Without two key players in Maxey and Thybulle, the Sixers needed to do some rotation changing. 

Seth Curry started at point guard but exited with 9:18 left in the first quarter after fouling Matthews on a three-point try. Shake Milton replaced Curry and was also demonstrative in his defense on the sharpshooting Matthews, giving up a four-point play.

Milton exited after falling to the floor hard with 7:26 left in the fourth. There was no immediate word on his status, though it was obvious Milton injured his back. He was able to get up and walk into the tunnel under his own power.

Fouls and transition defense were problems for the Sixers in the first half as the team gave up 20 free throw attempts and 16 fast-break points before halftime. Too many plays when Houston had a clear path into the paint and no Sixer stopped them. 

Korkmaz started on the wing and was an early bright spot with three first-quarter threes and nine of the Sixers’ first 15 points.  

Isaiah Joe provided wing depth behind Green and Korkmaz. He had a nice showing, too. Joe converted an and-one layup, sunk a long three, and stepped in to take a charge on a Rockets fast break during a stretch at the beginning of the second quarter. The officials called it a block, but the anticipation and defensive commitment were positives from Joe regardless. Those qualities were not in abundance among Joe’s teammates. 

Paul Reed played three first-half minutes in an unusual frontcourt alongside Georges Niang and Embiid. His speed and defensive versatility were useful traits against Houston, although Burke still turned to Andre Drummond at backup center despite the Rockets playing small (6-foot-4 Jae’Sean Tate guarded Drummond).

Tough night for Harris, Curry turns things around

The players one would’ve expected to be the Sixers’ second and third scoring options couldn’t have shot much worse in the first half. Curry and Tobias Harris combined to go 3-for-16 from the floor. 

Harris heard boos Monday night, and they were deserved. For a player who likes to lean on intentional back-downs and is feasting less in transition without Ben Simmons — who was at the Wells Fargo Center today, but didn’t sit with the team during the game —, it’s very problematic that he doesn’t draw many foul shots. He’s totaled four free throw attempts in the two games after he notched a career-high 14.

With that said, Harris isn’t always the only one to blame when the Sixers disappoint, even if he’s a fair target because of his five-year, $180 million contract. And, though it’s not the only factor relevant, it remains worth noting that Harris said last month, “I still feel like every day I have a cold” after testing positive for COVID-19 in November.

Curry made three jumpers in the early stages of the third, including a triple that built the Sixers’ edge to 82-71. The team trailed by a point at halftime but didn’t seem in serious danger of a loss to the 10-win Rockets unless both Curry and Harris continued to struggle.