Sixers 121, Rockets 93: Joel Embiid dominates in convincing win over James Harden and company

Sixers 121, Rockets 93: Joel Embiid dominates in convincing win over James Harden and company


On a night the MVP favorite was in the building, the Sixers’ MVP put on a show.

Joel Embiid was dominant in a 121-93 drubbing of James Harden and the Rockets on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, at the Wells Fargo Center. 

The Sixers did so without the services of Jimmy Butler who has a “slight sprain” in his right wrist. 

The win improves them to 20-5 at home and 31-17 overall. They're also in the midst of a brutal 12-game stretch in which they've started 2-1.

Here are observations from the victory:

• Embiid was sensational. There was no chance Nene or newcomer Kenneth Faried was stopping him Monday night. Then again, the way he was playing, there may not have been anyone in the league that could’ve stopped Embiid.

From a physical standpoint, this is the best Embiid has looked since we found out about his back tightness last Thursday before the Pacers game. With the way Harden has played, it’ll be hard for anyone else to win the award, but Embiid certainly looked the part of an MVP Monday — especially if defense is a factor.

Embiid definitely relished the matchup, finishing with 32 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in just 26 minutes.

• Unless you’ve been living under rock, you know that Harden has been playing at an insane level. Coming in, he averaged 44.4 points on 17.4 attempts from three and 13.9 from the free throw line since Jan. 1. 

You’re not going to stop him, but Brett Brown did everything he could to try to slow down and frustrate him. Corey Brewer, who started in place of Jimmy Butler, got the first crack at his former teammate. Harden also saw Wilson Chandler, Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell.

As a team, it did as good of a job as you can do, but a ton of credit has to go to McConnell. He seemed to get under the MVP candidate’s skin and recorded a steal and a block in the first quarter.

Harden still got his, putting up 37 points on 12 of 26 from the field. The Rockets were also without two starters in point guard Chris Paul (strained left hamstring) and big man Clint Capela (right thumb).

• Brewer, who is with the Sixers on a 10-day contract, gave the team a boost. He air-balled a three on his first shot attempt, but converted on a nice baseline drive on his very next touch.

He managed to agitate Harden as well. During a sequence in the second quarter, Harden stuck his head right into Brewer’s chest as both players trailed the play. Unfortunately, no official saw it. Then with time running out in the half, Harden gave Brewer a shove and a foul was called. The two are friends, but you wouldn’t have known it.

All of the action elicited chants of “Cor-ey Bre-wer” from the crowd. Only in Philly …

It’s an incredibly small sample size and nothing in the box score will blow you away, but Brewer has already showed enough in a short stint to deserve a longer look. He’s 32 now, but he hasn’t lost one bit of his explosiveness. Brown mentioned when they signed Brewer that he could see the veteran wing flying up the court with Simmons. You saw it vs. the Rockets.

He’s an improvement over anything the Sixers can provide off the bench with his athleticism and the ability to defend on the wing. Plus, he seems to have fit right into the team's culture.

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On a circus-like night vs. Lakers, Shake Milton 'keeps it cool'

On a circus-like night vs. Lakers, Shake Milton 'keeps it cool'

The Sixers didn’t have regular starters Joel Embiid or Josh Richardson available Saturday night, turned the ball over 23 times and beat the Lakers by 17 points.

Through three quarters, their leading rebounder was second-year guard Shake Milton, who was making his first start of the season. 

The juicy story Saturday night was the matchup between LeBron James and his mentee Ben Simmons (see story). Milton slid into a supporting role without much trouble and looked like he belonged. Outside of an early bobble when Simmons found him on a backdoor cut, his pregame nerves weren’t evident.

“Big primetime game, everything like that,” Milton said. “But once the ball is tipped, you get up and down the floor one time, you’re good — it’s just basketball.”

In 25 minutes, he finished with seven points (3 of 5 shooting), three assists, a steal and nine rebounds — more than James, Anthony Davis or any Laker. What was more striking than the stats was Milton’s disposition. It was what we’ve seen when he’s had huge scoring games in the G League and when he’s been stuck on the Sixers’ bench. He stays composed and keeps things simple. 

“There is sort of like a poise, an inner peace — he plays at a non-rattled level,” Brett Brown said. “He really doesn't, to me, get rattled. He doesn't get [shaken] up.”

Milton said he’s always been like this — polished, poised, under control. 

“I think just growing up and playing through AAU and all my basketball experience, I’ve kind of always kept it cool," he said. "When you’re around guys like Ben, Tobias [Harris], Al [Horford], it gives you a lot of confidence to go out there and do what you have to do.”

The SMU product has said, fairly enough, that he thinks he has “one of the coolest names,” so that might help explain the origin story, or at least spice it up a bit.  

Regardless, he was effective Saturday night both on and off the ball, running dribble handoff actions with Simmons, getting the Australian the ball at the elbows, and setting up shop in the corners. He didn't do anything exceptional — perhaps outside of trying to stand his ground on a few occasions when James barreled toward the rim, including on the basket that put the Lakers’ star over Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list. He did a little bit of everything, though. 

With Richardson scheduled to be reevaluated in approximately two weeks, Harris thinks Milton is capable of showing more of what he can do now that he’s back in Brown’s rotation. 

“He’s a kid who comes in and works every single day and now he’s getting presented with an opportunity, and he did a great job at that,” Harris said. “There’s a lot more that he can do, too, that he’ll continue to build his confidence and go forward with that.”

The early stages of Milton’s NBA career have been marred by injuries. He missed summer league his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his back, broke his finger last February, sprained his ankle in summer league this year and suffered a left knee injury on Oct. 28.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll have a spot when Richardson returns, but it’s encouraging for Milton to see his work behind the scenes being rewarded. Milton’s time with the Delaware Blue Coats, his rehab and his individual workouts with player development coach Tyler Lashbrook all contributed to Brown being able to throw someone into his starting lineup who was far from overwhelmed or embarrassed in front of a national audience. 

“It’s definitely hard,” Milton said. “Everybody wants to play. You gotta take it as an opportunity to just lock in and make sure you’re on top of your stuff so that when your number is called you’re able to perform.”

He probably won’t outrebound one of the best players in NBA history again, but it seems safe to bank on Milton’s steadiness.  

On a night that sometimes felt like an evening at the circus — with swarms of media members waiting around every corner, eager to chronicle James’ every move, and a loud, passionate Wells Fargo Center crowd urging on Simmons’ aggression — a 23-year-old kept a level head. 

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LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

There was a little over eight minutes left in the game. Ben Simmons was being guarded by Danny Green. There was nobody there to protect the rim as Simmons had the ball at the top of the key.

Simmons didn’t hesitate. He didn’t make a move. He simply blew by Green, used his sinewy frame to create space and then threw down a vicious two-handed dunk.

In a game matched up against his mentor LeBron James, Simmons kind of looked like … well, LeBron James in leading the Sixers to a 108-91 win over the Lakers Saturday night (see observations).

“At the end of the game, they actually came up and started guarding him,” Brett Brown said. “So I put him in a bunch of pick-and-rolls as the point guard. Put him in a lot of elbow action, offensively. And then defensively, you look at the disturbance that Matisse [Thybulle] and Ben caused. ... He was really special tonight on a very talented court.”

It would’ve been great if the Sixers just got what they did out of Simmons on the offensive end (28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists), but he was also stellar defensively.

James had eight turnovers on the night and much of the credit for that goes to Simmons (four steals) and the rookie Thybulle (five steals). Part of the credit also has to go to Brown for his defensive strategy against James — hedging on screens and not allowing James to get mismatches.

For as unique as the pick-and-roll pairing of James and star big man Anthony Davis is, the Sixers have a unique duo to defend it in Simmons and veteran Al Horford. While both L.A. All-Stars got their numbers, they also combined for 13 turnovers and never truly got into a rhythm.

But this story is about Simmons. 

In the nine games since Joel Embiid went on the shelf, Simmons is averaging 21.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.6 steals a game. Over his last three games, he’s 21 of 29 (72.4 percent) from the line. With so much talk about his fourth-quarter scoring, he was 3 of 4 for six points and three assists in the final period Saturday.

The jump shot hasn’t come along like many hoped it would, but Simmons’ game is clearly evolving.

“I was out there at times just watching him just figuring things out, whether it’s laying it up or making the pass,” Horford said. “It’s amazing. He’s coming down the lane and it’s just like, ‘Good luck.’ He’s just playing with a lot of confidence right now, so that’s good to see.”

At practice Friday, Brown was asked how you go about slowing down James. He talked about not being able to guard him 1-on-1: “Here he comes, straight at you, good luck.”

James still got his, scoring 29 points and, in the process, passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Now playing for Bryant’s former team, James reminisced about how he got to know the “Black Mamba.”

Bryant is now a spectator as James passed him. James, now 35, knows he’s in the twilight of his career. Though he appears to still have elite basketball left, he spoke like a man that senses his own mortality.

While this game wasn’t a full-blown torch passing, there was a bit of that vibe as James spoke.

“It’s pretty amazing,” James said on having Bryant watching him now. “That’s pretty much how I’m going to be when I’m done playing, being able to come back and watch this beautiful game and hopefully there’s somebody still playing the game at a high level. Like the guy across the hallway, Ben Simmons, I can sit and watch him and see how much he continues to grow and watch him do what he does … he’s growing every day and it’s a pretty cool thing to see him.”

Perhaps shooting to pass James on the all-time scoring list in the future is a bit lofty, but the Sixers will take more peformances like Saturday's from Simmons in the present.

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