The Sixers crafted an unlikely comeback Thursday night in their first game after the All-Star break.
They earned a fifth straight victory and improved to 39-19 this season with a 110-105 win over the Grizzlies at Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid had 27 points, 19 rebounds, six assists and six blocks. James Harden scored 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane posted 25 points and eight rebounds. All-Star Ja Morant had 15 points on 3-for-16 shooting,
Dewayne Dedmon was sidelined for the Sixers with left hip tightness. The Grizzlies were down Steven Adams (right knee PCL sprain) and Luke Kennard (non-COVID illness).
The Sixers will host the Eastern Conference-leading, 43-17 Celtics on Saturday night. Here are observations on their victory over Memphis:
Big contrast between Bane and Embiid
The Sixers began a bit sloppily, although their miscues in the first few minutes looked like typical post-All-Star rust. Harden threw a pass from around mid-court that almost went in the hoop and the team was generally indecisive in its half-court offense.
Embiid’s play was more concerning. The Sixers’ six-time All-Star big man missed his first six field goals and clearly didn’t appear to be feeling his best, stooping over during stoppages. Indeed, Embiid was a late addition to the Sixers’ injury report Thursday night with a non-COVID illness before officially being deemed available. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Embiid’s bothersome left foot was feeling better, but it certainly seemed Embiid’s illness contributed to his subpar first half.
Almost nothing about the opening period went as the Sixers would’ve envisioned. PJ Tucker picked up two quick fouls and then threw the ball out of bounds looking for Tobias Harris in the corner. Tyrese Maxey subbed in for Tucker and the Sixers got briefly back on track with four fast-break points, but they couldn’t maintain momentum after Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins called timeout. They paid for leaving Bane, an excellent, high-volume three-point shooter (42.7 percent this season), open for comfortable looks. He caught fire in the first quarter and finished the period with 21 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
The Sixers as a team only scored 22 points in the first. Embiid and Rivers were both noticeably frustrated with how Maxey ran a half-court set late in the quarter. Embiid missed a jumper from the nail, then conceded a floater to Xavier Tillman. Embiid finally scored from the floor with a driving dunk on the Sixers’ ensuing possession … and Bane answered swiftly with another three. The Sixers fell behind by 15 points when Bane banked in an off-balance shot on Memphis’ final possession of the first period.
That large of a deficit is an anomaly when Embiid plays an entire quarter, but his showing was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the Sixers fell into a sizable hole.
Harden moves past Iverson
Harden was the Sixers’ best source of offense in the first half, but he could not carry bench-heavy lineups to massive success.
After Harden trimmed the Grizzlies’ lead to 39-29, Memphis hurt the Sixers over and over again by reaching the paint against both zone and man-to-man defense and drawing plenty of fouls. Embiid’s re-entry did not turn the tide. He tried to dunk on Jaren Jackson Jr. and the NBA’s leader in blocks emphatically snuffed his attempt, leading to a David Roddy fast-break dunk that put the Grizzlies up 52-35. Embiid sunk as low as 1 for 13 from the floor on a desperation three-point miss as the shot clock expired.
Harden at least got the Sixers into halftime with a chance at a comeback win. He moved past Sixers great Allen Iverson for 26th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with a long-range jumper and also assisted a Harris three during an 8-0 Sixers run. Ray Allen, Patrick Ewing, Jerry West and Reggie Miller are the next players for Harden to pass.
Like Embiid, Jackson started 0 for 6 from the floor. However, he hit a long, improbable three at the end of the second quarter to send Memphis into intermission with a 12-point edge.
Sixers lean on defense to storm back
Morant was yet another big name to struggle from the floor in the first half. De’Anthony Melton did a solid job early on his former teammate and the Sixers were obviously determined not to allow Morant any easy routes to the hoop.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Melton was called for his fourth foul with 9:14 to go in the third quarter. Rivers made the risky decision to keep him in the game, which backfired when Melton got his fifth foul just 65 seconds later going for a defensive rebound.
Melton’s exit invited the Grizzlies to center their offense around Morant. When Embiid came up to defend a Morant-Tillman pick-and-roll, Santi Aldama smartly slipped behind him on the baseline and finished off a Morant lob. Maxey also had a tough time offensively, dropping to 2 for 11 from the floor when a corner three try went in and out. The 22-year-old was persistent, though, and he scored two driving buckets late in the third quarter. The Sixers only trailed by a half-dozen points entering the fourth.
While Embiid wasn’t at all his usual self offensively, he was extremely impressive protecting the rim all night. Embiid also helped the Sixers avoid severe problems on the defensive glass, although they didn’t have nearly as much reason to worry there with Adams out. Embiid set Harris and Tucker up for key corner threes in the third with nice passes out of double teams, too.
The Sixers opened the fourth quarter with Harden alongside four bench players. Georges Niang had a rough stint and Jackson snuck behind the defense for an alley-oop slam that extended Memphis' lead to 91-79.
To the Sixers' credit, the team's effort level didn't plummet despite many good reasons for exasperation. Tucker stripped Dillon Brooks of the ball, Harden converted an and-one layup, and the Sixers put together an immediate 7-0 run. Embiid tightly contested a missed Morant layup and rejected Tillman at the rim as the Sixers kept eating into the Grizzlies' lead. An Embiid mid-range jumper tied the game at 100 apiece.
The final minutes were unsurprisingly chaotic, and the Sixers fared well through all the ups and downs. After four straight Jackson points, Harden bailed the Sixers out with a difficult three. Tucker snagged a big offensive board, Harris drilled another clutch corner three, and Embiid leaped jubilantly after breaking free for a fast-break dunk that put the Sixers ahead 108-105.
The Sixers' execution on Memphis' next possession sure wasn't textbook — Jalen McDaniels allowed Bane to take two open threes that would've tied the game — but they ultimately survived. They scrapped back Thursday to win their first game in the league's hardest post-All-Star schedule.