In a game largely about the stars who weren’t available, Joel Embiid attracted even more attention than usual.
He heard “MVP” chants Wednesday throughout the night from the crowd at Wells Fargo Center as he recorded 39 points on 13-for-29 shooting and 13 rebounds in a 123-117 Sixers win over the Nets.
Tobias Harris scored 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting for the Sixers. Ben Simmons (17 points, nine assists, three steals) and Shake Milton (15 points on 6-for-8 shooting) were other standouts.
Seven Nets were out Wednesday night, including James Harden (right hamstring strain), Kevin Durant (left hamstring injury management), LaMarcus Aldridge (illness) and Blake Griffin (left knee injury management).
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn’s lone available star, had 37 points and nine assists.
Dwight Howard was sidelined by left knee soreness, meaning every Sixer has now missed at least one game this season. There’s no official timeline yet for George Hill’s Sixers debut as he rehabs following right thumb surgery in February.
With the victory, the Sixers sealed their regular-season series against the Nets and moved to 38-17, a game ahead of Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll play the Clippers at home Friday night.
Here are three observations on Wednesday’s game:
Hunting desirable matchups
DeAndre Jordan started for Brooklyn and allowed Embiid to take open three-pointers whenever he pleased. Embiid accepted the invitation six times, making three.
He appeared to run back down the floor gingerly after pump faking, driving past Jordan and dunking in the second quarter. His movement wasn’t considerably hampered, though it’s worth remembering Embiid still needs to wear a brace on his left knee and is frustrated by how it’s impacted his movement.
“It’s so big and heavy, and it kind of blocks your circulation, blood flow, so it makes your legs tired fast,” he said Monday. “So it’s hard not to think about it, but that’s something I’ve got to work through.”
Though Jordan played physical defense and had some solid possessions, Brooklyn obviously does not have an “Embiid stopper” on its roster. Jeff Green played at center after Embiid drew three fouls on Jordan late in the second quarter. Alize Johnson guarded Embiid down the stretch and did a good job fronting him, helping the Nets cut a deficit as high as 22 points as little as three.
“Overall, that fourth quarter, that comeback, it was just weird, I would say. I felt like I sat too long and kind of lost my rhythm," Embiid said. “Them fronting and trapping had nothing to do with how we played or how I played in that stretch when I came back. We just didn’t have the same physicality that we had for the first three quarters.”
Mike Scott was the Sixers’ backup center with Howard out. Putting shooters around Simmons is always an attractive idea, and it worked well late in the first quarter, with Milton and Scott each knocking down a corner three-pointer.
Harris became the Sixers’ offensive focal point once Simmons subbed out, though the Nets tried their best to deny him the ball and double team him once he received it. Still, Harris scored seven points early in the second quarter and seemed to feel confident against any defender he found in front of him.
The Sixers clearly view the Harris vs. Harris matchup (Tobias vs. Joe) as favorable. “Hunting” a good matchup is a popular playoff strategy, and this was a decent preview of how Harris and the Sixers will approach the game if they meet the Nets in the postseason. Of course, the Sixers also targeted smaller defenders like Irving and Landry Shamet, especially when they were switched onto a post-up threat like Harris or Simmons.
Furkan Korkmaz replaced Harris for the final 3:37 because head coach Doc Rivers saw Harris “limping around" and thought the Sixers could finish off a win without him (see story).
Irving excellent in losing effort
Irving was brilliant against dogged defense by Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. Those two were arguably overzealous on a few occasions, although it was perfectly reasonable to guard Irving tightly and attempt to force Brooklyn to look elsewhere for offense.
Even against flawless defense, Irving can often score. He shook Thybulle on the first possession he saw him with a smooth spin move directly into a layup. The Sixers made mistakes defensively, losing track of players besides Irving and conceding a few lobs to Jordan, but sometimes the right response to Irving’s virtuosic playmaking is appreciating his game and trusting that he can’t beat you by himself.
Interestingly, Irving did not play the final 8:39 as the Nets stuck with the young lineup that got them back into the game.
If Durant and Harden are available, how would the Sixers defend the Nets in the playoffs? It’s a road the Sixers will cross if they need to. The question is difficult but it seems the Sixers have a shot at answering it effectively, in part because they kept Danny Green and Thybulle past the trade deadline.
At a minimum, they’d have numerous legitimate options, which is better than most teams.
Did we learn anything useful?
The Nets’ many absences mean the notion of Wednesday’s game as a “playoff preview” is flimsy.
“It’s hard to gauge and get a good feel for a team when they’re never 100 percent when you play them,” Green said after the Sixers’ shootaround Wednesday.
Ultimately, the NBA is a star-centric league. If any of Durant, Harden, Irving, Simmons, Embiid or Harris were hurt in the playoffs, it would have a substantial impact.
This season is being played during a pandemic, and the league is looking to jam 72 games in for every team with very little time for rest or practices. Teams should be careful with their best players under these circumstances, as the Nets have been.