WASHINGTON — The Sixers won their third straight game Monday night thanks to their (relatively) little guys.
James Harden had 23 points and 17 assists in a 118-111 win over the Wizards at Capitol One Arena as the Sixers moved to 4-4 on the season.
Tyrese Maxey was the team's top scorer with 28 points. And De'Anthony Melton, starting with Joel Embiid out because of a non-COVID illness, added 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
“We’re a work in progress," Harden said after the game. “We’re continuously trying to figure out how great we can be. And I’m glad we were going through a tough time. And everything isn’t great just because we’re winning games. It just feels that way.
“We just continue to push, continue to get better defensively. And then offensively, knowing our spacing, knowing what we’re trying to accomplish each possession … and living with the results. But we feel pretty good about each other.”
Kristaps Porzingis scored 32 points for the Wizards, Bradley Beal 20.
The Sixers will play Washington again on Wednesday in Philadelphia. Here are observations on the team's victory Monday:
Harden-Tucker duo finds immediate groove
It was obvious right away that Harden would not duplicate his 2-for-13 performance from the Sixers’ win Saturday over the Bulls. He made his first attempt, a transition leaner, and the Sixers opened 6 for 7 from the floor as a team.
As Sixers head coach Doc Rivers preaches, they kept running an action that Washington couldn’t stop. The basic structure was simple; Harden made an Iverson cut to the wing before running a side pick-and-roll with Tucker. On one occasion, Harden drew two defenders, stayed patient, and dished to Tucker on the short roll for a successful push shot. The next time down, the same look got Tucker a layup. And finally, when Harden pushed the ball up the court, the Sixers flummoxed the Wizards with a double drag action. Harden drove and kicked to Tucker, who canned a corner three.
Later, the Wizards somehow allowed the seas to part and Harden drove in for an and-one layup on Porzingis. After a delay to patch up bleeding on his left elbow, Harden hit the free throw to give the Sixers a 17-16 edge. The foul shot lifted him past Dirk Nowitzki into sole possession of 16th place on the NBA’s all-time free throw attempts list. Harden was back at the stripe on the Sixers’ subsequent trip thanks to a four-point play.
In under six minutes, he had nine points, five assists and three rebounds. Tucker joined him at nine points soon after, too. The 37-year-old began 5 for 5 from the floor and was happy to accept the short mid-range chances that came to him.
Tucker’s intuitive understanding of Harden’s game and how he can supplement it has begun to shine more. Yes, they’re both different players than during their Rockets days, but there’s plenty that’s still applicable about how each prefers to play and the ways they can be effective in tandem. Tucker is a habitual ball-mover, too, which has been nice at times when the Sixers might otherwise become too stationary. If he’s involved in a manner that’s not taking a corner three, there’s a good chance the Sixers’ half-court offense will force the opposition to work.
“Well, we put him at the five," Rivers said. “I think that’s one of the things we’ll do. Taking him out, bringing him back in is something we talk about doing a lot. The problem is we keep getting guys injured, and so it’s hard to do it. But we’re starting to see, slowly, what our rotation can be.”
Coping with size disparity
The 7-foot-3 Porzingis is taller than just about anyone he faces, but his height advantage was especially pronounced Monday night. He scored Washington’s first five points over Tobias Harris.
The Sixers were fortunate that Porzingis is not an old-school post player by any means. It also helped that they’ve got several defenders whose sturdiness can sometimes compensate well for height deficits in Tucker, Harris and Harden. Porzingis should’ve had greater awareness of the situation, but one second-quarter possession expired with the ball in his hands against Harden in the post.
At one point, the Wizards assigned Porzingis to Matisse Thybulle with clear (and not uncommon) instructions to send double teams at Harden. Every team will adopt its own defensive approach against Thybulle, but we imagine Washington’s will remain the norm this season barring a tremendous, sustained outside shooting stretch for the 25-year-old.
Thybulle did register two back-tap steals in the first half to regain possession quickly for the Sixers. In games where the team’s defense looks suspect or simply lethargic, he’s still a tempting antidote.
The Sixers used an 11-man rotation, although Paul Reed entered only because of a Montrezl Harrell injury. Harrell went down with 9:30 left in the second quarter with an apparent head injury and stayed on the floor for over a minute. He eventually headed back to the bench and yelled a few words at the officials on his way.
Harrell returned to the action in the second half and packed many of his best qualities into a flurry of activity at the end of the third quarter. The stint included an and-one, rolling layup, a fadeaway jumper out of the post, a big block, and all of his trademark energy.
Maxey kept things rolling early in the fourth quarter by sinking a long three and driving for an and-one layup that grew the Sixers’ lead to 17 points. His ever-improving feel for the game stood out in the pick-and-roll, where the 21-year-old looked like he had limitless options for creating a great shot.
Georges Niang helped the Sixers' offense maintain its stellar efficiency by staying hot on the trip from Chicago to the nation's capital. Niang drained four three-pointers, giving him seven over the last two games.
Melton a fantastic third guard
The end of the second quarter was a chaotic stretch of basketball and neither team appeared overjoyed with the officiating. Beal seemed to get away with a carry before assisting a Monte Morris three. Harden was incredulous at a couple of no-calls and had no luck hunting isolations against Morris. Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. was fine with Morris switching on to Harden, who scored zero points in the second.
The Sixers started the third quarter on a 7-0 run and Melton was a key reason why. The 24-year-old had quite a few excellent defensive possessions against Beal. While Melton is wiry, he’s a strong competitor with an innate sense for his man’s next move. Luck played a role, too; Beal missed an open fast-break three after a Melton turnover. Ironically, Beal followed that up by swishing a long-distance jumper which Melton contested very tightly.
Melton made an open three-pointer that put the Sixers ahead 68-64 after a missed reverse dunk Kyle Kuzma would surely like to pretend never happened. In general, the second half was a terrific example of Melton's knack for being in the middle of almost everything. He's at home in strange, slightly helter-skelter games.
Washington fought back in the fourth, but Melton was huge for the Sixers down the stretch. He converted two transition layups, slickly assisted Tucker, and made a tough hoop inside through contact.
Asked what's clicked lately for Melton, Rivers said, “Honestly, the two things are just playing with us more, No. 1. And No. 2 is touching the ball. The first two games, he never really touched the ball a lot. Now we’re sharing the ball more as a team and he feels more involved.
“He’s such a disruptor defensively. And again, I keep saying it: I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good defensively. His hands, they’re just incredible.”