Joel Embiid, James Harden lead Sixers to another tight win

3 observations after Sixers pick up another tight win over Lakers originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers have opened their West Coast trip with two wins by a total of two points.

They followed up their victory Saturday over the Jazz by eking out a 113-112 win Sunday night over the Lakers.

Instead of calling a timeout after a missed Joel Embiid jumper, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham rode with Russell Westbrook’s cross-match against Embiid. Westbrook, who posted a 20-point triple-double, struggled to generate space. Georges Niang got his hands on a leaping Westbrook pass and the Sixers improved to 27-16 this season.

Embiid scored 35 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. James Harden had 24 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds.

Lakers superstar LeBron James recorded 35 points, 10 assists and eight boards.

Harden (left heel pain) and Tobias Harris (left knee soreness) both played after being listed as questionable. The Lakers were without Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV.

The Sixers will stay in Los Angeles and play the Clippers on Tuesday night. Here are observations on their second straight narrow victory:

Stars, threes, and free throws 

P.J. Tucker began the night guarding James, though the Sixers almost immediately switched De’Anthony Melton on to the 18-time All-Star. James used his size advantage to score the game’s first hoop.

The 38-year-old had a very hot start; James shot 8 for 9 from the floor in the first quarter and passed 38,000 career points. Some of those makes were well-guarded, but the Sixers allowed James to get comfortable and play on his terms. He’s long been world-class at doing exactly that and remains especially formidable when he’s knocking down contested jumpers. Still, everything looked easier than it should’ve been in the early going.

The Sixers’ stars also didn’t have much trouble playing their preferred games. Embiid scored the team’s first five points on a top-of-the-key three-pointer and easy layup against Thomas Bryant. Harden then scored the next seven. He got downhill off of pick-and-rolls, varied his pace, and found soft spots in the Lakers’ defense over and over again.

The Lakers entered Sunday first in the NBA in defensive free throw rate, per Cleaning the Glass, but Embiid always poses a massive challenge in that department. He made five first-quarter free throws and scored 14 points in the period, while the Lakers were 0 for 1 at the foul line. That’s one reason the Lakers didn’t have an overwhelming first half offensively despite tons of success in the paint. Their 0-for-7 start from three-point range was another big factor, and those outside shooting struggles also made zone defense more viable for the Sixers.

The Harden-Embiid duo was back at it late in the second quarter as Harden drilled a three and assisted an Embiid dunk. The All-Star big man used a slow-motion pump fake effectively before sinking a walk-in-the-park jumper. Embiid against anyone at the nail is bound to favor him, and the Lakers didn’t prevent him from receiving regular touches there.

Melton starts, Maxey closes

The Sixers kept Melton in their starting lineup and brought Tyrese Maxey off the bench.

Lakers guard Dennis Schröder and Melton combined to begin 0 for 9 from the floor. Melton subbed out with 6:04 left in the third quarter and did not return. Tucker also didn’t close; Niang played the final eight minutes and change over him. As for Maxey, he recorded 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting in his 33 minutes.

Harris had a well-rounded stat line of 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and three blocks. He was aggressive early in the third quarter, attacking in both half court and transition. His scoring burst was valuable to remind the Lakers that the Sixers have offensive threats besides Embiid and Harden.

Still, L.A. was the superior transition team Sunday and finished with an 18-5 advantage in fast-break points. While an open-floor James highlight or two is unavoidable, the Sixers’ resistance was minimal during a 9-0 Lakers run to close the second quarter. In the third, Harris tried to toss a soft pass to Embiid in the post against the Lakers’ zone. His turnover fueled a fast break punctuated by a Bryant dunk. A Westbrook four-point play soon after gave L.A. a 77-72 lead.

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Sixers were clearly playing with inferior energy and force at that stage. Embiid provided a can’t-miss response, throwing down a fierce, and-one dunk, and the Sixers’ jumpers then started dropping. Threes by Shake Milton, Niang and Embiid restored a four-point Sixers lead. They were up three heading into the fourth quarter of a back-and-forth affair.

Just enough in another nervy finish

Compared to the veteran Sixers defending him, James’ quick-twitch athleticism was awfully impressive early in the fourth.

He split Tucker and Montrezl Harrell on the perimeter before making a rapidly spinning layup to put the Lakers ahead 90-88. James scored on the identical move a couple of minutes later.

For a second consecutive night, Harden was extremely sharp in the fourth quarter. He made two driving layups and capitalized on a brief moment of confusion in the Lakers’ pick-and-roll coverage to hit a go-ahead three. While plenty of Harden’s fourth-quarter production boils down to whether he makes or misses tough jumpers, he’s still certainly capable of generating efficient offense in many ways.

Embiid finally checked back in with 5:35 remaining in the fourth. Though it’s fair for Embiid not to want games being determined by the officials, he likely leaned on his jumper slightly more than was necessary Sunday. Going 2 for 4 on mid-range shots over the final four minutes got the job done.

Maxey and Niang each rewarded Sixers head coach Doc Rivers’ decision to include them in his closing lineup. Maxey slammed in a lefty dunk after an explosive drive, while Niang drained a corner three to give the Sixers a 111-109 edge.

The Sixers’ defense was again far from great against a sub.-500 opponent. Sealing a win with a stop is always satisfying, though, and these last two wins of course count the same as higher-quality victories on the Sixers’ résumé. At a season-best 11 games over .500, the Sixers are fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the No. 5 Cavaliers and a half-game behind the No. 2 Nets.

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