Joel Embiid scores 41 points, Tyrese Maxey big off the bench

3 observations after Embiid’s 41, Maxey’s burst help Sixers sweep L.A. games originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With far less anxiety about the final minutes than the opening two games of their West Coast trip, the Sixers notched another win in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.

By picking up a 120-110 victory, the Sixers completed a 2-0 season series sweep over the Clippers. They’d done the same two nights earlier against the Lakers.

All told, the team sits at 28-16 with the Trail Blazers up next on Thursday night. The Sixers have won 16 of their last 20 games.

Joel Embiid led the way yet again Tuesday, scoring 41 points and grabbing nine rebounds. He’s had 40 or more points on eight occasions this season.

Kawhi Leonard posted a team-high 27 points for the 23-23 Clippers, who were down John Wall (abdominal soreness) and Luke Kennard (right calf soreness).

Here are observations on the Sixers’ latest West Coast win:

More Embiid greatness vs. the Clippers

Back on Dec. 23, Embiid scored 44 points in an impressive comeback victory over the Clippers at home.

Through a quarter, he was on pace for 52. Embiid posted seven of the Sixers’ first 11 points, including a trailing three-pointer. He later made a put-back layup through contact and slammed in a dunk off a pick-and-roll with James Harden.

Embiid wasn’t flawless against the Clippers’ double teams, but his first-quarter assist to De’Anthony Melton was significant. L.A. doubled off of Melton in the strong-side corner, Embiid hit him with a quick, simple pass, and the 24-year-old made the Clippers pay. Teams will double Embiid at this point even on nights when his teammates are making plenty of open jumpers, but it’s always nice to provide early evidence that hard help may very well be costly. Those kinds of plays perhaps contribute to opponents doubling less than they should and taking too long to send full-out, aggressive help.

Embiid accelerated his scoring pace a bit in the second quarter. He reached 28 first-half points on 10-for-15 shooting with a buzzer-beating three-pointer, then rose both arms, high-fived a few teammates, and casually walked back to the locker room. He’s routinely a special scorer.

On Tuesday, Embiid’s effort to get paint touches both in transition and in the half court was consistently excellent. The Sixers recognized when they had opportunities to feed Embiid, and they were glad to reward him when he sprinted up the court to join fast breaks.

Embiid checked out with 2:53 remaining in the fourth quarter and the win secure. No need to further boost his already lofty numbers.

What to make of Sixers’ three-point defense 

The Sixers continued to feature zone defense during their minutes without Embiid.

Montrezl Harrell is not a sterling rim protector, but zone can sometimes mitigate his weaknesses and encourage teams to play a perimeter-centric style.

Early on, the Sixers’ defensive variety was effective, in large part because the Clippers began 2 for 13 from three-point range. L.A. then made its next three long-range tries. That sharp swing in the Clippers’ fortunes highlighted just how important opponents’ three-point shooting has been for the Sixers. They’re not unique in that regard, but it’s still striking how the opposition’s three-point percentage typically seems to be a very strong indicator of the Sixers’ night defensively overall. When opponents have shot over 40 percent from three-point range this season, the Sixers have gone 1-6. L.A. ultimately finished at 35.3 percent.

Clearly, there’s a high degree of randomness with three-point defense. That’s not to say teams that concede a low three-point percentage are automatically “lucky”; for instance, perhaps they’re being smart about funneling outside shots to players who aren’t good at them. However, Tuesday’s game was a great illustration of how three-point percentage tends to be largely outside of a defense’s control. L.A. missed wide-open looks and made tightly contested jumpers. Of course, Leonard is a player who frequently makes the notion of “bothering” shots sound flimsy.

Each team has its own philosophy about which shots it’s willing to allow. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers entered Tuesday night 14th in both at-the-rim and three-point frequency defensively.

“We want to limit threes,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said on Oct. 21. “And to do that, you have to limit dribble penetration. They’re connected. And then sometimes when you limit dribble penetration, you give up threes.”

Indeed, the Sixers yield some threes as a byproduct of subpar on-ball defense. Late in the third quarter, Tyrese Maxey got caught on a ball screen, the Sixers’ defense pinched in, and Reggie Jackson kicked the ball out to Nicolas Batum for a catch-and-shoot triple. Batum drilled another three early in the fourth when Paul George pierced the middle of the defense and forced the Sixers into scramble mode.

Limiting dribble penetration is a solid overriding principle. So is knowing (and following) the scouting report about which players are the least likely to convert open jumpers. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s contest was a reminder that much of the Sixers’ success guarding threes (and on defense in general) will depend on hoping opponents miss them.

Maxey the sixth-man scorer

The Sixers were eager to play in transition and run off of turnovers. They scored 18 of the evening’s first 23 fast-break points.

Tobias Harris was especially good at both forcing giveaways and profiting in transition. Harris recorded an efficient 20 points (8 for 12 from the floor) and passed JJ Redick for sixth on the Sixers’ all-time three-point makes list in the third quarter. He also swiped a career high-tying five steals.

The Clippers did begin the second half with improved pace and and hurt the Sixers at times in the open floor. Rivers called timeout after a coast-to-coast George layup that cut the Sixers’ advantage to one point.

While the Clippers briefly held a lead late in the third quarter, Maxey’s scoring burst early in the fourth proved decisive. Serving as the Sixers’ sixth man for a second consecutive game, Maxey played well before the fourth, too. He made an and-one floater on the Sixers’ final possession of the first quarter by realizing he had a half-step on Norman Powell and inviting contact while still taking a controlled shot. Drawing fouls remains an important developmental area for Maxey, who drew two more free throws at the tail end of the third quarter and went 5 for 5 at the foul line on the night.

He was fantastic to start the fourth with both Embiid and Harden on the bench. Maxey made three three-pointers and enjoyed being the unquestioned go-to guy as his big-name teammates rested. Using him in that role won’t work this perfectly every time, but there’s no doubt he’s able to carry an offense through scoring explosively. He put up 22 points in his 28 minutes on 7-for-12 shooting.

Maxey unsurprisngly stayed on the floor once Harden and Embiid returned. In the middle of the fourth, Embiid rejected Terance Mann and the ball fell to Harden, who rifled a pass ahead to Maxey for a layup.

Embiid is so often the deserved headliner, but the Sixers are not a one-man show. Harris and Maxey were quite valuable Tuesday.

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