Embiid drops massive 53 points, Sixers defeat visiting Hornets

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, dunks past Charlotte Hornets’ Kelly Oubre Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers took on the Charlotte Hornets for the second of their 7-game homestand on Sunday night. Both teams have been facing a slew of injuries, as the Sixers continue to miss star guard Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) and Danuel House Jr. (left foot laceration), while the Hornets remain down LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Dennis Smith Jr.

On top of that, both James Harden (right foot tendon strain) and Georges Niang (right foot soreness) are coming off of injuries, as Harden played just his third game back following a month-long absence – the first two of which saw him play a combined 85 minutes.

The game got off to a shaky start, with the Sixers trailing for most of the first quarter – which ended 21-20 Hornets after a nice brief run by Shake Milton narrowed their lead. Offensively, the Sixers struggled mightily in the first, making just 8 of 22 shots from the line and 1 of 6 from three.

With Milton and Embiid being the only somewhat reliable shooters, it took a combination of fouls off Charlotte and defensive efforts from Embiid, Niang, Harris, and most of all, Harden (four defensive rebounds and a block early on?!) to keep them close by.

The first half of the second quarter was a series of fouls on both ends – four on the Sixers and six on the Hornets, the latter of whom also gave up a shot clock turnover. This led them to take their first lead, which they maintained as they ended the quarter 61-54. Both Embiid and Harris tapped into their dunking abilities toward the end of the half.

A particularly emphatic dunk from Tobias Harris reminded everyone that just because two of the team’s stars are back doesn’t mean it’s time to count him out. But it was Joel Embiid who ended the second with a total of 28 points in 18 minutes after an absolute blitz in the final three minutes of the half.

The team extended their lead early in the third quarter, with four(!) three-point jump shots for De’Anthony Melton and one apiece for Harden and Embiid. Though the Hornets – specifically Terry Rozier, Jaden McDaniels, and Kelly Oubre Jr. – continued to put up an excellent fight, the Sixers led by a whopping 15 points with 6 minutes left in the third. Joel Embiid continued his offensive campaign as the crowd’s “MVP” chants continued, hitting 35 points before the team’s first timeout of the half.

Yet the foul troubles stewed again towards the end of the third, with Montrezl Harrell, Georges Niang, and Shake Milton each committing a foul that led to the Hornets picking up an additional six points from the line. Montrezl Harrell also picked up a defensive technical foul, and Niang committed a whopping FOUR more fouls before being taken out of the game.

While this might not have been able to fly against a fully-healthy opponent, the injured Hornets couldn’t capitalize, and the Sixers maintained their lead through the rest of the game. And when Embiid came back swinging in the fourth, hitting a massive 53 points while James Harden came just one rebound short of a triple-double, there wasn’t really much that could stop him. The Sixers won 131-113, with Embiid alone scoring nearly half of those points. If that’s not reflective of what this team is, I’m not sure what is.

Joel Embiid is not done yet

Saying that it’s been a long journey for Embiid over the years is putting it lightly. His injuries have spanned, literally, from his head to his toes. And the heartbreaking playoff losses, the seemingly constant lack of scoring support, and the back-to-back MVP losses are just a few of the woes he’s suffered in the seven years since he’s been drafted.

But there’s been a certain kind of melancholy surrounding this team this season that I’m not sure we’ve seen before in his career. It’s hard to put your finger on just what it is – perhaps a combination of injuries, communication breakdowns, and stagnant coaching. But to a guy like Embiid, it makes no difference. Gone are the days of a carefree, dancing-on-the-sidelines Joel.

The version of him we’ve got now is absolutely laser-focused. He doesn’t care what the stats say or if he’s in the MVP conversation. He doesn’t care if he has to score nearly half of the team’s points in a game like tonight’s. He’ll take the support of Harden, Harris, or Melton, but if he has to, he’ll do it himself. He’s come way too far to get swept away by the ever-changing chaos surrounding him. Joel Embiid has exactly one goal – a championship. And whatever it takes, he’s going to push towards that.

The Sixers’ foul troubles have made their way to the bench

For all the Sixers’ offensive star power, we’re used to seeing high-foul games when Embiid and Harden share the court – when they’re not drawing them, they’re committing them. But tonight’s game showed a concerning trend of more of those fouls coming from bench players like Georges Niang, Montrezl Harrell, and Matisse Thybulle. In fact, in their last five games, the Sixers have committed 120 personal fouls – the highest in the league. And with Harden only playing in three of those, he and Embiid combined only account for 25 of those.

In that same time span, Shake Milton and Georges Niang have committed 14 apiece, while Matisse Thybulle, Montrezl Harrell, and Paul Reed have combined for an additional 25. While this isn’t necessarily a new problem – we’ve known about Niang and Harrell since well before they came here — it’s a particularly important one in a bench unit that consistently struggles to score.

When the 15-point lead that Joel Embiid left the bench within the third was cut in half, it was largely due to easy points from the line. But time and time again, we’ve seen star-powered teams take advantage of non-Embiid minutes to regain a late-game lead. It’s no wonder that two of their last three games have gone to overtime, and it’s a key problem the Sixers will need to fix in the coming months.

Harris and Melton provide some much-needed consistency

If one thing has remained consistent in this rollercoaster of a season, it’s Tobias Harris. Functioning primarily as a catch-and-shoot player who can dunk on one end of the court and give smaller guards trouble on the other, it feels like the Harris can finally do what we paid him $180 million to do. The Sixers’ guard depth means that Harris doesn’t need to worry too much about ball handling and can just focus on his strengths – a recipe for success for anyone. Though he isn’t quite putting up the numbers that he was when Harden, Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey were all out, he’s remained reliably above average in nearly every game.

“He doesn’t get mentioned a lot,” said head coach Doc Rivers in postgame interviews, as he referred to Embiid and Harden’s massive performances. “But he has the ability to score 25-30, but he’ll score 13-14, and he does other things. He’s been really, really important for this team.”

For De’Anthony Melton’s part, if anyone has to step in for Tyrese Maxey, I’m sure glad it’s him. The Sixers’ shooting guard finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. He went 4 of 7 from deep and showed his value as the ultimate two-way guard following Friday’s career-high game of 33 points and 7 steals. While Maxey can’t come back soon enough, the team will need to find a way to continue giving Melton meaningful minutes upon his return.

Welcome back, James Harden

While Embiid’s second 50+ point game of the season (the first player to do so this season) was certainly the highlight of tonight, Harden finishing a rebound away from a triple-double cannot be forgotten. He’s been slow to start in his return, but he’s once again finding his groove with both Embiid and Harrell. He finished the night with 19 points, 16 assists, and 9 rebounds, plus a block to boot.

The Sixers’ next contest will be Tuesday night at home against the Sacramento Kings.

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