All-Star Reserve Joel Embiid and All-Snub James Harden lead Sixers over Spurs

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Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Zach Collins (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Antonio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Many wouldn’t anticipate a battle between the Eastern Conference’s third seed and the West’s 14th-best team in early February to be very exciting, but the energy around the Sixers‘ road victory against the San Antonio Spurs was a little different.

For one, the Spurs fans at AT&T Center always play great hosts and were equally enthusiastic five minutes before the game, as they were with their home team down 20+ points in the fourth quarter. But for the Sixers, a team whose chip on their collective shoulder has grown larger game in and game out might have had a little extra motivation for this one.

After all, their drubbing of the Spurs was their first game since it was revealed that James Harden did not make the All-Star team, with nods instead going to clearly inferior players to him, such as Jrue Holiday and DeMar DeRozan. This news, after Joel Embiid was snubbed of a much-deserved starting spot, could only have blasted that chip on their shoulders into a ravine.

It’d be understandable then for Sixers fans to expect a statement game from Harden and the Sixers, one loud enough to be heard by the coaches around the league and maybe for even Adam Silver to reconsider the All-Star selection process. Even at AT&T Center, a grouping of Philly enthusiasts in the upper levels made themselves heard with chants of “Let’s go Sixers,” “MVP” for Embiid, and “He’s an All-Star” for the Beard. And yet, it was business as usual for Philadelphia.

They even started off a little slow and lethargic, something that’s become quite commonplace among this team, even in the midst of their hot streak. The Spurs opened up the game on an 8-1 run, but two quick De’Anthony Melton triples settled the Sixers’ offense and reset the momentum.

From there, the two squads battled back and forth evenly. Joel Embiid quietly dominated on both ends of the court, forcing turnovers with his paint protection and activity while showing off his three-level scoring with silky-smooth line-drive triples, effortless midrange fadeaways, and lumbering euro steps.

He finished with 33 points on just 18 shots. Harden turned down the opportunity to flip a switch and revert to his Houston Rockets days in an effort to send a message to the coaches of the league. Instead, he patiently orchestrated the offense — including some patented full-court fastbreak passes — and let his points come to him naturally. The Beard ended up with 16 points and eight assists on only ten field goal attempts. Tyrese Maxey continued adding to his already boisterous Sixth Man of the Year campaign with an efficient 25 points.

The San Antonio Spurs were able to keep pace thanks to Keldon Johnson’s strong slashing and their infamously intelligent ball movement. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the Sixers started to pull away by forcing turnovers and capitalizing on them with some heady transition passing and diligent lane-filling.

Typical of a Coach Popovich team, the Spurs refused to go away. After Maxey led the reserve unit to balloon Philly’s lead to 21 in the fourth, San Antonio clawed their way back, taking advantage of a Sixers’ lineup that featured third-stringers Danuel House Jr. and Paul Reed. The latter was quickly pulled after San Antonio brought it within 10, much to the chagrin of the Sixers’ fans in Section 212, who had sporadically led chants for “BBall Paul” throughout the night.

With Harden, Embiid, Melton, and Tobias Harris back in, the Spurs stood no chance. As has been the message all season, Harden and Embiid’s performances in this game made it clear that their eyes are set beyond individual accolades this year. Even with personal agendas to settle, they took care of business as usual, beat a team they were supposed to, and dominated the same way they had been all season.

They’ll look to do the same when they take on the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden for their next game on Sunday, Feb. 5.