Sixers come back without Joel Embiid and James Harden, finish 5-0 trip

3 observations after shorthanded Sixers erase 21-point deficit, finish 5-0 trip originally appeared on NBC SportsPhiladelphia

The Sixers sat their stars on Saturday night and still managed to finish a perfect West Coast road trip.

They came back (and then hung on) for a 129-127 victory over the Kings. After a 5-0 trip, the Sixers are 30-16 and hold sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference.

Joel Embiid (left foot injury recovery) and James Harden (right foot tendon strain injury management) were both out. Harden had played in 21 of the Sixers’ last 22 games, averaging 36.9 minutes during that stretch. Since returning from left foot soreness, Embiid had appeared in six straight contests.

The Sixers survived late, unwanted drama. Up three points with 4.3 seconds remaining, the team aimed to commit a foul on the floor off of the Kings’ sideline out-of-bounds play. However, Matisse Thybulle was called for a shooting foul beyond the arc on Harrison Barnes. The veteran forward missed his first free throw, made his second, and missed his third on purpose. Domantas Sabonis got a hand on the rebound and wanted a whistle, but none came.

The defeat snapped a six-game Sacramento winning streak and dropped the Kings to 26-19. De’Aaron Fox scored 31 points, Barnes 27. Sabonis had 16 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

Tyrese Maxey was the Sixers’ top scorer with 32 points. Five of his teammates posted between 14 and 17 points.

The Sixers will be able to acclimate to the East Coast again before they begin a four-game homestand Wednesday against the Nets. Here are observations on their win over the Kings:

Big difference on D

The Sixers played very strong defense in the first quarter of theirs win Thursday over the Trail Blazers, holding Portland to a mere 14 points. On Saturday night, the Kings exceeded that number in under five minutes.

The defensive decline was predictable, since Embiid always has a huge impact and Sacramento entered the game with the NBA’s third-best offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Accounting for those factors, the Sixers’ start was still poor. Fox made a couple of early tip-your-cap mid-range jumpers over De’Anthony Melton, but the Sixers did little to prevent the Kings from playing crisp offense. They also hurt themselves by committing eight of the game’s first nine turnovers. Remarkably, Sacramento scored 16 points off turnovers before the Sixers had any.

The Sixers were frustrated by fouls, too. PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris and Melton each picked up three in the first half. Those stoppages also limited Maxey and the Sixers’ ability to play in transition. The absence of Harden’s regular excellence on hit-ahead passes was quite noticeable, as well.

It would’ve made sense Saturday if Sixers head coach Doc Rivers started Thybulle and assigned him to Fox. Perhaps Rivers’ decision not to was influenced by Thybulle getting two fouls within 37 seconds when the Sixers beat the Kings on Dec. 13. Instead of going with Thybulle, the Sixers used a starting lineup of Melton, Maxey, Harris, Tucker and Montrezl Harrell.

The Sixers had begun mixing in zone defense by the time Thybulle checked late in the first quarter. None of their schemes proved successful for a sustained period in the first half and Rivers called timeout early in the second following back-to-back Barnes three-pointers.

Maxey, Sixers wipe out deficit

The Kings’ outside shooting success helped lift them to a second-quarter lead as large as 21 points. Barnes made his first five triples.

Meanwhile, the Sixers opened 2 for 11 from three. Their long-range luck was bound to improve, though. After replacing Melton with 54.1 seconds to go in the second quarter, Danuel House Jr. found himself responsible for the first half’s final shot. He beat the buzzer with a banked-in three from 30-plus feet out, cutting the Sixers’ deficit to 74-64.

The Sixers completely erased Sacramento’s lead in the third quarter thanks largely to Maxey, who sunk a three from the Kings’ logo and a pretty side-step triple. While Maxey is n’t wholly dependent on his three-ball di lui, he’s undoubtedly more dangerous when opponents see it’s a serious threat and react accordingly. In Saturday’s third quarter, Maxey was able to prance through the Sacramento defense and into the paint before hitting a tough runner over Sabonis. After the Kings blitzed him, Maxey assisted a Harris three.

An in-and-out Maxey jumper that would’ve tied the game at 86-all briefly seemed like it might end up being a “what could’ve been” moment. However, the Sixers got a stop and Harrell then scored an and-one layup from the post on Sabonis. Harrell was very effective offensively (17 points, 7 for 8 from the floor) … besides an air-balled free throw in the third quarter. Paul Reed was productive as Harrell’s backup, too, posting nine points on 4-for-6 shooting and seven rebounds. The Sixers had a 23-6 advantage in second-chance points. Though Harrell and Reed won’t ever truly replace Embiid, their play was a major reason the Sixers moved to 8-4 this season with Embiid out.

The Sixers went up 95-94 on a tough Maxey lay-in and kept rolling late in the third. House made a far more conventional three and the Sixers built a lead as high as 11 points early in the fourth.

Essential Bench Scoring

The Sixers’ fourth quarter wasn’t at all pristine, but the team continued to show the resilience and depth necessary to win undermanned games.

When the Kings trimmed their deficit down to 109-108, the Sixers immediately responded with a 5-0 run. Maxey scored inside through contact and Shake Milton (15 points, seven assists six rebounds) drained a three. A little later, Milton answered Fox’s jumper with a successful runner. With self-belief, poise and skill, he’s provided quite a few timely buckets this season and been valuable in shorthanded situations.

Harris fouled out with 3:06 left and the Sixers closed with Milton, Melton and Maxey all on the floor. Each player made vital free throws Saturday. The trio combined to shoot 14 for 15 at the foul line.

While the Sixers’ late-game defense wasn’t formidable, the team’s offensive execution was on point at pivotal moments. Georges Niang polished off a nicely designed after-timeout play with just under two minutes left by drilling a three. Niang recorded 17 of the Sixers’ 49 bench points, passed 100 threes on the season, and bumped his long-distance percentage up to 42.0. His 102 makes off the bench are second in the NBA.

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