Sixers take a wild overtime win without Joel Embiid

3 observations after Sixers’ chaotic OT win over Pacers without Embiid originally appeared on NBC SportsPhiladelphia

The Sixers didn’t draw it up that way.

Any win without Joel Embiid is sweet, though, and they pulled out an especially wild one Wednesday night. After squandering a 13-point lead through three quarters, they came out with a 129-126 overtime victory over the Pacers, improving to 23-14 this season.

James Harden was the team’s top scorer with 26 points.

Buddy Hield had 24 points and nine rebounds. Tyrese Haliburton recorded 16 points and 12 assists.

Embiid missed his first game since Nov. 27, sitting out with left foot soreness.

The Bulls will visit Wells Fargo Center on Friday night. Here are observations on the Sixers’ OT win Wednesday:

Small-ball starters return

The Sixers were 2-0 in late October with the starting lineup of Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker.

Tucker’s offense was a bright spot the last time the Sixers rolled out that unit before Wednesday. He scored a season-high 13 points on Halloween against the Wizards, started 5 for 5 from the floor, and generally looked smooth and confident in tandem with Harden. That wasn’t the case vs. Indiana. Tucker missed three early shots, including a wayward floater. He also had an awkward exchange with Maxey that ended with a close-range pass slipping through the 22-year-old’s hands.

It didn’t help that the Sixers’ defense was subpar early. The Pacers went up 19-13 following a Hield three and layups by Myles Turner and Haliburton. Playing a lineup they haven’t turned to much and coping without their best player, the Sixers unsurprisingly had a few more breakdowns than usual.

With 4:40 left in the first quarter, Tucker limped off with what seemed to be a lower-leg injury. He headed back to the locker room with head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson, but the 37-year-old returned to the bench and checked into the game with 6:58 left in the second quarter. Tucker’s mobility was clearly below his norm and he grimaced a few times while taking jumpers before the second half. He played 25 minutes on the night.

Big time bench night

Montrezl Harrell replaced Tucker and was noticeable on nearly every play.

Efficient scoring has historically been a big strength for Harrell, and he absolutely provided that in the first half Wednesday. He scored on a post-up bucket against Jalen Smith, a fast-break layup assisted by Shake Milton, and a contested hoop inside that put him at 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting. After a Harden and-one layup off of a pick-and-roll with Harrell, the Sixers led by six. Harrell later assisted a Georges Niang three-pointer by catching the ball on the short roll and firing it sharply to the corner.

The bottom line is the Sixers outscored Indiana by nine points in Harrell’s first stint of almost 10 minutes. There were still quite a few plays on which having Embiid obviously would’ve been preferable. Harrell conceded a three and a put-back layup to Smith late in the first quarter. Early in the second, the Sixers sprinkled in zone defense and Harrell failed in his attempt to take a charge on Chris Duarte. Whatever the Sixers do, it’s impossible to fully work around Embiid’s absence defensively.

Milton sunk a key three after an Indiana run to tie the game at 61-all. His adaptability continues to be an asset for the Sixers when they’re below full strength and could use a little extra offensive juice from their role players. He’s been good this season at sensing open-floor opportunities and trusting himself to attack.

Georges Niang finished an unselfish, rapid passing sequence early in the fourth quarter by drilling a three from the top of the key. Milton, Niang and Harrell all scored in double figures and the Sixers’ four-man bench posted 48 points on 19-for-25 shooting overall.

Sixers come through the chaos

Harden was the unquestionable guy running the show Wednesday night.

The Sixers frequently trusted whatever he wanted to do late in the shot clock and set tons of ball screens to get him the switches he desired. He had an especially strong sequence in the third quarter when he hit a three from the left wing, played solid post defense on Turner, then salvaged a chaotic play with a runner that gave the Sixers an 11-point lead.

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle responded by calling a timeout and trapping Harden around half court on every possession. The Sixers’ initial results against that scheme were shaky — a Harden turnover followed by a missed Melton layup — but they soon received necessary scoring from other players. Harris made a driving layup, Matisse Thybulle hit an open three, and the Maxey blew by Smith for a lefty layup on the Sixers’ final possession of the third quarter.

The Sixers took care of the ball well for much of the game, which helped them stem Indiana’s runs. That trend ended abruptly in the fourth quarter, though. Between the 5:48 and 3:02 mark of the fourth, the Sixers committed five turnovers. They’d had five all games before that stretch.

While a few of their late-game giveaways were excusable — a moving screen call on Melton seemed harsh, for instance — the team’s lapses in concentration and severe struggles against the Pacers’ ball pressure were certainly avoidable. After a Hield three cut the Pacers’ deficit to 112-111, Harden was trapped in the backcourt and the Sixers were assessed an eight-second violation. Harrell subbed in for Tucker.

When Turner’s layup put the Pacers up 120-116 with 57.7 seconds left, an Indiana win looked very likely. But Maxey, playing his third game since returning from a left foot fracture, came up huge on defense. He ripped a steal from Andrew Nembhard around mid-court and trimmed the Pacers’ lead to two points with a dunk.

Indiana then looked to seal the game by isolating Haliburton against Harden on the wing, but Haliburton lost the ball and the Sixers started another fast break. Maxey missed a game-tying try at the rim, but Harris laid the ball in and Hield couldn’t sink a game-winning runner just before the buzzer.

In overtime, Melton again showed that he’s got a knack for navigating chaotic situations. About 15 seconds after grabbing an offensive board, he nailed a corner three to give the Sixers a 125-124 lead. Harrell then seized the spotlight momentarily, throwing down a put-back dunk on the Sixers’ next possession and coming through with a big block on Bennedict Mathurin.

With the Sixers up a point, Mathurin fouled Harden on a mid-range jumper with 28.0 seconds remaining. Harden stepped to the charity stripe 8 for 8 on free throws, but he missed both attempts. He redeemed himself right away, however, tracking Mathurin’s baseline cut and blocking his shot. He threw the ball ahead to Harris, who handled business at the foul line. Hield missed a heave on the Pacers’ final possession and the Sixers escaped.

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