Though Wednesday night’s game was never going to provide a definitive answer to whether the Sixers are a bona fide NBA title contender, it was the team’s most significant early-season test yet.
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The Sixers passed it, earning a 107-106 win over the defending champion Lakers to improve to 13-6.
Tobias Harris' pull-up jumper on the Sixers' last possession won the team the game and saved it from would've been a bitterly disappointing loss. Up 14 points with a little over five minutes to go, the Sixers late-game execution simply wasn’t good enough as they seemed more eager to watch the clock wind down than score. Harris, in the end, saved the day, and an off-balance Anthony Davis heave at the buzzer came up short.
LeBron James posted 34 points, six rebounds and six assists in a losing effort, keeping Los Angeles competitive throughout the game.
The win is the 2020-21 Sixers’ best thus far, a very good response to the notion that their place at the top of the Eastern Conference is attributable to an easy schedule.
Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was not at the game as he’s working remotely because of COVID-19 contact tracing unrelated to the Sixers, according to a report from The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey.
The Sixers next play on Friday night, a road matchup against the Timberwolves. Here are observations on their win over the Lakers:
Simmons vs. James
Ben Simmons was in attack mode from the jump, scoring six of the Sixers’ first nine points, quickly eating up the ample space James gave him to operate and setting the tone well.
James was predictably the focal point of the Lakers’ offense, and he burned Simmons and the Sixers’ zealous defense early by scoring off of multiple back cuts. James’ sense for when and how to use his wide array of skills remains special; he’s a basketball genius who happens to have extraordinary physical gifts. His aggression was necessary in the first half as Los Angeles shot 1 for 11 from three-point range and received no meaningful scoring from anyone besides James and Anthony Davis.
Though James scored much more than his mentee, Simmons left his mark on the game in many ways, recording a triple-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Danny Green said after the Sixers’ shootaround Wednesday that he sees why people link James and Simmons, but that he thinks it’s “unfair” to compare anyone to James. We agree with his assessment.
Embiid’s eventful evening
It didn’t take long for Joel Embiid to frustrate Marc Gasol, the man who guarded him during his career-worst 0-for-11 performance last season, as the 35-year-old picked up a technical foul in the first quarter for objecting to an Embiid and-one. The Sixers’ All-Star center started rolling after that, squaring up and making his move in the post before double teams could arrive.
Head coach Doc Rivers left Embiid in for over 10 minutes and played him in a lineup with no true power forward. That unit was excellent as the Sixers shaded help in the direction of whichever man was facing a size disadvantage on a particular defensive possession and continued to cook offensively, gaining a 34-18 lead.
The non-Embiid minutes that followed were a lot less fruitful for the Sixers as the Lakers went on an 8-0 run. Dwight Howard missed four throws during that stretch and didn’t play well, prompting Rivers to insert Simmons as his team’s defensive center. A member of the Los Angeles bench yelled out “No rim protection” upon seeing that decision and, with all due respect to Simmons and his diverse defensive talents, the sentiment wasn’t wrong.
That said, the Sixers were at least able to muster some offense and stabilize things a bit when Simmons replaced Howard. Rivers’ willingness to use Simmons at center is certainly a notable development; perhaps it’s a look the Sixers will start incorporating more if they envision featuring it in the playoffs. Rivers did give Howard his normal backup center minutes in the second half.
The Sixers welcomed back Embiid’s ability to draw fouls (along with his many other skills, of course) after he missed the team’s loss Monday to the Pistons with back tightness. Embiid was 11 for 13 from the foul line.
Embiid (28 points, six rebounds, four assists) had an injury scare in the third period when he went up for a dunk and fell hard to the floor after James made contact with his chest. He pounded his fist into the floor and got up gingerly but stayed in the game and made both free throws. James was called for a Flagrant 1 foul. Embiid was whistled for a Flagrant 1 foul of his own about a minute later when he hit Davis in the face with an elbow while looking to draw a foul on a drive.
Complementary pieces step up
In a star-centric game, the Sixers won in large part because their complementary players were better overall than the Lakers’.
At an important juncture early in the third quarter, Tobias Harris drove into Gasol’s body and laid the ball in to give the Sixers a 57-53 lead. Harris (24 points on 10-for-16 shooting) and Danny Green (14 points on 5-for-11 shooting) both drained three-pointers shortly thereafter, helping the Sixers build their advantage back up to 12 points, forcing a Lakers timeout and removing some of the uneasiness that might have stemmed from the Lakers’ second-quarter comeback.
Though the Lakers didn’t go away, Harris was vital again later in the third, converting a lefty layup, stopping Davis one-on-one twice in the post and enabling the Sixers to maintain their lead. His All-Star case grew a little stronger Wednesday night.