The Portland Trail Blazers made up ground after a demoralizing 26-point deficit, but the Philadelphia 76ers held off the surge and pulled away with the 105-95 victory on Thursday night. In one of the most impressive showings of the season, the Sixers came hungry and cleaned their plate as they competed with textbook verve.
Despite Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant combining for 49 points, all but two Blazers finished the night with a negative plus/minus. The offense was running in the first half, but shots just wouldn’t fall, and by the time the second half rolled around and the Blazers started seeing the bottom of the net, their opponent became time, not just the Joel Embiid-led ball club.
Speaking of Embiid, he put together 30-plus point game No. 25 on the season. Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups had no answer for the Cameroonian MVP candidate. He received help from James Harden’s triple double on 11 shots, and Tyrese Maxey’s 15 points off the bench.
Take some time to read our instant recap from Ryne Buchanan before delving into the four most prevalent themes of the night.
The 76ers were as decisive as a Commander-in-chief in the situation room. Not only was Philly getting to their spots with ease, they were executing as if playing a classic game of king of the hill. Limited dribbles, confidence, no hesitation — it was a thing of beauty to watch for the casual fan and an unreachable itch for Blazers faithful.
Embiid was a catch-and-shoot monster wreaking havoc. He got going early, letting it fly around the free throw line. He showed off his range and his shot while diving to the basket. Maxey was a man on a mission as he took it to the Blazers’ defense. He and Embiid attempted 23 of Philadelphia’s 48 shots at the half.
The Blazers played fast. The Blazers played hard. But the Blazers got flustered when the defense ramped up beyond 23 feet. What began as swift ball movement turned into tentative passing that got picked off, carelessness, and a slowed offense.
James... Not Being James?
Harden was sensational. Not because of his commonplace 16 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Rather, he corrected something that severely hampered the Sixers in the 2022 playoffs — he didn’t take the air out of the ball. He was advancing the rock off of defensive rebounds and getting the step on the drive. He also strayed away from his bad habit of looking for the foul while penetrating, but actually shot with the intent of scoring.
Here’s a pattern: Not once did Harden take a shot out of the pick-and-roll where Embiid was the screener. The vast majority of the time, he set up Embiid with bounce passes for easy assists. Rarely would he kick it to the strong side man on the wing.
This was a trend that Billups should have picked up on and did not. Admittedly, Harden is still enough of a triple-threat star who can blow by his defender, hit the floater, and dial in the step-back three-pointer, so it’s easier said than done. But, Portland would’ve had a better chance slowing him down than Embiid, and that wasn’t even made a possibility on the night.
By the time Anfernee Simons picked off the overhead pass to Embiid at the 3:34 mark of the fourth and Jusuf Nurkic got the poke at the 1:44 mark, it was too little, too late.
Playing Through the Middle of the Floor
Lillard was seeing triple teams sporadically and double teams frequently throughout the game, particularly when Coach Rivers’ second unit came in defending in their 2-3 zone. When able, Dame and his teammates fancied driving to the center of the paint before dishing to shooters in the corners. While it was just one of those nights where shots weren’t falling, especially early, penetration did collapse the defense leading to a plethora of open shots from outside.
Consequently, once the slasher would make it to the center of the paint and the defense would contract, this enabled Josh Hart to be a hockey-assister. Unfortunately, most of those swing passes did not result in points.
Nuancing The Offense
Rip City waged a 14-0 run at the end of the third quarter. Once the offense became more diverse, the Blazers etched into a lead that was mere minutes away from being insurmountable.
An Achilles’ Heel of Lillard’s since the New Orleans Pelicans first-round series in 2018 has been his effectiveness when turning the corner. Counterbalancing this weak point, the Weber State product opted to go baseline tonight, splitting the defense at the top of the key and spotting up on the wings instead. He rarely deployed these tactics in the first half but settled in later on.
This, in conjunction with spark plug productivity from Nassir Little, helped make this one a real game heading into the fourth quarter. The sophistication of the offense was a major theme of the final 24 minutes of regulation.
It must be said that Coach Billups had almost no trust in Nurkic to create his own shot whatsoever. He didn’t get his usual touches in the low- to mid-post, despite taking 10 shots.
Portland did find a rhythm late, and once the heaviness of this loss wears off, they will have some positives to build upon in film over the weekend.
The toughest game in the Trail Blazers’ six-game homestead is now behind them. They must have a short memory and forget this loss quickly, because they are slated to face the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday in what should be considered a must-win game.
LeBron James is on a tear in his squabble with Father Time. He and his team should be considered a threat no matter how far down in the standings they are.