3 Observations: Sixers Pull Away in Second Half, Defeat Rockets Behind Big Nights from Harden, Maxey

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Houston Rockets 123-104 on Monday night at Wells Fargo Center.

James Harden led the team with 28 points, 10 assists, two steals and two blocks. Tyrese Maxey finished with 26 points, five rebounds and six assists. Joel Embiid‘s streak of 16 consecutive games with 25 or more points came to an end. He finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists. The Sixers shot 56.1% from the field and 44.1% from 3-point range.

Embiid (left foot soreness) and Shake Milton (left eye soreness) were both available for the Sixers. Furkan Korkmaz (personal reasons) was away from the team.

The Rockets were missing Kevin Porter Jr. (left foot contusion) and Justin Holiday (not with the team). They were led in the loss by Jalen Green’s 29 points, three rebounds and four assists.

The Sixers’ final game before the All-Star Break is on Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Here are three observations from the win:

Battling through early issues defending the paint, crashing the glass

The Rockets shredded the Sixers’ interior defense in the first few minutes of play. Kenyon Martin Jr. showed off his athleticism with a pair of dunks. The first came after going full court in transition. He followed it up on the next possession with a dunk off the feed from Jalen Green. Ten of their first 12 points came from in the paint.

Things were going well for the Sixers offensively. Embiid scored four early points, using his size to his advantage against Houston big man Alperen Sengun. They were getting a fair amount of open looks, but struggled to capitalize in the early going. The offense started getting into rhythm towards the end of the quarter. The Sixers went on an 8-0 run, taking a 28-21 lead, behind a 3-pointer from Georges Niang and a 3-point play from new acquisition Jalen McDaniels.

However, the Sixers were unable to hold a consistent lead in the first half due to some major issues with interior defense and defensive rebounding. All 10 of Houston’s made field goals in the first quarter came on shots from in the paint.

The Sixers ended the first half on a 12-4 run to take a 55-48 lead into halftime. Tobias Harris successfully attacked the basket, weaving through multiple Houston defenders before making a finger-roll layup. He scored six points on the run. They were fortunate to hold a seven-point halftime advantage considering their struggles on the glass. The combination of the Rockets’ aggressive attempts at crashing the glass and the Sixers’ lazy rebounding led to a major rebounding edge. At halftime, the Rockets out-rebounded Philadelphia 27-18, 11-4 on the offensive glass, and possessed a 12-0 edge in second-chance points. However, Houston missed all nine of their long-distance attempts in the first half. Their first made 3-pointer did not come until 3:43 remaining in the third quarter.

Maxey leads strong bench performance

Maxey has seemingly broken out of his recent cold stretch. He checked into the game with 5:55 remaining in the first quarter and immediately made a huge impact. The Sixers ran a nice double screen to get Maxey open at the top of the key where he canned a 3-pointer. He also made a pair of driving finger-roll layups in the final minute of the opening quarter. His active start carried over into the second quarter when he recorded a pair of steals, intercepting some sloppy Houston passes.

The Sixers went to an all-bench lineup to begin the second quarter. Maxey, along with Shake Milton, helped propel some good results. The second unit expanded the lead from 32-29 to 41-30 with 10:16 left in the second quarter.

However, things began to fall apart for them in the ensuing minutes. Sengun made a couple layups over Paul Reed. Tari Eason then made a putback layup after the Rockets extended the possession with two offensive rebounds. The Rockets went on a 10-0 run to close the gap to 41-40 midway through the second quarter.

The Sixers halted Houston’s run with a pair of good defensive plays. Reed made a lazy inbounds pass that was stolen by TyTy Washington. The Sixers were able to recover, with De’Anthony Melton skying up to block Josh Christopher’s layup attempt. Jabari Smith Jr. grabbed the rebound, but Reed swatted his putback attempt.

The bench minutes were largely better in the second half. The second unit maintained the team’s lead to begin the fourth quarter. McDaniels made a few shots early in the fourth quarter and generally made a solid impact on the game. In just his second game with the team, he played 27 minutes. He finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists.

Reed’s stint in the second half was generally more under control. He was active defensively and played the entirety of the fourth quarter. Overall, his performance against the Rockets brought more positives than not. He finished with six points, three rebounds, two steals and three blocks and was a plus-10 in 16 minutes.

The sample size is small, but lineups with McDaniels and Reed have thus far caused havoc for opposing teams. Their length and athleticism bothered the Rockets on multiple occasions, especially early on in the fourth quarter. Together, they have the potential to anchor the defense when the second unit is out on the floor. Head coach Doc Rivers should use both of them together often moving forward.

Harden helps Sixers pull away in second half

Maxey started the second half, replacing P.J. Tucker who left the game due to left calf tightness. He continued his strong play from the first half, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to expand the Sixers’ lead. The 22-year-old scored the team’s first eight points of the second half.

From there on out, it was all Harden and Embiid. After having a quiet first half, Harden exploded in the third quarter. He was on fire from long distance, connecting on multiple 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the half. The two-man game between Harden and Embiid was firing on all cylinders. Embiid scored on a layup and a mid-range jumper off of the pick-and-roll with Harden.

Harden drilled step-back 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to effectively blow the game open, giving the Sixers an 84-67 lead with 3:22 left in the third quarter. He scored 14 points in the third frame. The trio of Harden, Embiid and Maxey accounted for all 35 of the team’s points in the third quarter. When that trio is all clicking simultaneously, the Sixers are a hard team to beat.

The Rockets managed to cut the Sixers’ lead down to eight points with 1:17 left in the third quarter. However, Maxey incredibly contorted his body in mid-air to knock down a tough layup. Embiid then drilled a fadeaway mid-range jumper in the final seconds of the quarter to expand the lead to 12 points heading into the fourth.

The game was kept at arms distance in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to some good minutes from the second unit. All the starters were able to exit the game with 3:31 remaining.