Instant Observations: Embiid Leads Sixers’ Comeback Effort Against Trail Blazers

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) celebrates win over Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers came from behind to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-119 on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid led the way with 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting to go with seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks. James Harden added in 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

The Trail Blazers were without Ryan Arcidiacono (lower back soreness), Justise Winslow (left ankle sprain) and Ibou Badji (left knee surgery recovery). They were led by 34 points from Anfernee Simons. Jerami Grant added 24 points and 10 rebounds. Damian Lillard finished with 22 points, six rebounds and 11 assists.

The Sixers now sit at 44-22 this season. Their next game is a home matchup with the Washington Wizards on Sunday evening. Here are some instant observations from the win:

– This year’s Sixers team has something they did not have in prior years: Resilience. Despite being down by as much as 21 points, the team never quit and was able to battle back. Embiid finished off the comeback with some heroics, hitting an insane turnaround game-winning jumper with 1.1 seconds left. The Sixers had not possessed a lead up until that moment.

The shot capped off another dominant offensive performance from Embiid. He had his way against Jusuf Nurkic, bullying him in the paint and generating a healthy amount of fouls. A lot of his success came in the face up game, getting the ball at the nail and either connecting on mid-range jumpers or using power dribbles to penetrate into the paint.

As they have for much of the season, the Sixers’ energy level was dictated by the big fella. Embiid picked things up defensively in the final minutes, blocking a pair of layup attempts in the process. The Sixers held Portland to just 10 points in the final 6:33 after Embiid checked back into the game. After getting beaten mercilessly for much of the night (more on that below), the Sixers forced Portland into one tough shot after another.

The lineup the Sixers had out on the floor in clutch time in the fourth quarter consisted of Embiid, Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Georges Niang and De’Anthony Melton. Niang’s floor spacing was crucial throughout the night. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range and was a plus-23 in 23 minutes off the bench. Melton also had one of his better games in recent weeks, impacting the game on both ends of the floor. Both him and Niang earned the right to be on the floor at the end of the game, and the lineup worked out well.

The Sixers have put together a handful of comeback performances this season. A lot of the credit for that goes to the leadership and maturity of both Embiid and Harden. In prior years, the Sixers would have crumbled when presented with a large second-half deficit. Not this year though, as this team has proven that any deficit is not too big to overcome.

– The Sixers were one of the top defenses in the league throughout the first half of this season. However, they have been struggling a lot in recent weeks, and their struggles extended into this game against the Trail Blazers. The Sixers’ defense along the 3-point line left a lot to be desired as they allowed Portland to make their first six attempts from long distance. Simons lit them up, draining three triples in the first quarter alone. He used the 3-pointer to get into rhythm before taking his success inside the arc, making a tough off-balance jumper while getting fouled.

Portland scored 71 points in the first half on 61.9% shooting from the field and 57.9% shooting from 3-point range. The Sixers played lifeless, matador defense for much of the half, allowing Portland to get whatever open shot they wanted. Their inability to navigate around simple screens showed up again, and poor defensive communication certainly did not help matters. Jusuf Nurkic was the beneficiary of a miscommunication between Embiid and Harden that resulted in an open dunk.

Stopping dribble penetration also presented issues for the Sixers. Simons cooled down a bit from deep in the third quarter. He was instead able to do his damage once he penetrated into the paint, connecting on a few back-breaking floaters.

– The Sixers were forced to dig deep into their bench due to some early foul trouble. Eleven different players touched the floor. Melton was tasked with the assignment of coming off the bench and defending Lillard. He picked up two quick fouls before settling in and making a handful of positive plays for the Sixers. Melton has been struggling recently, averaging 6.9 points while shooting 36.8% from the field over his last 12 games. He made a pair of 3-pointers and powered a good sequence with a steal and layup in transition. He finished with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting to go with five assists.

Melton was not the only player to get into early foul trouble. Jalen McDaniels committed three fouls in five minutes in the opening quarter. He adds some much needed length and athleticism to the Sixers’ second unit, but foul trouble has been an issue for him. He was not able to get into any rhythm, playing just 10 minutes due to his foul trouble. However, he did make a highlight play, posterizing Drew Eubanks in the second half.

– The days of the all-bench lineup seem to be over in Philadelphia. Head coach Doc Rivers is mostly doing a better job of staggering the minutes of Embiid and Harden. The Sixers used a lineup with Harden surrounded by bench players to begin the second quarter. The end result of this stretch was the Sixers matching Portland 13-13. Niang continued his recent stretch of good play, connecting on two attempts from long distance. Paul Reed, for better or worse, showcased the pure chaos that occurs at times when he is on the floor.

The Sixers were down by 11 points going into the fourth quarter, when they went to the Harden-led bench lineup again. Surrounding Harden with a mixture of athleticism and floor spacers has often led to good results. This unit went on an 11-2 run to close the deficit to five points. Danuel House Jr slammed down an alley-oop and knocked down a corner 3-pointer. Portland did respond with a run of their own, essentially canceling out the success this lineup had. This lineup has definitely shown enough positives to be used consistently going forward.

– Zone defense presented consistent issues for the Sixers this season. Portland utilized a zone-heavy scheme early on, and it rattled the Sixers. They were far too passive, spreading the ball around the perimeter instead of attacking and playing with confidence. The team had some good looks from long distance, but they failed to take advantage, missing four of their first five attempts from long distance.

Embiid kept them going early by generally making quick decisions with the ball. He attacked toward the rim before Portland could send over the double team. Through a mixture of free throws and attacking the basket, Embiid scored 14 points in the opening quarter. It could have been more, but he uncharacteristically missed three consecutive free throws towards the end of the quarter.

Tobias Harris has had a rough last few weeks. His struggles continued against Portland. He could not buy a bucket, missing multiple layups and going 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. The funk he has been in has been going on for well over a month, and the Sixers will need him to break out of it soon in order to reach their maximum potential in the postseason. He scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting while being a team-worst minus-22 against the Trail Blazers. This was another brutal game in a stretch full of them for Harris.