Instant Observations: Sixers Overcome Slow Start to Defeat Mavericks in Harden’s Return to Lineup

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) blocks the shot of Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) in the final minute of the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden and Joel Embiid, for the first time in four games, were both in the lineup for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. The Sixers moved to 32-15 when they both play, defeating the Dallas Mavericks 116-108 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Embiid led the Sixers with 25 points and nine rebounds. Harden finished with 15 points, 12 assists and three steals. Tyrese Maxey added in 22 points, four rebounds and four assists.

The Mavericks were led by the Luka Doncic-Kyrie Irving backcourt. Doncic finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Irving totaled 23 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. Dallas was playing without Frank Ntilikina due to a right knee sprain.

The Sixers have just six games remaining in the regular season. Their next matchup is a home matchup on Friday with the Toronto Raptors. Here are instant observations from the win:

– It was evident early on the Mavericks, specifically Dwight Powell, would have their hands full attempting to defend Embiid. The big fella scored the Sixers’ first points of the game on a dunk out of the pick-and-roll with Harden. He used his massive size advantage over Powell to great effect, either posting up or driving right at him. Powell committed two fouls in the first 3:37 of action. Embiid scored seven of the Sixers’ first 10 points.

While Embiid got off to a good start, the same could not be said of Harden’s performance. Harden looked clearly out of rhythm, missing all four of his shots in the opening quarter while also committing two turnovers. In a curious decision, head coach Doc Rivers also played Harden, coming off an injury, for the entirety of the first quarter.

Harden’s burst was lacking. He struggled to attack mismatches and was unable to generate much separation off the dribble. On one first quarter possession, he failed to be able to drive by Doncic, the type of mismatch he had previously feasted on all season. His explosiveness did get a bit better as the game went on. However, it is definitely something to watch throughout the remainder of the regular season. The Sixers are not going to go anywhere in the postseason if Harden is not playing up to his max capabilities.

The Sixers sleepwalked through much of the first half, resulting in some truly awful possessions at certain points. Harden did not provide much scoring and Embiid slowed down after a hot start. It was by far not one of Embiid’s better games this season. In the end, he did enough to put the Sixers over the top. In the second half, he went back to his comfort zone: the mid-range. Most of his damage in the second half came on jumpers from around the free-throw line.

Defensively, the Sixers used him more as a roamer and had some success. He met Doncic at the rim for a game-sealing block with just under a minute remaining.

Georges Niang is, to put it kindly, not known for being a good defender. However, he made a few solid plays on that end, recording a block and steal within two minutes of checking into the game. He did proceed to commit a horrendously boneheaded foul that resulted in a four-point play in the final seconds of the opening quarter.

The Sixers mixed up their rotation pattern, subbing Embiid out with 2:44 remaining and going to the Harden-led bench lineup before the start of the second quarter. With not much going well for the Sixers early on, they were able to stay in it due to some hot 3-point shooting from both Niang and De’Anthony Melton. The pair combined to shoot 6-of-9 from long distance in the first half, effectively helping keep the Sixers afloat.

With Harden playing the entirety of the first quarter, Maxey ran the second unit in the first few minutes of the second quarter. He also briefly led an all-bench unit at the end of the third quarter. The Sixers went back to their usual Harden-led bench lineup in the final frame. Maxey had a strong night, stretching the floor with his outside shooting while also driving the basket and drawing a handful of fouls.

– The Sixers have some major questions defensively. For their second consecutive matchup, the Irving-Doncic backcourt gave the Sixers a ton of trouble. Harden and Maxey are both below average defenders who are not capable of sticking with them man-to-man. They tried transitioning over to a switch-heavy defense and had little success. In addition to what Irving and Doncic were doing, the Sixers were giving up a huge amount of open 3-pointers. Fortunately, the Mavericks were unable to make them pay. Reggie Bullock, a 38.9% shooter from deep, shot just 1-of-8 from beyond the arc.

After playing mostly lackadaisical defense in the first half, the Sixers turned things up a notch coming out of halftime. They forced three turnovers in the opening minutes of the second half, propelling a 17-9 run that swung the momentum in their direction. Using Embiid as a roamer also helped turn things around. Their defense was not always steady, but they were able to ratchet up their focus and intensity enough when it mattered to pull the out the victory. In the postseason, the Sixers will likely not be able to get away with waiting until a certain point in the game to turn up their defensive performance.

– That there was ever any hesitancy to play Paul Reed will always be confounding. He followed up a great game against the Denver Nuggets with yet another productive performance off the bench. He filled up the stat sheet against the Mavericks, tallying five points, five rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block in 15 minutes. His defensive versatility shined in the second half when he hung with Irving on multiple possessions. There is no reason why Reed should not get all the team’s backup center minutes moving forward.

Jalen McDaniels flashed some potential since being traded to the Sixers at this year’s trade deadline. However, a hip injury that cost him a handful of games and some mistake-prone play has plagued his Sixers tenure. He did not have his finest performance against the Mavericks. He was mostly non-existent offensively and he also committed a dumb foul at half court. The foul was ruled a flagrant one.

At his best, McDaniels brings some solid rebounding and good defense. However, that version has not been seen often enough. If he does not string some good performances together to end the regular season, he could see his role vastly diminished come the postseason.