3 Observations as Embiid’s Strong Effort Proves Not Enough to Outlast Booker, Suns

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers could not wrap up their three-game West Coast trip with a win, falling to the Phoenix Suns 114-104 on Sunday night.

Devin Booker led the way for the Suns, scoring 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field. The Suns shot the ball well (51.7 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from beyond the arc) and play a professional brand of basketball. Chris Paul finished with 19 points and 14 assists.

Joel Embiid put together another strong effort, but it was not enough. He finished with 37 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

The loss moved the Sixers to 46-28 on the season and resulted in them moving from first place to fourth place in a tightly packed together Eastern Conference. They take on the Milwaukee Bucks, who own the same record of 46-28, back home at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. Here are three observations from the loss:

Embiid, Booker battle it out

Embiid and Booker have been two of the hottest players in basketball in recent weeks. Both players got off to quick starts as their respective teams ran their offenses around them.

Booker scored 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including knocking down a trio of threes, in the first quarter. The Sixers' game plan called for having Matisse Thybulle be the primary defender on Booker. The Suns did a good job using screens to get the matchup they wanted, which in the opening quarter was having Tyrese Maxey be switched onto Booker. Thybulle also got into early foul trouble and only played 16 minutes, resulting in the Sixers having to change their defensive game plan on Booker on the fly.

The Sixers were executing well offensively out of the gate, scoring 39 points on 61.9 percent shooting in the opening quarter. Embiid was making good decisions when the Suns brought the double team. He scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first quarter.

Things slowed down offensively for both teams after a track meet of a first quarter in which the two teams combined to score 76 points. Booker was held scoreless on three shots in the second quarter after being flaming hot in the opening quarter of play. After beginning the game with Embiid as the main emphasis on offense, the Sixers mixed in spurts from different players throughout the roster.

Embiid briefly left the game with 1:36 to play in the third quarter after appearing to tweak his ankle while driving to the basket. He would return to the court with 8:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The two stars battled back and forth, and it made for a very entertaining game of basketball. Booker and the Suns would go on to win the battle, but it was not for a lack of effort from Embiid. The Sixers, outside of Embiid, did not shoot the ball well overall and it went on to cost them what was a winnable game.

Harris' second-quarter run shows multiple positive signs

Harris' play over the past couple weeks has been one of the more positive recent developments for the Sixers. He carried over his hot play of late into Phoenix, playing with a lot of confidence and aggressiveness.

He was excellent driving to the basket both in the half court offense and in transition. He carried the Sixers' offense in brief spurts, at one point scoring or assisting on all 12 of the team's points on a 12-0 run early in the second quarter.

Harris was efficient and engaged offensively, especially in the first half. The Sixers' offense looks tremendously different when he is attacking with confidence. He scored from all over the court but was especially lethal working around the paint and on drives to the basket. However, he disappeared as the Sixers' offense bogged down in the second half. He scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half.

Longer term, Harris showed potential anchoring the second unit along with Maxey. The Sixers were a net-positive in the first few minutes of the second quarter when the Harris/Maxey-led bench unit was out on the floor. It is not often the Sixers play well when both Embiid and Harden are off the floor, but this bench unit seemed to get into a rhythm led mostly by Harris' red-hot play to open up the second quarter. Before getting too positive, head coach Doc Rivers has experimented with this lineup before and received poor results. There are some things to fine tune, and a lot of the success of the Harris-Maxey bench lineup depends on having either Harris or Maxey carrying the lineup.

Danny Green beginning to get into some sort of groove would help an otherwise mostly depleted bench for the Sixers. He scored eight points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday and followed it up by finishing with six points and eight rebounds against the Suns. The team receiving that level of production consistently from Green heading into the playoffs would be huge.

DeAndre Jordan had a brief stretch of solid play in the second quarter. He was a plus-11 in his first stretch of time on the court. He appeared to be developing some chemistry playing alongside Harris, catching two alley-oops. However, Jordan's good play did not last. He committed a bad foul away from the ball with four seconds left in the first half and did a poor job both defensively and on the glass in his minutes in the second half.

In the five minutes Embiid was off the floor from late in the third quarter to the 8:33 mark of the fourth quarter, the Sixers were outscored 15-6. Jordan's poor play was obviously not the sole reason for the team's struggles in that stretch, but it definitely did not help things.

Suns outlast the Sixers as Harden's scoring struggles continue

The Suns proved why they are the best team in basketball this season. They can come at the opponent in waves, led by Booker and Chris Paul. The Sixers did a good job keeping pace in the first half, but the Suns outlasted them. Phoenix outscored the Sixers 54-40 in the second half.

The Sixers, despite shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three-point range, kept the game within striking distance in the fourth quarter after the Suns took the momentum. The Sixers were down 101-90 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter when they went on an 8-0 run to draw the game back within three points after a pair of Maxey transition threes and an Embiid layup. The Suns would go on to respond with a 13-2 run of their own to end the game.

Maxey did not have an efficient game scoring the basketball, finishing with 18 points on 7-of-21 shooting from the field. He struggled tremendously early on, beginning the game shooting 2-of-10. However, he has the confidence and fearlessness to keep on shooting knowing the shots will eventually fall.

James Harden's scoring struggles, which took a brief respite in the win over the Clippers on Friday, returned against the Suns. On a night when Embiid carried the offense, the Sixers should have been able to beat the Suns – and they arguably would have if Harden's shot was falling. He finished the game with 14 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.

He did shoot 2-of-5 from three-point range, but he was abysmal driving to the basket. While the refs were not friendly to him, he has often looked predictable with his drives and is lacking his typical explosiveness around the rim. The level of concern regarding Harden's scoring, which has been mediocre at best at least when compared to his typical level of production and efficiency since he joined the Sixers, should not be at a level to ring any alarms. However, the Sixers will need him to find his touch again before the playoffs if they are to have any chance at competing for a championship this season.

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