The 76ers returned home Saturday, and with it Joel Embiid also returned. This comes after a six game road trip, all played without the All-NBA big man. Through their trip they went 4-2, not bad at all, but they did drop to second place at one point in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t far behind at all though, just half a game back (they tied it up by defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday). While the team doesn’t plan to play much more without Joel Embiid, analyzing what they did without him and the improvements they made is still important. Let’s take a look game by game.
Game 1: OT Win 101-100 over the New York Knicks
A one point win over the Knicks last year would’ve been a disaster. This year it’s not so bad. The Knicks are a playoff team in the East right now, and have a good shot at holding on to make the postseason. The 76ers managed to weather a rare bad game from Tobias Harris, who has been the carry while Embiid has been out. Shake Milton took the role this time, and it’s definitely not the last time he’ll take that mantle. He led the 76ers in scoring with 21, shooting 9/15. The 76ers held a double digit lead late in the second, but as they often do the offense stalled and the Knicks came back to basically tie it at half.
Reportedly the team needed to be rallied by Danny Green, who saved the entirety of his offense for the 4th quarter and OT. The 76ers didn’t get fazed by the miracle Julius Randle game-tying triple and pulled out the win. Despite his overall struggles, Tobias Harris was the one that scored the final five points for the 76ers which allowed them to take the lead and win the game.
- The bench really came through this game, out-performing the starters for much of the game. Milton made it back to back 20+ point efforts.
- The starters and the offense stalling is way too common an occurrence without Embiid, and it happened again. These cold stretches really kill momentum and lead to blown leads over and over.
Game 2: Win 108-98 over the Golden State Warriors
The lowest grade you can get in a win, this game was far too close far too late. Once again, a large double-digit lead was blown. The 76ers were down late into this game until 5:32 left in the 4th quarter. In a normal situation that wouldn’t be too bad as the Warriors are close to a playoff spot in the very tough Western Conference. That’s with Stephen Curry. The 76ers didn’t play the Warriors with Curry. That’s a team you should blow out, and instead they were close to losing. To be fair, the lead wasn’t blown from a scoring drought so much that the Warriors went nuclear from three in the third quarter. That can happen, but scoring 108 only on this Warriors team also isn’t great.
- Tobias Harris was his classic 20+ points on good efficiency. In Embiid’s absence Harris has proved to be the most critical member of the team. Harris leads the team in scoring basically every game. He’s taking the majority of the shots, creating most of them by himself and making them too. When the 76ers need a bucket, they turn to Harris and he is delivering. If he can keep it up come playoff time, Harris might just be more important to the team than Ben Simmons.
- The real MVP of the game though was Tony Bradley. In his last game as a 76er he went for 18 points and 11 boards with two blocks and two steals. Oh and he was perfect from the field.
Game 3: Win 109-101 over the Los Angeles Lakers
Again, about as disappointing a win as you can get. The final score doesn’t look too bad, but this game was close late. The 76ers again had a double-digit lead, this time taking it into the fourth. They didn’t blow it per se, but the Lakers cut the lead to four with 1:51 left in the game. Just like with the Warriors, a win against a fully healthy Lakers team is fantastic. This was not a fully healthy Lakers team as they were missing Lebron James and Anthony Davis. This is a team the 76ers need to be blowing out, which they only did one quarter.
- Tobias Harris isn’t the only one that stepped his game up. Danny Green has also been amazing, and he had his best game as a 76er. He went 8/12 from deep on route to 28 points.
- Ben Simmons had a weird game. On one hand, he went 1/7 from the field and had seven turnovers. On the other hand, he had 12 assists, and basically every single one was for a Danny Green or Seth Curry three.
- Dwight Howard was ejected early, and the lack of a true big was noticeable.
Game 4: Loss 112-122 to the Los Angeles Clippers
The final score wasn’t all bad, but this game didn’t really feel close after the first quarter. Tobias Harris was great again, but Terrance Mann of all people was unbelievable. Mann didn’t miss a shot until the fourth quarter, and ended up 10/12. Howard was ejected again and that really destroyed the 76er’s interior defense. Nothing much to say. A healthy Clippers team is really good, and not really a team that the 76ers can beat without Embiid.
- Ben was fine the first two games, and had an okay game against the Lakers but started something of a slump here against the Clippers. 15 points isn’t bad, but he had six turnovers to just two assists and it didn’t feel like Kawhi Leonard was particularly bothered by Simmons. Simmons also fouled out in the game.
- Mike Scott really isn’t an answer at the center spot. Even though his three point shooting should theoretically be of great benefit to the 76ers, it really isn’t good enough. He also doesn’t seem to offer much else. He’s a big man that can shoot and the 76ers are quite light on big men, but come playoff time I’m not sure how many minutes he ends up seeing.
Game 5: Loss 95-104 to the Denver Nuggets
This was a tough game. The Nuggets picked up some reinforcements at the trade deadline and look absolutely deadly. Just like against the Clippers, beating the Nuggets when they are full strength and the 76ers are not is a tall task. Combined with the fact that Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray decided to be ridiculously hot, this one got out of hand quickly. The Nuggets dropped 44 first quarter points and the game was pretty over from there. Credit to the 76ers’ bench though who managed to make it a game and get the score within single digits.
- Tyrese Maxey might lose his role to George Hill whenever Hill is finally ready, but Maxey is doing his best to prove he deserves minutes. His 13 points led the team, and he was pretty much the lone bright spot.
- Ben Simmons struggled again, although to be fair the whole starting lineup did. 11 points, three assists and three turnovers isn’t great.
- Dwight Howard had another game where he really struggled when forced to start. Because Tony Bradley was traded away and Embiid’s injury, the center spot was simply too thin. They tried Mike Scott to little efficacy, and for some reason when Howard starts all his power is just stripped away. It’s not even a minutes thing either, as Howard has had great games with a lot of minutes. Something about starting him just doesn’t work.
Game 6: Win 114-94 over the Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are a team that should be blown out, and the 76ers blew them out. The starters though had another shaky performance with the exception of Seth Curry. Curry is inconsistent, but when he is feeling himself he’s dangerous. This game was the Shake Milton show however. As the first man off the bench, Milton just might be the fourth (dare I say third?) most important member on this team. He’s so critical to the Sixers reserve unit as the primary ball handler and scorer. His ability to get to the rim and finish has been really good, and this game in particular he found this three-point stroke. He dropped in a game high 27 on 10/14 shooting, including 5/7 from beyond the arc.
- It can’t be said enough how much Milton is necessary on this team. Even if he isn’t playing amazing (like he did against the Cavs) the bench really just plays better with him around. Of course, he can also go off like he did and lead the 76ers in scoring as well. That’s a potent weapon. How he fits with Hill will be interesting, as Milton needs the ball.
- Dwight Howard goes back to the bench and becomes Superman. 18 points and 15 boards is no joke, and the Sixers don’t need to panic when Embiid needs a breather. His contract was an absolute steal and one of Morey’s best moves.
- Seth Curry was great, but more important was the manner in which he was great. After the All-Star break, Curry has been much less selective with his shots. Normally that’s a bad thing, but with how conservative Curry was and how deadly he can be, loosening the reins was exactly what he needed. He doesn’t only shoot when wide open now, and he finally broke the double-digit barrier on three-pointers attempted. For someone shooting over 40% from deep, it’s a little silly it took this long. Regardless, it’s a really encouraging sign that Curry is being so much more willing to let it fly, and it’s something that needs to stick.
- On the more negative side, Simmons struggled again. He shot just 2/11. He did pick up 13 boards and five assists though. When Embiid comes back his scoring won’t be very important, but it really reemphasizes just how screwed this team will be if Harris or Embiid go down. Ben acknowledged his struggles, and having Embiid back will take pressure of off him.
Overall Grade: C
Going 4-2 with your best player injured is pretty good. Especially with every win being on the road. Some of the wins got really ugly though, and the lack of scoring over the period was troubling. They scored just 106.5 points per game (which included an OT game) over that six game stretch, which would put them 26th for the season. It’s clear that Embiid’s scoring and shot-making are absolutely critical to this team. They also lost the only two games where they weren’t favored and lost them in fairly convincing fashion. Still, it could’ve been a lot worse, and many teams that lose their best player often do, see the Miami Heat without Jimmy Butler.
The 76ers got some valuable data during the road trip and Embiid’s absence. Shake Milton proved his worth as a sixth man. Tobias Harris came through as the primary scoring option with Embiid gone and Green and Curry were both aggressive from three. Mike Scott was rather ineffective at center and will be hard to trust come playoff time. If the 76ers don’t have Embiid against the top teams, they don’t have the scoring punch to win. Against the rest of the NBA though, the 76ers can hang, which bodes well for the rest of the regular season. With how important that one seed is (not having to play both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets), being able to win games without Embiid is vital.
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