Unexpected 2023 Headline: James Harden’s Defense Wins it for Sixers

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

That’s 11-straight home wins for your team, your town, your Philadelphia 76ers, but holy cannoli was that a doozy of a 4th quarter. Looked like a classic Doc collapse before they got it done in overtime with… James Harden’s defense.

Yes, you heard that correctly. Sans Joel Embiid, the Pacers decided to iso the shit out of Harden in OT and they were rewarded with a key strip and block that allowed the Sixers to get out in front and seal the deal, 129 to 126:

“I had to make up for it,” Harden said after the win. “Uncharacteristic. Missed two free throws. I had to make a stop and try and make a play on the ball. (Indiana) plays extremely fast. I know they’re the number one paced team in the league. Out there playing against them, there’s no time off. There’s no relax breaks or anything. They did a really good job of pushing the pace. We had the lead basically the entire game. We made some shots. We missed some shots. In overtime we just won the game. So, games like that you just win the game and keep pushing forward.”

In Joel Embiid’s absence, Montrezl Harrell looked like the second coming of Karl Malone at times, finishing with 19 points, five rebounds, an assist, a steal, and four blocks in 28 minutes off the bench. He shot 8-9 from the floor and really boosted the Sixers throughout.

“He was great,” Doc Rivers said of Harrell. “We talk about being a star in your role every night. He did exactly what his role said he should do: be the low man on defense. We talked about that all film because (Indy) is so quick. They’re going to beat you off the dribble and if the low man’s not there, they’re going to make layups. I thought Trez got a charge and had four blocks. He was there all night. I was really happy with the way he played. He just has great hands. James really trusts when he rolls. He comes up with the ball, and that’s good for us.”

That’s 11 wins out of 13 for the Sixers, who are 5th in the Eastern Conference at 23-14 but just 2.5 games out of first place. It’s pretty clumpy at the top with Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Cleveland, then you get three games separating Phila from Miami, Toronto, and Indy, so the Sixers are on the right path here. They were 21-16 this time last year, so they’re slightly outperforming the last iteration of this team, which finished as the four seed in the east.

Couple of random notes:

  • Matisse Thybulle continues to play plus minutes whenever he’s on the court. He’s playing a career-low in MPG this season so Doc and the coaching staff gotta figure out a way to maximize these contributions via edits to the rotation.
  • P.J. Tucker 0-4 in 25 minutes while picking up 7 rebounds. He took a knee to the thigh it appeared and was dealing with that hand issue at the end of December, so guy hasn’t been able to catch much of a break, though he’s basically turned into an older version of Reggie Evans, if Reggie didn’t get his 1-2 slop buckets per night.
  • De’Anthony Melton continues to be a fantastic signing.
  • Tyrese Maxey shot 6-16 from the field but finished with 17 and threw 6 assists while ripping off that huge steal at the end of regulation. Best Maxey game since he came back from injury.
  • Good one here from the Sixers PR staff: “The 76ers produced 48 bench points, marking the fourth time this season Philadelphia’s reserves have combined to reach the 45-point mark in a single game (PHI: 4-0 in such games). “
  • 13 points for Shake Milton off the bench. He’s shooting a career-high 51.3% from the field this season.
  • They’re 15-1 over their last 16 home games, which is territory where Brett Brown’s good teams were living several years ago. They just did not lose at Wells Fargo Center and it’s starting to become the norm again. The last home loss was that T Wolves game, on the second night of the back-to-back.