Instant observations: Sixers surrender 42 to CJ McCollum, lose to Pelicans

The Sixers could only watch as CJ McCollum canned a career-high 11 threes, his 42 points powering the Pelicans to a 127-116 win over Philly. Joel Embiid (37 points, eight rebounds, five assists) was the star man for the visitors.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers certainly started the game with the right approach, bouncing back from a sleepy effort in D.C. They needed a much better start against a much better team on Friday night, and until they started to bring in bench players, they looked more than alright.

To the shock of no one, it was Embiid leading the charge for Philadelphia early. Despite being matched up with Jonas Valanciunas, a big body in the post, Embiid did an excellent job to blend his face-up game with attacks of the rim, even if JV got the best of him a time or two down low. The Sixers didn’t ask him to generate much of his own offense, either, with Embiid scoring most of his first-half points with off-ball movement and activity. That’s sort of the holy grail for this team — if you can get Embiid easy points by just running your offense instead of asking him to play hero ball, you’re on your way to playoff success.

You could make an argument he was even more important on the other end. I think P.J. Tucker deserves a little credit for playing physical defense against Zion Williamson in this game, and Zion is the type of guy you have Tucker on this team to guard. He might not match him in athleticism, but he’s not going to let him go through him, and slowing him down on the way to the rim is half of the battle.

But as the game wore on, it was clear that the individual defender in front of Williamson had little to do with his success or lack thereof. When the Sixers had Embiid protecting the rim, Williamson didn’t find many opportunities to attack it. As soon as Embiid left the game, it was hunting season for the big-bodied star in New Orleans, Williamson picking on every other Sixers defender he matched up with. It didn’t matter if it was Tucker, Georges Niang, Tobias Harris, Montrezl Harrell, or me out there, Williamson went where he wanted to go. It didn’t even look like the same game once Embiid was on the bench. That’s the difference Embiid can make by simply being on the floor, even if he’s not the guy making a play or contesting a shot.

Some nights, you look at how he goes about his business and just wonder out loud, “How the hell does anybody stop him tonight?” This was one of those — Embiid spent the third quarter absolutely dismantling the Pelicans in the paint, going wherever he wanted whenever he wanted. Valanciunas picked up two fouls in the span of seconds in the third quarter, Embiid baiting him with ruthless precision. And Embiid continued to wield the sledgehammer against Willy Hernangomez, going by the Spanish big as if he wasn’t there in the first place.

His calculated patience is so impressive after watching him play through growing pains in the early years. Instead of instinctively putting the ball on the floor when he gets it, he holds and holds until it’s clear pressure isn’t coming, and then he makes his move, a move the defense is often powerless to stop. It may be a speed move, it may be a shoulder into somebody’s chest, but when it comes, you can only do so much preparation for that moment.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Embiid had run out of ideas and points when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. The things that were working once again faded from the gameplan late, leading to a series of stagnant, isolated possessions where the Sixers could only hope a midrange jumper would go down. Not an ideal strategy, it turns out.

The Bad

• Tyrese Maxey looked like a guy who has not played much basketball since mid-November. Nothing wrong with him having to work his way into a rhythm, and bringing him off of the bench made enough sense for a debut. Keep him in a smaller role, let him work his way back into the flow of the team, and then see where you’re at.

Except Doc Rivers didn’t really do that, did he? With the Sixers already in a rough spot during Embiid-less minutes, Zion going full bulldozer during that stretch, Maxey was put in a lineup where he was essentially asked to carry the group on offense, put on the floor alongside Milton/Niang/Tucker/Harrell. That is a simply atrocious defensive group, and you could argue it was worse on the other end, especially because Georges Niang took a while to get going as a jump-shooter.

When Maxey is at full strength, you could maybe buy Harden and Embiid a bit of time on the bench if you absolutely need to, but even that is a stretch. He has simply been a way better, more effective player in a secondary role off of those guys, and has often struggled to lead bench units by himself. Asking him to do that in his first game back was way too big of an ask, and I put that squarely on Rivers.

The worst part is that Rivers watched that lineup get blown to smithereens in the first half and trotted out another act of terror in the second half. Predictably, Williamson made mincemeat out of them for a second time. There should never be a point where we see Harrell/Tucker/Niang on the floor together at the same time unless it’s an absolute emergency. Hell, if you need Tucker for the Zion matchup, just go small at that point, because it’s not like Harrell is offering rim protection behind these guys.

Anyway, Maxey certainly looked a bit more comfortable as the game wore on, putting together some nice scoring moves in the second half when the Sixers desperately needed some points. He’ll come good with time, though I remain curious as to what his role looks like.

• I just don’t see the point in playing Montrezl Harrell against good teams, because I just can’t see what he does that will make him a useful, impactful player when it matters. He’s an “energy big” who gets lost on defense, loses his man during box-out opportunities, and applies most of his energy toward scoring and the offensive glass. He hasn’t even been all that good in those departments of expertise.

To a lesser extent, I feel the same about Matisse Thybulle, who has youth and upside arguments on his side but who I simply don’t and will not trust in matchups with real teams. There was a moment during his four first-half minutes where Thybulle essentially ran Jaxson Hayes into a potential driving lane for De’Anthony Melton, 

• This is an absolutely bizarre James Harden game to evaluate. Truthfully, I think he was impressive as a scorer given how long he went without attacking or doing much beyond playing setup man for Embiid. And Embiid deserved to get the lion’s share of touches on a dominant night, so Harden sliding into a facilitation-heavy mode was warranted and embraced by No. 1.

You also could have convinced me that James Harden was actively throwing the game in the early stages of the second quarter. I think he committed five of the worst turnovers I think I have ever seen on a basketball court, and he added to that total in the second half, just giving the ball away for no real reason. Three of the passes were turnovers you would have admonished kids for at the high-school level, passes right into the chests of defenders because he hadn’t looked where he was going first. Add on an offensive foul under his own basket because he was bothered by Jose Alvarado, and you couldn’t have scripted a more embarrassing few minutes.

That stretch of the game was where the Sixers essentially lost it, because it was the portion of the evening where C.J. McCollum found his shooting groove. McCollum got some easy looks at the hoop in transition — Harden didn’t exactly defend well there, either — and once he built a head of steam, it was damn near impossible for the Sixers to slow him down the rest of the night. Maybe that happens without Harden’s series of brain farts in the second quarter, but he didn’t help the cause.

It’s worth saying here that I don’t think you could pin McCollum’s night on any individual player, and I lean more toward just giving him credit for an insane performance. He killed drop coverage, and then the Sixers brought the center up, and he found a way to poke and prod inside the arc. He killed as an off-ball shooter, then eased his way into controlling the game as a pull-up dynamo.

• One team was absolutely ruthless in transition, more than doubled their opponent in offensive rebounds and shot the lights out from three. That team was not the Sixers.

(In fairness on the shooting component, any team is going to “shoot well” collectively when one guy makes 10+ threes in a game. Ridiculous McCollum game.)

The rebounding part is at the top of the list for infuriating tendencies, because those plays so often come down to basketball basics. Philadelphia not having elite size or athleticism is not an excuse to botch box outs, stand flat-footed, or take poor angles on rebounding opportunities. In fact, the Sixers not having great size or athleticism collectively is a reason to focus on those little things even more!

• Seriously, can this team stop going away from the Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll down the stretch of games? What am I missing here? I don’t care who is to blame, but the Rivers/Harden/Embiid trio needs to figure this out, full stop.

The Ugly

• Tucker complaining and drawing a tech on a play where he smacked the hell out of Williamson’s arm is just stupid stuff. You want to complain about 50/50 plays, be my guest, but when you can hear skin contact, I would say to just eat the call and move onto the next play. I’m not a pro basketball player, but I think that’s a good rule of thumb.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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