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3 Observations After Huge Harden Quarter Helps Sixers Beat Raptors

Joel Embiid posted 25 points and 12 rebounds. Harden had 23 points and 11 assists. 

Toronto’s Scottie Barnes recorded a game-high 29 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals.

Tobias Harris missed Friday’s game with a non-COVID illness. Toronto was down Gary Trent Jr., Otto Porter Jr., Will Barton and Dalano Banton. 

The Sixers will travel to Milwaukee for a Sunday night matchup with the Bucks. Here are observations on their victory Friday: 

Embiid injury scares 

De’Anthony Melton started in Harris’ place and had an extraordinarily productive first 30 seconds or so.

After nabbing a steal on Toronto’s first possession, Melton made a layup following a sharp give and go with P.J. Tucker. He also assisted consecutive threes by Tucker from the left corner. At that stage, the 37-year-old already had his most points in a game during March. The Sixers opened 7 for 8 from the floor overall and went up 16-7 on a driving Harden hoop. 

A few minutes later, the crowd groaned for reasons unrelated to the score when Embiid landed awkwardly on a drive and didn’t immediately rise to his feet. The home fans were relieved to see that Embiid was fine to remain in, although the big man headed to the bench soon after because he encountered early foul trouble. Especially with the Sixers now unlikely to finish as anything besides the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed, the sight of Embiid in apparent discomfort indeed merited those groans. Embiid also stayed down on the floor late in the third quarter after absorbing a hard foul by Cameroonian rookie Christian Koloko. Though Embiid’s next few steps were ginger, his movement didn’t appear compromised once the action resumed. 

Toronto eventually began to find traction in transition and regularly beat the Sixers off the dribble in the first period. The Raptors forced five first-quarter giveaways and scored the night’s first nine fast-break points, including a Barnes to Precious Achiuwa alley-oop with nine seconds left in the opening period that cut the Sixers’ lead to 31-30 with Embiid sitting on the sidelines. Everyone in the arena understood his health mattered more than the result of the game. 

Harden, bench shine in second

Led by Harden and their second unit, the Sixers played an almost unbelievably excellent second quarter. They shot 18 for 21 (85.7 percent) from the field in the period. 

Along with Harden, Paul Reed (11 points, six rebounds) was a major standout. Reed gave the Sixers his usual hustle, rebounding, and defensive versatility. The 23-year-old’s offensive reads and connection with Harden were impressive, too. On one unselfish Sixers possession, Danuel House Jr. pump faked, drove from the baseline, and dished a lefty wraparound pass to Reed, who made a quick interior feed to Jalen McDaniels for a layup. Later in the second quarter, Reed set Harden up for a bucket with an instinctive give and go near the end of the shot clock. Harden returned the favor next time down, hitting the rolling Reed for a lay-in. 

In his second game back following a four-game absence with left Achilles soreness, Harden very firmly shook off any remaining rust. He said after Wednesday’s win over the Mavs that he doesn’t expect the injury to “completely go away,” but Harden sure didn’t look like a significantly diminished player against Toronto. While everything’s sunnier for him when step-back threes are falling, he did much more than fire jumpers Friday. Harden was happy to push the pace alongside athletic bench players like McDaniels, House and Reed, and he was stellar as both a facilitator and a zero-hesitation, “You can’t stop me” sort of scorer in the second quarter. 

Shake Milton received first-quarter time after not playing at all Wednesday. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that the Sixers’ rotation is not cemented and he expects things will change during the playoffs. As he’s done throughout this year, Rivers expressed his belief that the Sixers have a deeper squad than last season. The team indeed appears like it will have better options off the bench than last postseason, when Matisse Thybulle, Milton and Furkan Korkmaz were the Sixers’ three most used perimeter bench players. 

Regardless, much of the Sixers’ play when Embiid sits figures to hinge on Harden, and the 10-time All-Star’s second-quarter showing was certainly encouraging. 

Sixers prevent Toronto from completing comeback 

The Sixers went up 24 points on an off-balance Harden three late in the second, but they absolutely did not steamroll from there.

The Raptors responded with a 16-0 run that lasted well into the third quarter. Tucker, Melton and Harden all misfired on open shots from the right corner. Characteristically, offensive rebounds and forced turnovers also fueled Toronto’s run. Embiid got stripped by OG Anunoby at the elbow on an after-timeout play and threw a poor cross-court pass. Harden finally scored the Sixers’ first points of the second half at the foul line with 7:59 to go in the third. 

Though the Sixers entered the fourth with a 13-point advantage, their bench seemingly used up all its luck in the first half. Harden and House missed threes, Reed missed a layup, and just about every play broke the Raptors’ way. The Sixers’ effort level didn’t dip and McDaniels had two emphatic blocks, but Toronto put together a 12-0 run and cut the Sixers’ lead to 99-96 on a Fred VanVleet three. Reed’s final contribution of the evening was a missed dunk.

Another VanVleet triple trimmed the Raptors’ deficit to 103-101, but the Sixers ultimately did enough down the stretch to solidify the victory. Tucker and Melton delivered important plays on both ends of the court and Harden shook Anunoby in isolation before driving in for a layup.

While the second quarter was clearly Harden’s finest Friday night, he was pumped up to make a slick move late in the fourth and help the Sixers to their 51st win. 

Source: NBC Sport