3 observations after slump-busting Harris night helps Sixers squeak by Hornets

3 observations after slump-busting Harris night helps Sixers squeak by Hornets originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Tobias Harris decisively busted his slump and helped the Sixers squeak past the Hornets on Friday night.

The Sixers picked up a 121-114 win at Wells Fargo Center and Harris recorded 31 points on 13-for-19 shooting, 12 rebounds and four assists.

Tyrese Maxey had 33 points, six rebounds and five assists.

Charlotte's Miles Bridges tallied 27 points and 11 rebounds. Nick Richards scored 19 points on 8-for-9 shooting.

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine bone stress), Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise), KJ Martin (right ankle impingement) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (right shoulder soreness).

LaMelo Ball, Brandon Miller and Mark Williams were sidelined for the 15-45 Hornets.

Melton will also miss the Sixers’ upcoming road games against the Mavs and Nets. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said pregame that he expected the team would have a better sense of Melton’s status moving forward early next week.

Darius Bazley’s 10-day contract expired and he’s rejoined the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League, a team official said Friday morning. With Bazley back in Delaware, the Sixers only had nine available players.

The 34-25 Sixers will visit Dallas on Sunday afternoon. Here are observations on their win over Charlotte:

Sixers’ defensive holes still there 

Nurse handed Kyle Lowry his first start as a Sixer. He also ended Paul Reed’s run of 12 consecutive starts since Embiid’s injury, opting for Mo Bamba at center instead.

Bamba was locked in early as a rim protector, anticipating drives and soaring for two blocks in the first three minutes. He couldn’t sustain that level, though. Bamba posted two points on 1-for-4 shooting and eight rebounds in the game.

“Mo for Paul, they kind of have one center with size and then they go pretty small. I just thought that would be a better matchup for us,” Nurse said of his starting lineup rationale. “And really, the plan was to invigorate Kelly off the bench. I just wanted to see him with that group that maybe could feature him a little bit more. And then he ended up not playing, and we were kind of there anyway.

“But we’ll see. Probably game to game with how it goes and what it looks like, and keep moving things around.”

Lowry did decent work on both ends in the first quarter. He had a selfless approach, looking to throw passes ahead, swing the ball around the perimeter, and lift the Sixers’ tempo. The veteran made a savvy off-ball play when he set a hammer screen that freed Maxey for a corner three.

Charlotte’s shooters were cold out of the gates. The Hornets began 2 for 12 from the floor, but they got cooking early in the second quarter and surged to a 50-38 lead following threes from Davis Bertans, Tre Mann and Cody Martin. The Sixers conceded far too many comfortable shots and were lax in transition.

The Sixers ranked 26th in the NBA in defensive rating during the Embiid-less month of February, per Cleaning the Glass. Melton’s re-injury obviously hurts them a bit more on that side of the ball. No wins feel easy for this version of the Sixers.

Lowry helped the team summon a good response, sinking a triple to tie Paul Pierce for 13th on the NBA’s all-time made threes list (he later passed him). Still, the Sixers faced a five-point halftime deficit.

A slump-busting Harris night 

Mired in a serious skid after the All-Star break, Harris’ first few minutes were inauspicious.

About two minutes in, Harris landed awkwardly on a defensive play, rose to his feet with a grimace, and was slow to join the Sixers up the floor. He then air-balled his first jumper long.

Harris got on the board with a much closer-range look, throwing down a fast-break dunk assisted by Maxey. Soon after that slam, he canned two catch-and-shoot three-pointers.

Suddenly back in an apparent groove, Harris drained a corner three on the Sixers’ final possession of the first quarter. He finished the period with 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting and immediately showed that he’s still capable of climbing out of rough patches.

Harris credited Embiid for the wisdom he shared in a recent conversation.

“It was extremely helpful. ... Joel’s a very intelligent basketball mind with how he sees the game and what he sees,” Harris said. “He’s been with me here the longest out of anybody in this whole group. He’s seen ups and downs in my game. He’s seen me at my best and at my worst. But we had a great conversation. At the end of the day, he just said, ‘You had a rough seven-game stretch. It’s not 70 games.’

“He was just like, ‘It’s a new group. Figure out ways that you can be at your best.’ ... And you’re not out there saving lives. It’s basketball, so enjoy it and figure it out, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. But everything does get magnified in a short span when we’re not winning games and you’re not playing your best basketball energy-wise and efficiency-wise for the group.

“So those are some things I took from that. I was able to come out here today and really control some things that I could control out there, like going out and rebounding, being a big presence on the boards. And figuring out ways to just pick the whole group up from time to time. That was successful tonight, and just look to carry that on to the next game.”

Buddy Hield (13 points, six assists) was also better than he’d been in the Sixers’ loss Tuesday to the Celtics. The 31-year-old notched four first-quarter assists and flowed nicely off of fellow guards Maxey, Lowry and Cameron Payne.

The Sixers had a season-best 38 assists and only seven turnovers as a team, which Nurse called “probably the biggest stat of the night.”

Critical contributions around Maxey

Ricky Council IV was the standout among the Sixers’ four-man bench in the first half solely thanks to a single play.

Council jab stepped, dribbled into the lane, and leaped up like he wanted to tear the rim off. Grant Williams did not stop the attack-minded Sixers rookie from slamming home a highlight dunk.

The Hornets opened the second half determined to force Sixers besides Maxey to play larger roles, sending all-out blitzes at the All-Star guard on the perimeter. The Sixers handled the subsequent 4-on-3 situations well overall. Harris assisted a Lowry three and drove baseline for a layup.

Maxey maintained his aggression against whatever coverage he saw. The Sixers took a 79-78 lead after he scored a transition layup and a catch-and-shoot three. The 23-year-old posted at least 20 points for his eighth consecutive game. He exceeded 20 field-goal attempts for the seventh time in his last eight outings, too.

Crucially, the Sixers extended their lead to nine points with Maxey on the bench to begin the fourth quarter. Lowry (15 points, 10 assists) conducted the offense and hit a mid-range jumper. Reed scrapped for one of his five offensive rebounds, Nicolas Batum drilled a three, and the Sixers' defensive intensity increased.

Reed was fantastic after a Charlotte timeout, too. He tossed in a difficult hook shot, swatted away a Cody Martin layup, and tapped out another offensive board that enabled Lowry to nail a long-distance jumper.

“I knew I had to go out there and play hard,” Reed said. “I feel like that’s what the team needed from me. I’m the type of guy where of course I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder after they demote me like that. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to be a supportive teammate. And at the end of the day, it’s about the team. So whatever the team has to do to win, I’m all-in for it.”

The Hornets still managed to hang around, cutting the Sixers' lead to 114-112 with triples from Bridges and Grant Williams.

However, Harris came through in the clutch with a post-up fadeaway jumper and pivotal three. He ensured the Sixers avoided a bad loss and made it abundantly clear that his slump is now in the rearview mirror.

Maxey also hustled back to block Mann and extinguish any hopes of a Charlotte comeback.

Asked about the keys to his defensive improvement, Maxey quipped, “I’ve taken something out of Joel’s book. I’ve been reading everybody’s tweets. Everybody said I can’t play defense, so I’ve just been trying to play better defense.”