As Harrell shines, Sixers again 'find a way,' see strong version of bench originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Montrezl Harrell knew he’d played well enough Wednesday night that reporters would want to chat with him.
However, he assumed that discussion would happen in the locker room. A Sixers public relations official told Harrell he had podium duties, though, and the eighth-year veteran sure didn’t seem to mind.
“I play like it’s my last game, leave it all out there, and just play the right way,” Harrell said into the microphone after scoring a season-high 19 points on 8-for-9 shooting and blocking four shots in the Sixers’ overtime win against the Pacers. “Nine times out of 10, the basketball gods reward that.
“I don’t go out there and try to prove anything or let anybody know, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m doing that.’ It’s just going out there, playing the right way and good things happen, really. That’s the only way I know how to play basketball.”
Harrell emphasized his gratitude at the podium, stressing that he’s glad playing basketball remains his job. After signing with the Sixers in September for the minimum salary, Harrell has averaged 12.0 minutes, his fewest since his rookie year.
“I’ve got two kids at home and a family that I love taking care of,” he said back on Dec. 16. “And the way that I do that is by playing the game of basketball, so that’s what motivates me.”
The Sixers were also quite pleased to have Harrell on Wednesday. He helped them improve to 6-3 this season without Joel Embiid, who was sidelined by left foot soreness.
And, though the 6-foot-7 Harrell will never be comparable to Embiid defensively, he had plenty of impressive moments on that end of the floor. Sure, Jalen Smith scored 17 points in just 15 minutes and the Sixers didn’t have their usual elite deference at the rim, but Harrell gave head coach Doc Rivers what he wanted. Harrell’s high-decibel, whole-hearted celebrations weren’t just for dunks.
“We talk about being a star in your role every night, right? And he did exactly what his role said he should do,” Rivers said. “Being the low man on defense, we talked about that all of film, because they’re 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.
“And Trez got a charge, four blocks. He was there all night, and then we X-ed out for him. So I was really happy with the way he played. And he just has great hands. James (Harden) really trusts that when he rolls, he comes up with the ball. That’s good for us.”
Rivers didn’t need to expand the Sixers’ rotation because all four of his second-unit players had good nights. Shake Milton posted 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting and four assists, which was especially valuable with Harden carrying an even heavier ball handling load than normal. Georges Niang improved to 41.4 percent from three-point range with a 3-for-4 outing. His 82 made threes this season are second among all bench players.
In Matisse Thybulle’s 21 minutes, the Sixers outscored Indiana by 14 points. Thybulle’s stock appears to have risen a bit recently, although Rivers has still been reluctant to use him in certain situations. He kept Thybulle in the game late in the third quarter when the Pacers began trapping Harden around half court, and the 25-year-old made a wide-open wing three. However, Rivers subbed Thybulle out with 7:27 to go and only used him for brief defensive stints down the stretch of regulation and in overtime.
“I think Matisse is playing terrific defense and has really helped us,” Rivers said. “He’s staying aggressive. Indiana was smart. They started trapping because they knew he was on the floor, and that’s why we had to get him off. But overall, he’s been fantastic for us.”
Harrell closed the game out over P.J. Tucker, who Rivers said took a knee to the thigh in the first quarter before returning to the action. Tucker is habitually determined to grit through pain, discomfort and minor injuries. He’s already done that a lot this season; the Sixers’ New Year’s Eve matchup in Oklahoma City is the one game he’s missed.
Additional injury issues are never a positive, but the Sixers have gained confidence in their ability to compensate for absent or underperforming players. If Tucker’s grimacing or bench wings are struggling, Rivers has alternative options. Paul Reed and Danuel House Jr. stayed outside of the rotation Wednesday.
“These are the times where you find out who your team is,” Harden said. “Injuries, guys go down or whatnot … are you going to make the excuse, or are you going to just keep pushing through it? We’ve done a really good job of pushing through it. At some point, all of us have been out.
“We find a way to just keep getting better. … Eventually, it’s going to all come together for us where we’re healthy, we catch a rhythm, and we go on a roll. We’ve just got to be patient with it.”