After posting 26 points, seven assists and six rebounds, Williamson exited early with a right hamstring strain and the Sixers notched a 120-111 victory at Wells Fargo Center.
CJ McCollum also scored 26 points.
The Sixers had their full team available. Embiid was listed as questionable heading into the contest with lower back soreness, which head coach Doc Rivers said the five-time All-Star first felt during the Sixers’ New Year’s Eve win over the Thunder. Monday’s game was his 16th in a row since returning in late November from a left mid-foot sprain.
The 22-14 Sixers will host the Pacers on Wednesday night. Here are observations on their win Monday:
Embiid starts on the right foot again
Just like Friday in New Orleans, Embiid began the game playing at his top gear.
He scored the Sixers’ first seven points, hitting a put-back layup, a three, and a mid-range jumper over Jonas Valanciunas. Embiid then capitalized on a Williamson fumble by taking the ball and tossing it ahead to De’Anthony Melton, whose wing three gave the Sixers a 10-4 edge.
It made perfect sense to play Embiid the whole first quarter Monday. He drew the second foul on Valanciunas with 5:58 to go in the first on his well-honed rip-through move. A few seconds later, he reached 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting with a layup off of a pick-and-roll with Harden.
While Rivers said pregame that he’d like to continue developing all-bench lineups during the regular season, the Sixers’ second unit is seriously elevated when a star joins as Embiid did Monday. Meanwhile, Tyrese Maxey got a star’s reception from the crowd in his first home game since suffering a left foot fracture, receiving big cheers when he subbed into the action. The Sixers whipped the ball around the perimeter after a couple of Maxey-Embiid side pick-and-rolls and Georges Niang (15 points) knocked down back-to-back triples. An and-one Maxey layup extended the Sixers’ lead to 33-23.
The one downside of using Embiid for the entire quarter was that he needed to be especially alert in the paint with Niang assigned to Williamson. Embiid ultimately picked up his second foul with 11.4 seconds left.
Williamson a giant problem until injury
Fouls became a major storyline for the Sixers, in large part because of Williamson. P.J. Tucker, Harden and Embiid were all called for their third before halftime.
There’s an inevitability to much of Williamson’s game that’s reminiscent of Giannis Antetokounmpo. At times, it appears any chance for him to drive downhill won’t end well for the opposition. It’s difficult to truly capture his combination of size and athleticism, but we’ll note Williamson weighs more than Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, who watched courtside Monday night.
Tucker and the Sixers sometimes looked solid in the half court against Williamson, but he’s a constant concern in transition. All those fouls also prevented the Sixers from staying with Plan A. Though Rivers was likely tempted to ride Embiid until the end of the half, the decision to sub him out was fair enough. And, sure enough, New Orleans finished the second quarter on a 5-0 run, cutting the Sixers’ lead to 57-52.
The Sixers benefited early in the third quarter from Pelicans shooters missing a few open jumpers created by the immense attention on Williamson. The 22-year-old wasn’t discouraged, though, and he was excellent at seeing his spots to attack and stepping on the gas without hesitation. When Harden ceded the baseline, Williamson blew past him for a layup. He also prevented the Sixers from maintaining a double-digit lead by making far tougher shots, including a transition runner and a turnaround jumper. After Williamson grabbed a defensive rebound and chucked the ball up to Trey Murphy III for a dunk, the game was rather suddenly tied.
The Sixers were relatively successful defensively against McCollum, who’d scored 42 points and made a career-high 11 threes a few days earlier in New Orleans. Still, Williamson was more than enough for the Pelicans to come back from a second-quarter deficit as large as 15 points.
As the third period wound down, Williamson steamed forward with the ball as usual, but he pulled up short around the three-point line. The Pelicans officially ruled him out for the game in the middle of the fourth, which clearly made the Sixers' task considerably easier.
Three guards get it done late
Maxey missed five of his first six field goals. His jumpers were short and he struggled to play through contact in his second game back.
He was sharper with Embiid sitting early in the fourth quarter, though, snapping a 6-0 New Orleans run and breaking an 89-89 tie with a corner three. A little later, Maxey pump faked, drove baseline, and laid the ball in.
For a while, it seemed Embiid would help the Sixers cruise to the final buzzer. After converting an off-balance, and-one layup, he did a break dancing-esque, spinning celebration on the floor. His free throw gave the Sixers a 106-96 advantage.
However, the Pelicans were pesky and got their deficit back down to three points on a McCollum three. New Orleans head coach Willie Green turned to zone defense down the stretch and the Sixers nailed the necessary jumpers against it, including critical threes from Melton and Harden. Playing their top three guards was the sensible move and it certainly paid off.