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Joel Embiid hits game-winner, Sixers squeak by Utah

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3 observations after Embiid hits game-winner, Sixers squeak by Jazz originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The result was in major jeopardy down the stretch, but the Sixers managed to start their five-game West Coast trip on a winning note Saturday night in Utah.

Joel Embiid‘s mid-range jumper on the Sixers’ final possession gave the team a 118-117 lead, and Jordan Clarkson‘s wayward shot from the left wing at the final buzzer sealed the victory. P.J. Tucker and Embiid effectively double teamed Clarkson, who spearheaded Utah’s comeback from a 20-point deficit with 38 points.

Embiid had 30 points and seven rebounds. James Harden posted 31 points and 11 assists.

Tobias Harris sat out with left knee soreness. Harris went down Thursday early in the second quarter of the Sixers’ loss to the Thunder, though he returned to the action soon after and played the remainder of the game.

Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk, Collin Sexton and Rudy Gay were sidelined for the Jazz, who fell to 22-24.

The 26-16 Sixers will finish their first back-to-back of 2023 on Sunday against the Lakers. Here are observations on their sigh-of-relief win over Utah:

Four guards shine in the first 

After two straight games as the Sixers’ sixth man, De’Anthony Melton returned to the starting lineup and looked tremendous in the opening minutes.

Melton knocked down his first three-point try and was helpful as usual at accelerating the Sixers’ pace. He blocked a Clarkson jumper, snagged the ball and eagerly jetted off into the frontcourt, where he found Tyrese Maxey for a three. A second Maxey triple gave the Sixers a quick 20-7 advantage.

All three starting Sixers guards were excellent in the early going. Harden scored seven of the Sixers’ first 14 points and continued to appear the strong favorite, health permitting, to lead the NBA in assists per game this season. Harden hit Maxey in stride on a backdoor cut with a stylish over-the-shoulder assist, one of his six in the first quarter.

Shake Milton also reminded everyone that he’s another Sixers guard capable of providing offensive pop. Milton converted his first five field goals, including two threes, and the Sixers ended the first quarter with 41 points and a 17-point lead.

It would’ve been 20 points if not for a Talen Horton-Tucker half-court jumper at the buzzer (the sort of shot Milton’s familiar with making). Utah had a cold start otherwise, though, missing 11 of its 14 threes in the first.

Utah pushes Sixers, but Maxey makes key threes

The luck on end-of-quarter, long-range shots perhaps evened out to close the second quarter. Embiid presumably did not call bank on his three at the tail end of the first half.

The last time Embiid faced the Jazz, he recorded 59 points, 11 rebounds eight assists and seven blocks in an all-time great performance. While he didn’t replicate that Saturday, Embiid still often seemed able to score as he pleased. He posted 13 points in the first quarter, shooting 4 for 6 from both the floor and the foul line.

Embiid faced rookie Walker Kessler, who did well during an 11-0 Utah run in the second quarter, slamming in back-to-back dunks. Clarkson started cooking in the second, slithering along the baseline and finding space for mid-range jumpers. The Sixers, meanwhile, settled for a few shots, including a short Harden three early in the shot clock. Harden did the same during a Jazz spurt in the third quarter. Inevitably, the Sixers will play through their stars and generally live with the results when looking to halt an opponent’s momentum.

Maxey broke Utah’s second-quarter run with a wing three set up by a nice Embiid skip pass. He drilled another three late in the second period, too. Although Maxey has been worse than his norm as a jump shooter since coming back from a left foot fracture, he’d expressed confidence that would change soon. Maxey began 5 for 7 from three-point range Saturday, then missed his next four. He’s at 34.0 percent in the eight games following his return.

“I think it’s just trying to get back to it,” Maxey said Thursday. “When you miss so much time, it’s hard to just find. I think my touch is coming back slowly, but the deep ball is struggling right now. I’m not too worried about it. I put in a lot of work, so they’ll start falling eventually and when they do, I’ll be back happy.”

Mixed bag in the clutch

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers played a nine-man rotation and used Montrezl Harrell at backup center. Paul Reed did not play.

Harrell (six points, five rebounds in 12 minutes) missed a couple of layups early in the fourth quarter. Matisse Thybulle then conceded two hoops in the paint to Clarkson, whose runner tied the contest at 90-all.

Fortunately for the Sixers, subbing Harden back in and letting him work in isolation had the desired effect. Harden drained four three-pointers, sunk a step-back mid-range jumper, and carried the Sixers offensively.

Clarkson kept answering, though. After a Mike Conley Jr. offensive rebound, he cut the Sixers’ lead to 108-106 with a wide-open three.

Up until his decisive jumper, Embiid’s clutch performance was mostly poor. He committed a turnover with a little over three minutes left when he threw the ball to a spot where no Sixer stood on the left wing. Embiid also missed a dunk (he thought he was fouled), missed an open mid-range shot, and split two free throws with 56.6 seconds left. A Kessler tip-in on the ensuing possession put Utah ahead for the first time all game.

However, the Sixers have been good on several occasions this season at retaining their poise after squandering leads. Harden drove in for a layup on an after-timeout play, Embiid hit the shot he absolutely needed to, and the Sixers blitzed Clarkson well to prevent him from making another big bucket. Not their prettiest showing over the final three quarters, but the Sixers did just enough to sit 1-0 on their West Coast trip.



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