3 observations after Embiid comes back, scores 41 in win over Rockets

3 observations after Embiid comes back, scores 41 in win over Rockets originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Back on the floor, back posting big numbers.

Joel Embiid returned from a three-game absence with a left knee injury Monday afternoon and produced a 41-point, 10-rebound outing in the Sixers’ 124-115 win over the Rockets at Wells Fargo Center.

Embiid’s streak of consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds is now at 16.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day victory improved the Sixers to 25-13. Houston fell to 19-20.

Tyrese Maxey added 27 points and seven assists.

Rockets center Alperen Şengün recorded 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Jalen Green tallied 20 points.

The Sixers had four players sidelined Monday in De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress response), Robert Covington (left knee inflammation), Jaden Springer (right ankle tendinitis) and Mo Bamba (right knee fat pad impingement).

The second leg of the Sixers’ back-to-back will be Tuesday night in Philadelphia vs. two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the 28-13 Denver Nuggets.

Here are observations on their win over Houston:

An identical Embiid

Tobias Harris kept his personal momentum flowing from the opening tip, sinking a catch-and-shoot three-pointer on the game’s first play. He’d been fantastic Friday without Embiid, scoring 37 points in the Sixers’ victory over the Kings.

Harris’ second jumper went in and out, but Nicolas Batum ripped the rebound from Şengün’s hands and fed Kelly Oubre Jr. for a dunk. Rockets head coach Ime Udoka called timeout after only 77 seconds.

While Udoka’s team eventually found a foothold in the game, Embiid’s two-way performance in the first quarter ensured the Sixers built a double-digit lead. He drained mid-range jumpers over Şengün, drew and hit five foul shots, and wasn’t too bothered by Houston’s double teams. A slick, over-the-shoulder Embiid assist to set up a Patrick Beverley layup suggested he didn’t have much rust as a passer.

The Sixers went on a 10-0 run late in the first period and did much of that damage with Embiid and Batum next to second-unit players. As we’d seen before Embiid’s recent injury troubles, Batum’s entry passing, rapid-release shooting and defensive versatility are helpful tools alongside the reigning MVP in many lineups.

Embiid’s defensive activity and instincts were excellent right away, too. After Green drove baseline past Beverley, Embiid swooped in to reject his layup.

All told, Embiid posted 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting, two assists, a steal and a block in the first quarter. A Paul Reed hook shot early in the second stretched the Sixers’ lead to 44-23.

High-level hustle, defense in first half 

The Sixers began the afternoon with Batum applying full-court pressure on Rockets point guard Fred VanVleet.

Maxey guarded second-year forward Jabari Smith Jr. (and switched often). That aspect of the Sixers’ game plan didn’t pan out — Maxey was whistled for two fouls in under five minutes — but their defensive start was still impressive. They generally struck a nice balance between scrambling to put out fires and surviving some apparent mismatches.

The Rockets had a subpar shooting day, but the Sixers also were solid at understanding Houston’s go-to actions and working hard to minimize easy baskets. Oubre swiped four steals before halftime. Beverley slid over on a second-quarter fast break and absorbed a charge from Smith. Batum sprinted back late in the period and swatted away rookie Cam Whitmore’s layup attempt.

The Sixers’ second unit also chipped in plenty of hustling, high-energy plays. As a whole, the team’s four-man bench had 16 points on 5-for-6 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists in the first half.

Embiid scored 26 first-half points and Houston, despite closing the second quarter well, trailed by 19 at intermission.

Big man able to watch down the stretch

The Rockets outplayed the Sixers to begin the third quarter as well. The Sixers had more slow-developing, empty possessions and weren’t as sharp defensively. Maxey fell to 3 for 11 from the field with a missed floater.

The situation grew a shade more concerning for the Sixers when Embiid committed his fifth foul with 4:42 left in the third quarter. Şengün split the ensuing free throws, cutting Houston’s deficit to 81-68, and Embiid took an extended seat.

Again, the Sixers’ bench delivered a strong stint. Threes by Maxey and Marcus Morris Sr. late in the third quarter put the Sixers’ lead back at 22 points.

Beverley had a good day offensively alongside Maxey. He screened frequently on the ball, organized the Sixers’ half-court offense, scored craftily and passed well. The 35-year-old had 11 points, six assists and five rebounds.

With a little over eight minutes remaining, Embiid chased down a Jae’Sean Tate miss to reach the 30-and-10 milestone. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse subbed him out with 6:05 to go and his team up 20.

Houston kept playing hard and trimmed the Sixers’ lead far lower than it was for much of the day. Still, on the first leg of a back-to-back, Embiid obviously didn’t mind spectating for the final minutes.

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