3 observations after Sixers lose dramatic, controversial game in Harden’s return

3 observations after Sixers lose dramatic, controversial game in Harden’s return originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

James Harden‘s first game back in Philadelphia since being traded from the Sixers had no shortage of drama.

Down 108-107 to the Clippers with 5.1 seconds left, the Sixers won a jump ball at center court. Kelly Oubre Jr. drove into the paint and came up empty, though he was incredulous that no foul was called against Paul George on the play.

Sixers head coach Nick Nurse was furious after the final whistle and also did not hold back in expressing his displeasure at the no-call.

In the end, the Sixers dropped to 39-34 this season and the Clippers improved to 45-27.

Tyrese Maxey posted 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

George was the Clippers’ top scorer with 22 points. Harden had 16 points and 14 assists.

The Sixers were down Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine bone stress) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise).

Nurse said pregame that he thinks there’s “a very good likelihood (Embiid) will return before the play-in, playoffs.”

As for Covington, Nurse said the 33-year-old forward has been “making some progress.” He called Melton “not as close yet,” but Nurse said he was still hopeful both Covington and Melton would return before the conclusion of the regular season.

The Sixers now have nine regular-season games left. They’ll play five of their next six on the road, starting with a matchup Friday night against the Cavaliers.

Here are observations on their loss Wednesday:

Sixers’ defense starts in top gear 

No one expected Harden would get a warm reception.

Indeed, he was booed loudly during starting lineup introductions and whenever he touched the ball.

Those boos shifted to cheers when Harden missed his first two three-point tries and caught a George pass with his foot on the sideline. George and Kawhi Leonard were off their games early, too. The Clippers’ star trio combined to begin 0 for 6 from the field.

The Sixers’ defense was outstanding in the first quarter, holding the Clippers to 18 points. The team’s ability to play physical, sturdy defense in post-up and isolation situations without fouling was especially impressive. Mason Plumlee was the only Clipper to attempt a free throw in the opening quarter.

Beyond solid 1-on-1 work, the Sixers were also strong in terms of helping each other out and executing Nurse’s schemes. The Sixers forced a Clippers shot clock violation on a possession where they shaded help toward a temporary Leonard vs. Maxey mismatch in the post and then scrambled around effectively late in the shot clock. Next time down, Oubre drew an offensive foul against George.

On the other end, Maxey was actually the last Sixers starter to score a game after he’d posted his team’s first 16 points in Sacramento. He hit a tough finger roll at the first-quarter buzzer to put the Sixers up 30-18.

Maxey‘s presence much-needed

Maxey went the first 15 minutes and exhibited exceptional defensive energy at the tail end of that stint.

Though Harden converted a four-point play on him, Maxey had plenty of positive defensive moments. For instance, he prevented Russell Westbrook from gaining any separation on a drive, stuck to him tightly, and rejected his shot.

Maxey’s effort was tone-setting. The Sixers out-hustled the Clippers in the first half, frequently beating L.A. to loose balls and offensive rebounds. Despite shooting 4 for 17 from three-point range in the first half, the Sixers held the advantage at intermission.

However, that lead was only four points. Cameron Payne couldn’t replicate his tremendous outing Sunday in the Sixers’ win over the Clippers and L.A. found a bit of momentum with Maxey out. George and Leonard still couldn’t get on track, but Harden scored a couple of buckets in transition, including an and-one layup and a three. He drove and kicked the ball out to Amir Coffey for a wide-open triple on the Clippers’ last play of the second quarter.

When Embiid’s healthy and the Sixers are in a close contest, it often seems that everyone is counting down the seconds until he’ll sub back in. That’s not uncommon now with Maxey, who played 44 minutes Sunday and did the same Wednesday night. His presence tends to be extremely important.

Leonard hauls Clips to controversial win down stretch

Predictably, George canned a couple of three-pointers early in the third quarter and the Clippers took a 56-55 lead.

The Sixers responded with a 6-0 run that included a Mo Bamba tip-in and a Bamba layup. The big man posted his first double-double as a Sixer, tallying 12 points and 11 rebounds.

Buddy Hield also stepped up late in the third quarter, making two threes and a driving layup at a stage when the Sixers sorely needed to lighten the offensive burden on Maxey. The Sixers’ All-Star guard delivered some big-time shotmaking as well, confidently handling a variety of defenders and coverages.

Still, the Clippers remained high-powered and dangerous. Harden tossed a long-distance pass up to Leonard for a dunk that cut the Sixers’ lead to 91-89.

The Sixers’ role players ultimately chipped in a good amount around Maxey. Nicolas Batum made sure no one forgot he was also part of that Harden deal, drilling two massive corner threes and blocking the 10-time All-Star’s layup attempt in the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, the game remained tight and tense. Maxey slipped on a sideline out-of-bounds play with 61 seconds left, leading to a Sixers turnover. They also coughed the ball up on their next inbounds play, and both miscues hurt.

Leonard made an and-one layup to put the Clippers up 105-104. And following a Hield three, the two-time Finals MVP somehow did it again.

With the game on the line, Oubre drove on Leonard and saw his layup attempt pinned between the rim and backboard.

The officials upheld that call upon review, which set the stage for the controversial final sequence.

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