Joel Embiid returns, Georges Niang comes up big in win

3 observations after Embiid returns, Niang comes up big, and Sixers beat Suns originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With a full moon over Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers earned their best win of the young 2022-23 season Monday night.

Joel Embiid returned after missing three games with a non-COVID illness to post 33 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 100-88 win over the Suns.

Georges Niang poured in 21 points and made 7 of his 10 three-point tries. Tobias Harris had 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Phoenix’s Devin Booker scored 28 points.

Danuel House Jr. missed a second straight game because of an illness. James Harden is sidelined by a right foot tendon strain.

Phoenix didn’t have Jae Crowder (not with team), Cameron Johnson (right meniscus tear), Ish Wainright and Duane Washington Jr. (personal reasons). Chris Paul exited at halftime with right heel soreness.

The 5-6 Sixers will visit the Hawks on Thursday. Here are observations on their victory over the Suns:

Embiid and Harris key strong start

Embiid made a foul-line jumper on the Sixers’ opening possession and scored six of the team’s first points. He got some relatively easy early scoring thanks to his offensive rebounding, too.

Late in the first quarter, Embiid tricked Jock Landale into biting on his pump fake. In addition to the free points for himself, Embiid’s return should significantly increase the amount of time the Sixers spend in the bonus. He shot 16 for 16 from the foul line against Phoenix and drew the second foul on Deandre Ayton early in the second quarter. Ayton subbed out with 6:33 remaining in the second after a needless push on Paul Reed around the three-point line.

Both Embiid and Harris reached double-digit points in the first period. Harris was impressively attack-minded at all three levels while still taking sensible shots.

On Sunday, he recalled that Hall of Fame mentor George Gervin often stressed the importance of efficiency and shooting at least 50 percent from the floor.

While this wasn’t Harris’ finest efficiency night, it is perhaps overlooked how consistently he makes sound offensive decisions while accepting whatever role the Sixers hand him. According to cleaning the Glass, Harris since the 2017-18 season has been above average among forwards each year in points per shot attempt, assist-to-usage ratio and turnover percentage. He’s not a superstar, but he’s a good and very steady offensive player.

Reed gets the nod and Niang sinks big shots

Reed replaced Embiid with 7:05 left in the first quarter. It was a well-earned opportunity after his six-steal, two-block outing Friday in the Sixers’ loss to the Knicks.

One compelling reason to play Reed behind Embiid is the Sixers need to force more turnovers and generally make opponents less comfortable. He thrives in that department. For a big man, Reed ranked in the 100th percentile for steal rate and 85th percentile for block rate last season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

“Every guy of our energy guys had a pretty good game (against New York),” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ practice Sunday. “(Montrezl Harrell) was active; Paul Reed was active; De’Anthony (Melton) was active; Matisse (Thybulle) got a couple of (forced turnovers), as well. So that’s what we need. If you had a deflection group, that might be the group. And we just need them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

In his first stint, Reed’s instincts were sharp in breaking up a Booker lob intended for Deandre Ayton. Six seconds later, he converted a layup. Melton’s corner three on the Sixers’ next trip built the team’s lead to 17-9.

Niang provided chaotic energy early in the second. The 29-year-old was initially in the spotlight when Paul caught up to him on a fast break and swiped away the ball. After a Mikal Bridges three-pointer, Niang then missed a layup. Niang was unfazed, though, knocking down two three-pointers and extending the Sixers’ advantage to 45-27.

Reed’s third-quarter time wasn’t as bright. Booker, who’s tremendous at exploiting minor mistakes, found an angle to drive past Reed on a switch. Niang then fouled Booker and Reed headed to the sidelines, where Rivers spoke to him before the 23-year-old took a seat.

The Sixers used a four-man bench Monday with Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle their second-unit players besides Niang and Reed. Niang hit four big triples in the fourth and scored all but four of the team’s bench points.

Sixers do enough to hold off Suns’ surge

The Sixers couldn’t have made a worse defensive start to the game. Six seconds into the contest, Torrey Craig drilled a wide-open corner three.

The team’s defense tightened up sharpened over the next several minutes. Harris contained a Bridges drive and the Sixers rotated nicely from there across the board, forcing a shot-clock violation.

De’Anthony Melton began the game guarding Booker, who scored 35 points in both Sixers-Suns matchups last season. The Sixers switched plenty and used a variety of defenders on Booker. Embiid even crouched down into a defensive stance at one point against the three-time All-Star. He was unsurprisingly a major asset to the Sixers as a rim protector and drive deterrer, too. Though Bridges leaned away from Embiid to try to manage a clean shot on one second-quarter play, the MVP runner-up loudly rejected his layup.

The Sixers’ defensive standard dropped a couple of levels late in the second quarter. A Cameron Payne three cut a deficit as high as 19 points down to nine. With 15.3 seconds to go in the first half, Melton was assessed his third foul. He got his fourth less than three minutes into the third quarter, leading to Thybulle’s entry.

Phoenix began the second half focused on applying ball pressure and maintaining momentum. Rivers was frustrated to see Tyrese Maxey (11 points on 4-for-18 shooting, six assists) struggle to get the Sixers into their half-court set and Harris eventually turned the ball over attempting a pass to Embiid at the elbow. When Ayton’s pick-and-roll layup trimmed the Sixers’ lead to 58-51, Rivers called timeout.

An Embiid three helped the Sixers breathe a touch easier, as did a Thybulle rear-view block on Payne. Booker raised his game, though, and he put pressure on the officials in the process. Even when Paul was ruled out, it never seemed likely the Sixers would cruise to a win.

Maxey’s rough shooting night meant the Sixers were short a player who could usually help them restore a third-quarter cushion. The team’s play turned ragged and especially Embiid-reliant late in the third. The Sixers were fortunate that Landry Shamet’s open transition three went in and out instead of cutting the Sixers’ lead to 71-68. However, the Suns were relentless, the Sixers were sloppy, and a Damion Lee three had Phoenix’s deficit at three points soon enough.

Niang’s shooting was massive early in the fourth. It was odd that Phoenix kept leaving him open, but Niang didn’t question the good looks. Embiid did well to run the offense from the top of the key, draw help, and find the open man.

As the Sixers know, it’s difficult to underestimate the five-time All-Star’s impact.

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