Sixers lose in double overtime in James Harden’s return
3 observations after Harden returns, Sixers lose foul-filled game in double OT originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Monday night was not a pleasant, familiar stroll back into action for James Harden in Houston.
Returning from a right foot tendon strain that sidelined him for 14 games, Harden wound up seeing 38 minutes because the Sixers played an odd, foul-filled game against the Rockets. They lost it in double overtime, 132-123, and concluded their three-game road trip without a win.
Harden missed an open, potential game-winning three-point try at the end of the first overtime. He had 21 points (4 for 19 from the floor), seven assists and seven turnovers.
Joel Embiid scored 39 points on 12-for-21 shooting. Tobias Harris posted an efficient 27 points, converting 7 of his 8 three-pointers.
Young guards Jalen Green (27 points) and Kevin Porter Jr. (24) led the Rockets in scoring. Houston moved to 7-17 on the season.
The Sixers’ Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) and Georges Niang (right foot soreness) were out, in addition to Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate (right ankle soreness).
Next up for the 12-12 Sixers is a seven-game homestand that starts Friday night against the Lakers. Here are observations on a low-quality Sixers showing Monday:
Not the norm from Harden
There were several early reminders of the many ways Harden tends to make his teams better offensively, including a nice pass ahead to De’Anthony Melton for a three. Embiid post-ups still featured, and his running hook over Alperen Sengun gave the Sixers a 10-0 lead.
Harden’s first points halted a 6-0 Rockets run; with Sengun guarding tightly on the wing and the shot clock expiring, his rip-through move drew the desired contact. That’s not a classically thrilling form of run-stopping, but it’s still an important tool of Harden’s. Unsurprisingly, Harden wasn’t near his sharpest after being out for over a month. He missed a layup, mid-range jumper and three-pointer late in the second quarter, and Houston finished the first half with a 9-0 run to go up 56-55.
Harden was far from the only player to elicit whistles. The officials called two quick fouls on Harris, Melton and PJ Tucker. Embiid picked up his third with 5:27 left in the second quarter. Paul Reed had two fouls at that point, so Sixers head coach Doc Rivers inserted Montrezl Harrell.
Both Reed and Harrell know that setting screens for Harden is usually a solid option. Reed’s active screening was helpful when Harden began to dial up the aggression. With four bench players alongside Harden, a well-timed Reed drag screen enabled the 33-year-old to plow into the paint and draw another foul.
Harden’s best play of the night was an incredible righty bounce pass assist he flung to Shake Milton in the second quarter. Those sorts of passes are significant outside of the two points and the entertainment factor; they make the Sixers’ three-man screening actions more potent, since a double drag action is harder to defend when the opposition knows rolling guards can’t be an afterthought. It will be interesting to see whether the Sixers can fine-tune and perhaps diversify those looks as the season progresses. Melton’s early-season work out of the short roll was impressive. Milton is a big guard with crafty scoring options in the paint, although he hasn’t previously operated much as a screener.
Of course, Harden’s threat level is lower than normal on nights he shoots 4 for 19, fails to hit a shot inside the arc, and makes basic ball handling mistakes. The Sixers surely hope those struggles are mainly attributable to the situation, and that his rhythm, conditioning and overall play will improve considerably with more on-court reps.
One game doesn’t merit profound concern about Harden as an individual, although he was unequivocally abysmal in quite a few crucial moments, committing uncharacteristic blunders like losing control of the ball on his own. His track record suggests those kinds of mistakes will fade from his game.
Fouls a giant problem
While the Sixers forced 20 turnovers against the youthful Rockets, they were obviously too eager to hunt down the ball.
Sure, some of the team’s fouls would have gone uncalled in an average game, but the Sixers were responsible for the bulk of their foul trouble. For instance, Melton’s second came when he made contact with Green beyond the arc as Houston desperately tried to avoid a shot-clock violation.
The extent of the Sixers’ foul problems meant Rivers couldn’t completely stick with Plan A. However, that would likely have been true regardless because the team’s defense was subpar for most of the night. Harden was unimpressive on the ball, showing little as far as agility or effort to recover. The Sixers used a zone early in the third quarter, and that also didn’t yield great results. Houston went up 69-65 on a Sengun layup.
Embiid got his fourth foul with 3:10 left in the third quarter on an audacious Kenyon Martin Jr. dunk attempt. With the MVP runner-up on the bench, rookie Tari Eason played harder (and better) than anyone on the floor over the final few minutes of the third. He ripped the ball from Harris in the backcourt, scored eight points, and strengthened the impression that the Sixers’ energy level simply wasn’t good enough. In just 21 minutes, the No. 17 pick had 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, six rebounds and three steals.
Although no. 3 selection Jabari Smith Jr. also dealt with foul trouble, he managed to score some important points late in the game. Smith’s first made field goal gave the Rockets a 104-102 edge in the fourth quarter. In the first overtime, he unintentionally banked in a three.
To be fair, if either team deserved a bit of luck, it was Houston.
A long, strange slog for naught
Rivers shifted Milton out of the starting lineup and played him 27 minutes. He posted 11 of the Sixers’ 24 bench points and four of their five bench assists.
At times, it appeared timely playmaking by Milton and Harris might save the Sixers. Both players prevented the Rockets from ever building an advantage greater than nine points. Milton’s corner three cut the Sixers’ deficit to 86-81; and Harris triple trimmed it to 88-84.
However, the game predictably came down to the Sixers’ stars. The team relied on Embiid at the nail late in the fourth quarter against Bruno Fernando, which made plenty of sense. Embiid went 14 for 17 at the foul line, although he’ll regret two crucial misses in the fourth.
Embiid and Harden combined for 12 turnovers. Harden’s ball handling skill and general decision-making deserted him. Embiid had two bad giveaways in overtime that seemed to stem from Melton not being where he expected on the wing.
After Embiid fouled out with 2.9 seconds to go in the first overtime, the Rockets pounced in the second extra session as Eric Gordon and Porter drained threes. Harris was unproductive with his post-up chances. Harden subbed out after 55 seconds, then curiously re-entered a little under two minutes later.
Besides Embiid’s stat line, almost nothing about the night was typical or positive for the Sixers. There’s time to dwell on the film if they’d like, and it won’t be a fun watch.
How the race to the bottom for projected 2023 NBA draft No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama is shaping up
The Boston Celtics (20-5) are atop the Eastern Conference, while the Phoenix Suns (16-8) have the best record right now in the Western Conference. This season there will be more eyes on what teams are the worst in the NBA with the loaded draft class entering the league in June, led by generational talent Victor Wembanyama.
It’s still a long NBA season and plenty can happen, but whether it’s through a rebuild process with a young team, injuries or off-loading franchise talent this past summer, there are a handful of teams already in good position to land a 14% chance of getting the No. 1 pick on draft lottery night on May 16.
As the race to the bottom starts, Yahoo Sports takes a look at seven teams that could land Wembanyama next June and how they started the season.
(Records through Dec. 5 games; odds to land No. 1 pick from Tankathon.)
Current record: 5-20
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 14%
The Magic are in rebuild mode. They had the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, picking former Duke forward Paolo Banchero. The year before, they added point guard Jalen Suggs with the No. 5 pick and wing Franz Wagner at No. 8. They haven’t had a winning season since 2018-19.
The Magic might not be winning a lot of games, but they are a fun team to watch with a starting lineup of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol, 6-11 Mo Wagner, 6-10 Banchero, 6-10 Franz Wagner and 6 -4 Markelle Fultz. Possibly adding 7-4 Wembanyama to this young team would be a dream scenario. The size and length would be unmatched in the Eastern Conference.
The Magic are 1-10 in their past 11 outings and currently have six players out with injuries: Suggs (ankle), Gary Harris (hamstring), Chuma Okeke (knee), Mo Bamba (back), Wendell Carter Jr. (foot) and Jonathan Isaac (knee).
Current record: 6-19
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 14%
The Pistons are rebuilding around 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and added a talented guard to play alongside him in the backcourt with the No. 5 pick of the 2022 draft, Jaden Ivey. Unfortunately, Cunningham has been sidelined with a shin injury and may undergo surgery this season.
“It’s up to the medical group and to Cade and whatever is best for his health,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “I’m all for it. Whatever he decides to do, I’m 100% behind him.”
The Pistons are 3-7 in the past 10 games and won only three games in November. If Cunningham decides to have surgery and sit out the remainder of the season, it could keep the Pistons in a good spot to land Wembanyama. The Pistons haven’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since the 2007-08 season and have made the playoffs only twice in the past 10 years.
Current record: 6-18
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 14%
The Spurs made some offseason moves to be in a good position to land Wembanyama. The organization went into rebuild mode when it traded All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks and added Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley, all just 19 years old, in the 2022 draft.
The young Spurs had a fiery start to the season, going 5-2, but have since cooled off. San Antonio has won only one out of its past 12 games, and the injury-depleted Spurs are even without head coach Gregg Popovich, who is recovering from a minor medical procedure. Sochan (quad), Wesley (knee), Doug McDermott (ankle), Romeo Langford (ankle), Jakob Poeltl (knee) and Josh Richardson (ankle) are all currently out for the Spurs.
The Spurs have always been known as an organization that does a great job developing young talent and having the Hall of Famer Popovich coach and guide Wembanyama as he enters the league would be worth the painful season leading into the 2023 draft.
Current record: 7-17
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 11.5%
This is the Rockets’ third rebuilding season after trading Russell Westbrook in December 2020 and James Harden in January 2021. Unlike the Spurs and Thunder, who are plagued with injuries, the Rockets have only one player sidelined, winger Jae’Sean Tate.
The Rockets have a lot of young talent with Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. leading the team in scoring. Houston lacks size and experience in the frontcourt with rookie Jabari Smith Jr. and second-year center Alperen Sengun. The Rockets would love to add Wembanyama to this young core next season, potentially turning around the franchise.
Current record: 7-17
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 11.5%
The Hornets are the dark horse in the race to the bottom and are still without star point guard LaMelo Ball, who re-injured his ankle after stepping on a fan’s foot on Nov. 16. Gordon Hayward, who averaged 15.9 points and 3.6 assists last season, is also out indefinitely after sustaining a fractured shoulder.
Charlotte finished over .500 last season for the first time since 2015-16 and appeared to be turning a corner. The Hornets started the season with a string of injuries and currently have five players sidelined: Ball (ankle), Hayward (shoulder), Dennis Smith Jr. (ankle), Mark Williams (ankle) and Cody Martin (knee).
Current record: 11-13
Odds to land No. 1 pick: 3.8%
General manager Sam Presti knew what he was doing when he executed 14 trades in the 2019-20 season and off-loaded star players, amassing 38 draft picks for the next seven years. In the past two drafts, the Thunder have added Josh Giddey, Aleksej Pokusevski, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams to build around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort.
The Thunder were looking forward to turning a corner after winning a combined 46 games the previous two seasons, but bad news came in the offseason when No. 2 pick Holmgren sustained a season-ending foot injury during a pro-am game in Seattle. OKC fans are forced to be patient one more year in the hopes of landing another talented prospect projected at the top of the draft.
Wembanyama and Holmgren went head-to-head in July 2021 during the FIBA Under-19 World Cup. Homgren and Team USA came out with the win, but Wembanyama was the best prospect on the court, finishing with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks. Adding Wembanyama in the frontcourt with 7-1 Holmgren and 7-foot Pokusevski would be the final piece of a rebuild puzzle for the Thunder.
Current record: 15-8
Odds to land No. 1 pick (via Lakers): 7.5%
The Pelicans are in a unique situation this season and it doesn’t matter what their record is or if they make the playoffs. Pelicans fans will be more tuned in to the Los Angeles Lakers’ record heading into the draft with LA’s pick going to New Orleans, thanks to the Anthony Davis trade. The Lakers started the season as one of the worst teams in the league but have strung together a nice set of games, winning eight of 10. If the draft lottery were today, the Pelicans would have a 7.5% chance at landing Wembanyama, according to Tankathon. The more games the Lakers lose, the closer the Pelicans are to adding a ridiculously skilled Wembanyama alongside the 2019 No. 1 pick, Zion Williamson.
Three Takeaways from Villanova’s win over Oklahoma
That win still feels good!
The Villanova Wildcats were able to take care of business in front of a crowd of 17,079 at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon.
The contest between the Wildcats and the Oklahoma Sooners started out much the same as the majority of games played so far this year by Villanova. Before the first media timeout, Oklahoma had already connected on three of their first four attempts from beyond the arc.
Before anyone knew it, the Sooners jumped out to an early 11-point advantage just six minutes into the first half.
This had the making of a blowout in South Philadelphia, before the loudest crowd eruption the student section has produced all season. At the first media timeout, freshman Cam Whitmore checked in for his first action in a Villanova uniform.
Riding the momentum of the student section’s second wind, Villanova would put on their best defensive display of the season and use a late second half surge to defeat the best team they have faced all season.
Whether it be his actual talent or just the presence he brings to the floor, it was undeniable the impact Cam Whitmore had on this team in this game, which will bring us to our first takeaway..
“He’s here and he’s perfect!”
Ladies and gentlemen, find somebody who looks at you the same way associate head coach George Halcovage III is looking at Cam Whitmore in the photo above. To coach Halcovage’s credit, we were all looking at Whitmore like that the first time we saw him in the blue and the white, so it makes sense.
In all seriousness, having Cam Whitmore back for the remaining non-conference games is massive. After a turbulent (to say the least) start to the year, the Wildcats will have a chance to finish the non-conference slate with a winning record, if they can notch wins in their three remaining games (University of Pennsylvania, Boston College, Saint Joseph’s).
All week, leading up to the game and even in his post-game press conference, Neptune was preaching to anyone who had ears that Whitmore had not played basketball in seven weeks leading up to this game against Oklahoma.
‘Mind boggling. Mind boggling,” said Neptune “I mean, listen this guy has not played basketball, hasn’t picked up a basketball and couldn’t shoot with his right hand for seven weeks.”
Whitmore’s shot certainly didn’t look like he hadn’t picked up a basketball in almost two months. His first collegiate points came from this smooth as silk step-back jumper that he connected on with just under five minutes to go in the first half.
In addition to a confident and silky jumper, Whitmore’s bag of tricks was on full display to the nine NBA scouts on hand on Saturday afternoon. Whitmore is built like a linebacker with the feet of a ballerina.
Almost getting overlooked is how good Whitmore was on defense. In just 20 minutes, Whitmore led both teams in steals with three, and made some outstanding plays like the one in the cover photo of this article, blowing up a dribble hand-off en route to another steal. His ability to cover all five positions on the floor paired with his elite offensive skill set is going to make Whitmore a lot of money in the very near future. His scoring calmed down in the second half, but if there was any rust in his game, get excited to see what it looks like when it is polished.
Armstrong joins the starting five, and more changes to come?
A true freshman starter for Villanova? Yes, you heard that right.
Not only any true freshman but the Big East Freshman of the Week. Armstrong earned freshman of the week honors after a 10-point outing in his first collegiate start, netting ten points on 3-of-4 shooting and connected on his only attempt from beyond the arc.
After playing just seven minutes in the opening game of the Phil Knight Invitational, Armstrong cracked the starting rotation, replacing Jordan Longino minutes before tip-off. Kyle Neptune hinted at a lineup change when asked about it earlier this week, and we saw it come to fruition on Saturday.
Don’t expect this to be the only lineup change either.
“Honestly, we’re still figuring it out,” said Neptune. “We got a really unique team this year, I expect to see more unique lineups as we go. It is just going to be that kind of year”.
Armstrong being the first to crack the starting five is not too surprising. He has looked good in the limited action we have seen him, like in the Delaware State game where he went on his own 7-0 run to really put the Wildcats up for good, and the athleticism and energy he provided off the bench at the Phil Knight Invitational.
But with Armstrong and the rest of the freshman alike, everything is going to take time to figure out. Lineups, rotations and adjustments will come with time, but the one thing we know for sure is that the talent is there and there is a lot to be excited about moving forward.
The defense showed up in crunch time
Imagine reading this after the first 10 minutes of that game, huh?
But yes, the defense is here and it looked solid against a very good Oklahoma team. A three point jumper by future Head & Shoulders model Bijan Cortes put the Sooners up 20-9, with 13:19 to go in the first half. Oklahoma would not net another field goal until seconds before the five-minute mark.
That’s 8:10 of game time between baskets. Oklahoma ranks 43rd in offensive efficiency and 39th in effective field goal percentage according to KenPom, but the Sooners couldn’t buy a basket.
Whitmore was definitely a factor in the defensive showing, but the whole team’s effort was outstanding.
Two plays that stuck out are the Chris Arcidiacono loose ball under the Oklahoma basket, where he gained a pivotal possession late in the game, as well as an Eric Dixon steal which all but sealed it for the Wildcats.
These are just two examples in a plethora of great individual and team defensive effort, which they will look to build on Wednesday against Penn.
Matt LaFleur ‘absolutely, of course’ wants Aaron Rodgers back with the Packers next year as Jordan Love looms
With the playoffs little more than a pipe dream for the Packers, the conversation around Green Bay has shifted to the future — most notably, at quarterback.
Head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst each addressed the position on Monday as the team navigates what can be charitably described as a murky situation. On one hand, they have an aging future Hall of Famer on the decline. On the other, there’s a third-year former first-round pick who’s yet to see significant live NFL action and could use the reps. What’s an NFL franchise to do — in the short term and during the offseason?
For now, walk a tightrope. LaFleur and Gutekunst took turns on Monday addressing the team’s plans regarding Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love. Neither was ready to offer clarity on a path forward while taking care to remain effusive of both quarterbacks.
When asked at his news conference whether he wants Rodgers back next season, LaFleur didn’t balk.
“Yeah, absolutely,” LaFleur said. “Of course. You guys know how I feel.”
He then deflected to the task at hand — the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14 — before reiterating that he’d “absolutely” welcome Rodgers back.
“I have a hard time looking past the LA Rams right now,” LaFleur continued. … “So that’s where my mind is right now. But yeah, absolutely.”
As for how to manage Rodgers and Love in the same quarterback room, LaFleur apparently doesn’t subscribe to the theory that having two quarterbacks is one too many.
“I think we’ve got a great problem in terms of when you have confidence in multiple people,” he continued. “You’d rather have that.”
Is playing Rodgers a mistake?
Rodgers returned to the lineup on Sunday against the Chicago Bears after leaving Week 12’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles with a rib injury. Sunday’s wasn’t a vintage Rodgers effort, but it was effective enough. He threw for 182 yards and a touchdown without a turnover as the Packers rallied to a 28-19 win. The win kept their waning postseason hopes alive at 5-8.
Whether attributable to injuries to his ribs and thumb, being a 39-year-old NFL player or — the more likely scenario — a combination of both, Rodgers has been a shell of his back-to-back MVP self while posting a career- low passer rating and throwing more interceptions (9) through Week 13 than he has since the 2010 season.
Love, meanwhile, impressed in his limited relief action in Week 12 against the Eagles. Huh connected with breakout rookie Christian Watson for a 63-yard touchdown pass and finished the day completing 6 of 9 passes for 113 yards with the score. He was confident and decisive in the pocket while his passes were on target. It was a short run, but he looked very much like a starting NFL quarterback.
With the season’s hopes waning and Rodgers banged up, the effort prompted calls for the Packers to bench Rodgers and actually see what they’ve got in Love during the final third of the season. They provided their answer to that call with Rodgers’ return on Sunday. And it sounds like that’s the path moving forward, even if the Packers are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
“We’re gonna still go out to win the game, and I think that’s really important,” Gutekunst told reporters. “There’s a bunch of guys in that locker room that deserve that, so we’re gonna go out to win the game.”
What about Green Bay’s $20 million option on Love?
As for Love, the Packers have a decision to make on whether to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. It’s a bill due in the offseason that would carry a roughly $20 million price tag for 2024 if the Packers opt in.
Love, meanwhile, has made a total of one professional start and thrown 80 NFL passes since the Packers drafted him in 2020. That’s apparently enough for Gutekunst to decide on the option.
Gutekunst said on Monday that he’s seen enough of love in practice and on the playing field to make a decision. But he stopped short of actually stating what that decision will be. He instead said that the Packers are “very pleased with his progression” and that he is confident that Love is a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.
“I do,” Gutekunst said when asked if he believes that Love’s an NFL starter.
That sounds like the Packers intend to exercise the option. They did, after all, spend a first-round pick to select Love. But for now, Gutekunst is keeping things vague. The same goes for his thoughts on Rodgers’ future, a subject he described as “an offseason kind of decision.”
“But surely, yeah, we want all our guys back,” Gutekunst said when discussing Rodgers. “We made a big commitment to him this offseason, so that was important.”
To be fair, it is an offseason decision. And it might not even be the Packers’. It certainly won’t be theirs alone as Rodgers ponders his own bevy of options that include retirement, a trade demand or a commitment to return.
But decisions now impact the clarity of decisions in the offseason, which will see the Packers at a quarterback crossroads. At that point, a murky outlook that leads to both quarterbacks returning would be a recipe for chaos.
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