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Banged-up Sixers hold on to defeat Hawks, 121-109, behind Joel Embiid’s 42 points

Because of the injuries, the Sixers rolled out a starting lineup of P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Tyrese Maxey.

Joel Embiid passes the ball to Danuel House Jr. in the first half.
Joel Embiid passes the ball to Danuel House Jr. in the first half.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Remember when, in seasons past, the 76ers had a tough time remaining healthy?

Well, that’s the case once again.

James Harden missed his fourth consecutive game Saturday night with a right foot tendon strain. De’Anthony Melton, who was expected to be Harden’s replacement in the starting lineup, was also out with left side back stiffness.

So that left combination guard Tyrese Maxey as the only reliable ball handler against the Atlanta Hawks. It didn’t prevent them from posting a 121-109 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

They improved to 6-7 and avenged Thursday’s loss to the Hawks (8-5) at State Farm Arena.

Because of the injuries, the Sixers rolled out a starting lineup of P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Maxey.

» READ MORE: Did the Sixers let Charles Bassey go too soon? He’s thriving with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.

On this night, Shake Milton and seldom-used Furkan Korkmaz assumed some of the playmaking duties. Even that tactic was short-lived as Korkmaz exited the game in the first half with a left knee injury.

But it didn’t matter, thanks to a heavy dose of Embiid sprinkled with solid play from Maxey, Harris, and Milton.

“The biggest thing is [Embiid] came out aggressive,” Maxey said. “I think Tobias came out aggressive. I came out aggressive. I tried to come out aggressive. And we had to go at them. We had to attack them and not go around them. We had to go straight through them, and that’s what we did.”

Embiid led all scorers with a season-high 42 points along with 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and two steals. Fourteen of his points came in the first quarter on 5-for-7 shooting. The All-Star tried to set the tone and send a message to the Hawks.

“Letting everybody know, including my teammates and the coaches, how the game was going to go tonight,” Embiid said.

Maxey had 26 points, making 10 of his 18 shots, including 3 of his 5 three-pointers, along with nine assists.

This comes after Maxey shot 19-for-64, including 26% on three-pointers, in the first three games without Harden.

Harris finished with 21 points while Milton added a season-high 11 on 5-for-8 shooting.

Trae Young paced the Hawks with 27 points and 11 assists. Dejounte Murray added 23 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, while Clint Capela had 14 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.

The Sixers played really and focused before almost running out of gas. But they had enough left in the tank to withstand the Hawks’ second-half run.

A near-blown lead

The Sixers had a commanding 27-point cushion in the third quarter. However, the Hawks pulled within 92-82 with 1 minute, 31 seconds left in third quarter, thanks to a 19-3 run. Embiid responded with a three-point play 16 seconds later to stop the rally. Then Georges Niang was fouled while making a three-pointer with 29.7 seconds left in the quarter. He made the foul shot to give the Sixers a 15-point cushion.

But the Hawks didn’t go away. Young’s layup pulled closed the gap to nine points with 5:54 to play. After a Harris basket, Capela scored to make it a 109-100 game with 5:19 remaining.

Then rookie A.J. Griffin’s three-pointer pulled the Hawks to within six points at the 2:28 mark. The Sixers responded with a pair of foul shots from Embiid and a corner three by Thybulle to build a 118-107 lead.

“It was really defensively,” Embiid said of giving up the run. “We kept fouling play after play. They hit a couple of threes. So we just got to stay locked in.”

In need of ball handlers

Sixers coach Doc Rivers isn’t comfortable with Melton as the team’s secondary ball handler in the starting lineup.

“Honestly, not very [much] yet,” Rivers said before the game. " … I like De’Anthony as your third guy, not your second guy as far as ballhandling duties. But you know, you got what you got.”

Before Saturday, Melton started three straight games at shooting guard because of Harden’s injury. And he’ll start many more once his back improves as Harden is expected to be sidelined a month.

Right now, Maxey is the primary ball handler. Milton will join Melton as a ball handler when Maxey is off the floor. But Rivers would like to have one more guard.

“Listen, there’s certain nights you play [the Hawks] and you have to have a defensive guy on the floor sometimes, too,” he said. “But, you know, they tend to separate their guards a lot, so you may be able to get away with one guy.

“But when Tyrese is off the floor, you want at least two ball handlers and Joel if you can. If you don’t do it that way, you want three ball handlers on the floor. So all three guys can take it up and start your offense.”

» READ MORE: Sixers-Hawks takeaways: Doc Rivers’ busy day, Joel Embiid’s coming into form, and grueling series

Rivers doesn’t like Korkmaz as a point guard, but he likes him handling the ball. Milton and Korkmaz play well together. So their continuity could help the Sixers moving forward.

But right now, the Sixers have a huge challenge.

They loaded up on wings this offseason, thinking that Harden and Maxey would assume the play-making duties and Melton would be the third option. Of the three, Maxey was the only one who played Saturday.

“Losing one of those guys really shows our weakness,” Rivers said of Maxey and Harden. “So we have to play around it.”

Harden was on the bench Saturday after spending time in Houston to attend to a family matter, according to Rivers. The All-Star is no longer wearing a walking boot on his right foot.

Meanwhile, this was a busy day for Rivers. He flew to Philadelphia after attending the funeral of his best friend, Craig Patterson, earlier in the day. Rivers wasn’t up to addressing the media postgame.

Up Next

The Sixers will entertain the Utah Jazz on Sunday (7:30 p.m.). The Jazz (10-4) are coming off Saturday’s 121-112 road loss to the Washington Wizards.

Asked if he’ll be playing against the Jazz, Embiid responded, “Yeah. I plan on playing. Unless, you know, we’ll see.”

He missed the Sixers’ first game of their back-to-back games on Oct. 28 and 29 in Toronto and in Chicago to rest his right knee. Embiid remained in Saturday’s game despite injuring his ankle.