The Philadelphia 76ers welcomed James Harden back to the floor in a road matchup against the Houston Rockets. The Sixers lost by a score of 132-123 in double overtime. Harden tallied 21 points and seven assists in his return to the court while Joel Embiid posted 39 points and seven rebounds and Tobias Harris added 27 points. Meanwhile, Jalen Green led the Rockets with 27 points and seven assists. Kevin Porter Jr. added 24 points and Tari Eason scored 18 points on 7-11 shooting to go along with six boards and three steals off the bench.

Here are three key reactions to the Sixers’ loss to the Rockets.

3. James Harden’s playmaking was a difference maker

James Harden obviously wasn’t his very best self in 38 minutes of action but definitely showed what the Sixers were missing: an instant source of offense. He ended his first game since Nov. 2 with 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 4-19 shooting from the field.

To begin the game, Harden did most of his scoring from the free-throw line. His playmaking made him a clear plus for the Sixers, as he dished four assists. He made life easier for everyone but especially Joel Embiid, who worked in the pick-and-roll to get some easy separation from defenders. His ability to make tough passes and get the ball to the open man gave the offense a badly needed boost.

The main way in which Harden looked rusty was his dribbling, which wasn’t as tight as it usually is. He was able to draw plenty of fouls (and shoot 9-10 from the charity stripe) but had major trouble scoring inside the arc, where he came up empty in eight shot attempts.

In what was one of the biggest shots of the night, he hit a step-back triple in crunch time to tie up the game late in the fourth quarter. He then secured a huge defensive board but then had his step-back blocked on Philly’s final regulation possession. There was some good but also, understandably, a lot of bad.

Although Harden forced a lot of shots late in the game and had seven turnovers, he’s coming back at the right time for the Sixers. They have started to run out of gas without him and now can lean on him once again as the 2022 portion of the season begins to end. As he gets reacclimated, he should be able to effectively lead the offense for whole games again.

2. Tobias Harris and Shake Milton’s off-ball skills are crucial

With Harden back, a lot of attention turned to Shake Milton. The backup guard played excellently with Harden and Maxey out but now is in a bit of a quandary over his role and playing time. He proved that he firmly deserves a spot in the rotation and that he can make it work with another true ball-handler.

Milton showed throughout the game that he can be useful off the ball. In one of Harden’s dimes, it was Shake who slipped into the paint to receive the pretty pass and score the layup. He made himself available both as a cutter and spot-up shooter and recorded 11 points, four assists and three boards while shooting 5-10 from the field.

Milton will always be at his best as a ball-handler on offense but he still has the off-ball skills to be useful alongside Harden or Maxey while the other takes a breather.

Tobias Harris also had to revert back to an off-ball role and had another strong performance. He once again shot the lights out from beyond the arc. After a season-high five triples in the Sixers’ last game, he tallied another season-high with seven triples on just eight attempts, which also ties his career-high, while shooting 9-15 from the field overall.

Are you 1000% an NBA fan?

🚨 Get viral NBA graphics, memes, rumors and trending sports news delivered right to your inbox with the Clutch newsletter.

*Sign up now and receive your own one-of-a-kind ClutchPoints photoshop with yourself and your favorite player!

Harris showed early in the season with everyone healthy that he can thrive as a catch-and-shoot option. He’s making the case that his improvements as a shooter are for real.

1. The Sixers’ defense needs to be recharged

The Sixers didn’t necessarily play lazy but they looked ready to head back home for more than just a few days and could use some off days. The defense has looked rough on this road trip and it looked quite worrisome against a young, bad Rockets team with one of the worst offenses in the NBA.

The Sixers committed foul after foul after foul. They committed 10 of them in the first quarter, with each member of the starting lineup besides Harden committing a pair, while making just nine field goals. In regulation, they committed a season-high 30 fouls. Philly also got outscored in the paint, a common theme in their recent road contests.

The Sixers’ defense didn’t deter the Rockets’ guards from getting into the paint very well. They also didn’t make huge efforts off the ball to force them into tough situations. Embiid made it tough to get a shot off but with him out, the Rockets went on runs that helped keep them in it. Even with him in, he allowed Houston’s bigs and forwards (none of whom can size up to him) to collect second-chance points and offensive boards and fouled out late in the first overtime period.

Philadelphia made its money on the defensive end while James Harden sat out. They will have to adjust to him being back in the fold. He wasn’t a huge help defensively but the Sixers simply didn’t execute on that end of the floor. With three days off before welcoming a red-hot Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers to town on Friday, they have to rest up and prepare to be better.