Photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (41-22) visited the Indiana Pacers (29-36) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to build on its impressive road win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Indiana wanted to sweep its back-to-back after winning in Chicago on Sunday. Joel Embiid scored 42 points and James Harden dished 20 assists to power the Sixers to victory, 147-143.

Before we get to the game, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Tobias Harris, who has a left calf contusion. PJ Tucker missed the game with back spasms.

Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels, and Joel Embiid.

The Pacers were without the services of Aaron Nesmith, who has a sore left hip.

Kendall Brown has a stress fracture in his right tibia and was out.

Rick Carlisle started Tyrese Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Buddy Hield, Jordan Nwora, and Myles Turner.


McDaniels and Maxey were the only two Sixers particularly interested in offering energy in the first quarter. Philadelphia’s deadline acquisition did most of his work by simply hustling. He ran the floor in transition, making himself available to receive dump-off passes moving through space. McDaniels also read his point guard quite well, adapting his path down the floor to slow up and set drag screens for Harden.

As McDaniels gets more comfortable in his role with Philadelphia, I think both he and the Sixers will find that his best utility within an organized offense will be as a screener. Not necessarily because of any of his own limitations. Rather, because his athleticism, length, footwork, and ability to dribble in short spurts creates chaos for opposing defenses.

He hasn’t really been put in much of a position to make plays for teammates yet, but you can see control when he has possession of the ball in the middle of the floor. Whether it’s a drag screen, staggered action, single-screen action, or more complex sets, McDaniels is always a threat to curl and explode to the basket for lobs. And even though he’s still searching for that monstrous one-handed dunk, McDaniels has exhibited some polish around the cup.

One of McDaniels’ most refreshing traits is that he leverages his size and athleticism. Even if it wasn’t his turn to cash in on the first look the Sixers’ offense created, McDaniels was there to crash vacant pockets on the weak side when the shot went up. He took advantage of unaware Pacers in the first half to start the possession for Philadelphia or create second chances for the Sixers after their own misses. McDaniels even stayed with his own misses at the rim, beating Indiana off the floor to score his own putback on the second jump.

He’s the exact type of player Philadelphia has so long needed. Even if McDaniels is only, say, the 50th percentile outcome for a player of his archetype, he’s a refreshing addition to this team. 

Maxey, on the other hand, provided spot-up shooting to get the blood flowing for Philadelphia’s offense. I was skeptical that his struggles were as simple as being part of the starting lineup. But, even when he played next to Embiid and Harden coming off the bench, he vacillated more towards being a lost puppy than he did towards being the prolific spark of offense he proved to be last season. All of that has changed since Rivers re-inserted him into the starting lineup. The core personnel he’s playing next to is the exact same — some variation of Embiid, Harden, and Harris at all times. Yet, Maxey is an entirely different player.

Some of that has to do with something I’ve written about numerous times recently. The Sixers are doing a much better job of putting him in positions to score the ball. There’s a jumper or an angle to the basket immediately upon the catch when the ball comes his way. And when they’re not feeding him in the halfcourt, the Sixers are hitting Maxey on the leak-out in transition for his bread-and-butter scores.

That all gets Maxey’s engine going. And once he warms up, it’s very difficult to cool Maxey off. It took exactly one reverse layup against a poor excuse for one-on-one defense from Hield to get Maxey going. His next touch was a step-back three after attacking a close-out a bit wide. From there, he was cooking for the rest of the first half.

One of the sneaky barometers of Maxey’s fit and chemistry next to Embiid and Harden is what he does when they motion for the young guard to space out. Maxey knows precisely how far to go across the floor before turning and waiting. He knows that his man is going to shade towards the Sixers’ two best players, almost always regardless of how hot no. 0 is. But, Maxey doesn’t view it as a sign of disrespect. Rather, that’s his advantage in a more off-ball role. He’s empowered by Harden and Embiid’s trust in him, evidenced by the fact that they are happy to unveil the secret weapon if defenses dare by over-helping on the ball.

His development as a three-point shooter — both off the catch and on the move — is why he’s this offense’s lefty hook, capable of delivering the knockout punch. Just when the Pacers thought they’d contained Philadelphia’s offense on any given possession, Maxey delivered a punch to the gut. He aided Harden and Embiid in beating the helper, using the time needed for Indiana to recover to launch from deep.

It wasn’t the best night of ball security from Embiid. But, he was ultra aggressive in driving to the basket out of the pick-and-roll and in isolation. Myles Turner, Isaiah Jackson, it didn’t matter who the Pacers put in front of him. Embiid had his way in Indiana all night long. Even when he didn’t get all the way inside, Embiid was untouchable from the free throw line and in. You can tell Embiid is on one when he senses a defender’s hand extended and swings through for the contact, immediately walking to the free throw line for a pair because it’s undeniably a foul. The big guy did nearly half his work from the charity stripe, and had the Pacers’ bigs in hell in this game.

Getting back to Harden, what an offensive genius. It looked like the fatigue of shouldering such an offensive load the past few nights got to him a bit in this one, the jumper off the mark in a way that it usually isn’t. But, he orchestrated an offensive symphony every possession the ball touched his hands. Harden was surgical, timing his passes to Embiid out of the pick-and-roll perfectly and at the right spots, setting him up for easy scores all game long. His chemistry with the big man is at an all-time high. They’re running the pick-and-roll incredibly easily and without errors on most possessions. Even when defenses adjust, there’s no confusion. The two-man game reads and adapts organically.

It wasn’t just Embiid who benefitted from Harden’s wizardry. Harden rifled passes Maxey’s way, punishing over-helpers caught in no man’s land. He found McDaniels leaking out in transition, too. If you were open or if you cut, Harden found you on Monday night.

Speaking of cutting, Paul Reed seems to be figuring it out on offense. His defense has typically been a bit ahead of his offense. But, it feels like it’s clicking for him on both ends. He’s not fouling as much, although some matchups will eat at his weaknesses. It was as if the Pacers had no idea he was capable of blocking shots, Reed turning away a couple of Indiana shots at the rim with force.

Reed also had a deep catch in the paint for a finish at the rim. Establishing inside and catching haven’t always been walks in the park for him, but Reed got a feed after doing the work to get open in this game. He’s starting to read Harden well too, the reserve big man timing his moves well so that Harden could see him flashing to the basket.

All of that is to say that the game is starting to look simple for him. You can actively see that understanding approach a full circle, too. No better example of that than Reed cutting off of Danuel House Jr., dunking off the veteran wing’s pass to him at the rim. He didn’t need a point guard to set him up. Reed simply followed the play.

On the topic of House Jr., it was a solid night of play for a couple of Philadelphia’s intermittently used reserves. Shake Milton cashed in on four triples, and House scored 10 points with four assists without committing a turnover. I maintain that House is a fine offensive player when he tries to score with control. He had a pair of crafty finishes at the basket in this game.

The Sixers are reasonably deep at their guard spots that Milton seems like a fringe rotation player come playoffs. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me House could give Philadelphia some good minutes in the postseason. He’s worthy of some minutes in this final stretch of the regular season.

I’m probably in the minority here, but I didn’t think Philadelphia’s effort on defense was nearly as bad in this game as it was in the Dallas loss. In fact, I thought the Sixers genuinely had some good defensive moments in this one, particularly in the rim-protection department. In my eyes, Indiana just made a number of difficult shots. That’s not to say either team was outright good on defense. It was just a fabulous display of offense from both sides and there were numerous moments in which good offense beat fine defense.


One of these days, McDaniels is going to throw down that coveted one-handed rim-rattling dunk. Everyone will celebrate.

Even though I was a bit higher on Philadelphia’s defense in this game, the first quarter did not help that qualification. All Indiana needed was one ball screen or a DHO and the Pacers were free to go to the rim as they pleased.

When Indiana did get open looks from three, it was the same culprits as usual. The Sixers didn’t feel particularly compelled to get after shooters and offer close-outs. Haliburton is a very good three-point shooter and the Sixers didn’t seem to care about making it difficult for him when the swing pass came his way.

The other problem, of course, was the over-helping away from shooters. At some point, the Sixers might just want to consider abandoning help entirely and staying home. If one guy fries his defender on an island all game, so be it. Right now, teams are often one or two passes away from open threes. 

Georges Niang’s defense often gets dismissed or criticized, and results do matter in grading defense. But, the guy’s effort on that end of the court does not reflect the results. He has some of the worst opponent shooting luck on his contests I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, there’s not much more he can do.

The Sixers (42-22) will visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (34-32) on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on TNT. 


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