The Sixers (27-19) hosted the New Orleans Pelicans (18-28) on Tuesday night. Philadelphia wanted to build on its victory over the Spurs on Sunday. New Orleans wanted to push its winning streak to three games. Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for 75 points to lead the Sixers past the Pelicans, 117-107.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
The Pelicans were without Devonte’ Graham (sore left ankle), Josh Hart (sprained left ankle), and Brandon Ingram (sprained right ankle). Kira Lewis Jr (torn right ACL; sprained MCL), Didi Louzada (torn left meniscus), and Jonas Valanciunas (rest) were also out.
Zion Williamson has yet to play this season and remains out with a fractured right foot.
Trey Murphy III is in the health and safety protocol and was unavailable.
Willie Green started Jose Alvarado, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Garrett Temple, Herbert Jones, and Willy Hernangomez.
The Sixers were without the services of Seth Curry (sore left ankle), Danny Green (right hip pain), and Shake Milton (back contusion).
Paul Reed is on a G-League assignment with the Blue Coats and was not available.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was not with the team.
Matisse Thybulle made his return to the lineup, and started next to Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers getting off to a slow start against an inferior opponent? Must be a day of the week ending in ‘day’. That has been an epidemic for this iteration of the Sixers. There’s not always much you can control about how you start games on offense. But, defensive effort is entirely within the team’s locus of control. Allowing Willy Hernangomez to seamlessly glide to the basket for layups and floaters is certainly something that Embiid could affect. And if he doesn’t feel like stepping to the plate, his teammates can certainly do him a solid and drop down to stunt Hernangomez’s access to the rim.
The one person not named Tyrese Maxey to look like they were trying in the first quarter was Charlie Brown Jr. Of course, effort is just about the only thing keeping him on an NBA court. There’s not a single functional NBA skill in his repertoire right now. But, the guy busts his butt to take away shots from the opposition and maximize possessions for his team. On one possession in the first quarter, he skied over multiple Pelicans to get to a rebound off a Maxey miss and slapped it back out to the perimeter to generate a second shot. His effort did not go in vain, as Maxey deposited a reverse layup on a gorgeous move to the basket.
The Sixers started to make progress on the offensive end by moving the ball from side to side. There were a handful of possessions in which passes were rifled ahead to the left corner for a Sixer to shoot or attack the baseline. Even if that first shot didn’t materialize, there were cross-court swings to teammates who were open long enough to shoot or attack late close-outs, themselves. If the Pelicans took away the baseline side, Andre Drummond served as a pivot point within the second, bridging the left side of the floor to the right side at the elbow. Shots didn’t really fall for the second unit, but the offense at least looked somewhat competent.
The synergy didn’t stop when the starters came back, either. Harris benefited from sealing off mismatched Pelicans at the rim as part of a high-low game. There was also a swing pass that pulled the Pelicans’ defense out of rotation, giving Harris an open dunk on a cut courtesy of Thybulle. And Harris buried a pair of triples, too.
He and Embiid, who was more than happy to trade baskets with Hernangomez all first half, combined for 35 of Philly’s 50 points before intermission.
The more you watch Furkan Korkmaz try to be the conductor of a competent second unit offense, the more obvious it becomes that Doc Rives must stagger Maxey’s minutes with Embiid’s when the team is short-handed. The Sixers got nothing resembling competent ball-handling or guard play in the second unit. Mind you, the Pelicans are 18-28 as is. They were down four starters in this game. The Pelicans started their second unit and used their JV team as their bench. Philly’s second unit still struggled to put points on the board.
It’s not often there’s much negative to say about Maxey. I tend to give him a grading curve given that he went from barely getting any minutes as a rookie to being the full-time starter whenever he’s available as a sophomore. To his credit, he’s largely risen to the occasion, too. But you could see him trying to put a bit too much spice on his finishes around the rim.
Perhaps New Orleans’ interior defense had Maxey second-guessing himself. But, there were drives in which he was protecting the ball more than was necessary, opting for reverse layups or double-clutch finishes instead of going right at the basket. He’s quite crafty, so misses at the rim are few and far between. That wasn’t the case on Wednesday, but the extra seasoning he put on his finishes appeared to be a miscalculation on his part.
Rivers deserves his credit for adjusting his rotations in the third quarter, staggering Maxey with the second unit when Embiid was on the bench so as to get some speed and ball-handling on the floor.
Nothing summarizes the Andre Drummond experience quite like him popping an open dunk on the back of the rim, and then finishing a two-handed slam over multiple defenders on an alley-oop from Maxey on the same possession.
As terrible as the Sixers’ effort was for most of the game, they put together some of their best off-ball cutting of the season in this game. Tobias Harris, in particular, did a great job of tip-toeing his way past sleeping Pelicans for finishes at the cup. Thybulle snuck to the baseline for a reverse dunk, plus the foul. The cutting wasn’t necessarily producing immediate scores, either. There were feeds to the likes of Isaiah Joe, who then made secondary plays out to the weak-side corner to catalyze ball swings.
It’s acceptable if the Sixers don’t cash in on every cut. That’s part of the game. But, they have a terrible habit of standing idly waiting for someone to do something. The problem is, of course, they don’t have the personnel to win games going one-on-one when Embiid isn’t on the court. The movement around the big fella hasn’t been great for the majority of the season. In fact, it’s contributed to his making a concerted effort to advance his own playmaking skills. But, it was outstanding on Tuesday.
Harris’ touch off the glass was as good as it’s been all season. He found his angles on layups and got downhill for soft floaters all night. Regardless of the quality of opponent, it was perhaps Harris’ best game of the season. He finished the night with 33 points (on 19 field goal attempts) and 11 rebounds.
The Sixers (28-19) will host the Los Angeles Lakers (23-24) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the drama on TNT.