The Sixers (32-22) began a new era of basketball on Friday. In their first game following the blockbuster trade that sent Ben Simmons to Brooklyn for James Harden, Philadelphia hosted the Oklahoma City (17-37). Philly intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the Suns on Tuesday. Oklahoma City hoped to break a 3-game losing streak. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 49 points to power the Sixers to a 100-87 victory over the Thunder.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is recovering from a sprained right ankle and was not for the Thunder.
Mike Muscala missed the game with a sore right ankle. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was out with a third metatarsal fracture in his right foot.
Aaron Wiggins is nursing a sprained right ankle and was unavailable.
Mark Daigneault started Josh Giddey, Tre Mann, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, and Derrick Favors.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden and Paul Millsap (very weird to type), who are not yet with the team.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Tyrese Maxey was a bit bashful in pulling the trigger on catch-and-shoot threes in the first few minutes of the game. That characteristic was only highlighted by his teammates — Matisse Thybulle and Joel Embiid — letting a pair of threes fly immediately off the catch in those first handful of possessions.
It’s mostly been acceptable for him to look to penetrate with drives instead of being a willing threat from deep because he had Seth Curry, a more willing shooter, in the back-court with him. And that habit is something that he clearly worked on quitting as the season went on. In the last two weeks or so, he was shooting them without thought.
That’s something with which he will have to grow consistently comfortable when Harden takes the court. There is a chance, probably even a likelihood, that Maxey and Harden start together. If it were my decision, Maxey would be leading the charge in the second unit while Harden takes starting point guard duties. Regardless of whether or not he starts with Harden, Maxey is going to have to find a consistent rhythm shooting off the catch because they will inevitably find themselves in lineups together.
Embiid has grown quite adept at slowing the game down as a driver. In doing that, his footwork has evolved. Rather than fall over on a misstep or travel as he bumper-cars his way to the rim, Embiid is taking two long steps into the lane and then going up for his finishes. Even further, he’s punishing defenders for undisciplined contact as he pushes to the rim.
Embiid got to the line for 8 free throws in the first frame. And he’s been physically and intelligently dominant all season long, averaging the second most free throw attempts per 36 minutes in the league this season. The Thunder committed 7 fouls in the first frame. Perhaps that’s just Oklahoma City being a young, bad team. But adding Harden to the mix is only going to bring the Sixers’ collective free throw rate up.
Save for a hilariously bad attempt at a fancy dunk in transition, Paul Reed impressed in extended minutes in the second quarter. Most of it came courtesy of his instincts as a hustle player. Reed deflected an inbound pass to deny the entry and force a new sideline out-of-bounds. He also registered a steal to get the Sixers out in transition.
But beyond that, Reed made his presence felt at the rim. He was quick and timely to help rotations, coming out of nowhere to perturb Thunder shots in the paint. He also stayed disciplined in close-outs on shooters staring down open looks off of skip passes, closing the distance with choppy feet and raised arms. Those are the tendencies that Reed is going to have to master to garner trust from Doc Rivers.
His chaotic energy on offense is hard to trust, as he frequently plays outside of himself when he has the ball. But, the defensive instincts and athleticism are tremendous. This period between the Drummond departure and the buyout market is a trial for him. And there were more positives in his stint in the second period than there were negatives.
The rest of the Sixers tried their hardest to impersonate their departing teammate. There were some ridiculous passes that came nowhere near hitting their intended targets in the second frame. And boy, did the Sixers miss a lot of layups, as well. They can live with some of those clunkers against a team that is tanking, like the Thunder are. But Philadelphia did a terrible job of milking value out of its possessions. On a less serious note, Andre Drummond would be proud.
The Sixers played a tribute video to James Harden, which included a photoshop of him in a Sixers uniform, late in the second quarter. As you can imagine, the building was jumping:
Here’s part of the James Harden video package the Sixers just played in the arena pic.twitter.com/5Sru22GWJf— Adam Aaronson (@SixersAdam) February 12, 2022
The competition at the backup center position could meaningfully alter what the Sixers do in the buyout market. If Rivers decides to invest some minutes into either of Reed and Charles Bassey, he may find something he likes. And if he does, that means the Sixers can focus on adding some shooting on the wings. The value there is that they no longer have to pretend that Furkan Korkmaz merits any minutes in the rotation.
Korkmaz has been unspeakably bad on both ends of the floor this season. He’s a theoretical shooter whose salary fits into the Mid-Level Exception. So, not exactly a crippling cost. But, he’s shooting worse from three this season than Thybulle is. That’s downright unacceptable. Perhaps that stems from his being over-extended as a ball-handler in the second unit. But, it’s not like anything he’s done on defense justifies playing him through the offensive futility. On Friday, the Thunder had no problem pushing him right to the rim for quality shots. Even as a helper, they caught him asleep for back-cuts to the cup.
Besides being someone his teammates cannot trust on either end, Korkmaz’s defense puts Embiid in a vulnerable position. Too often on Friday did Embiid have to make quick rotations in crowded areas to perturb Korkmaz’s responsibility at the rim. He was fortunate enough to not take any fatal steps or land awkwardly on anyone, but you can’t live with Embiid suffering a catastrophic injury that derails what will ostensibly be a playoff run because of a Korkmaz mess.
After building a lead as large as 19 points in the third quarter, the Sixers mostly auto-piloted through the fourth quarter. That was especially the case on defense. Oklahoma City moved the ball at will in the final frame, making swing passes across the court and rifling short passes on their strong sides to facilitate dribble penetration. By the same token, the Sixers were blatantly lazy on close-outs and largely out of rotation. They granted Oklahoma City those drives to the cup because they didn’t close out with control.
Fortunately for the Sixers, the Thunder simply lack the talent to even put a score into Philly as they made their comeback. And Tyrese Maxey swept away any doubt with 6 points in the final 2 minutes of play to seal the victory for the home team.
The Sixers (33-22) will host the Cleveland Cavaliers (35-21) on Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.