The Sixers (40-21) visited the Dallas Mavericks (32-31) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to build on Wednesday’s win over the Miami Heat. Dallas wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. The Mavericks canned 25 threes over a Sixers’ defense that never bothered to make the trip from Miami in a 133-126 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Dewayne Dedmon, who has a sore left hip.
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, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Mavericks were without the services of Davis Bertans, who has a strained left calf.
AJ Lawson and McKinley Wright IV are on Two-Way assignments with the Mavericks’ G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Jason Kidd started Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Josh Green, Reggie Bullock, and Dwight Powell.
Certainly wasn’t much defense in this game. But, I did like that the Sixers countered the Irving-Doncic screen actions with switching. I don’t usually notice much switching when Embiid is on the court, which means there’s a chance they do it more than I realize. But, rather than trying to fight through screens or risk miscommunications on those actions, they simply switched to keep things easy.
We can debate the merits of re-inserting Maxey into the starting lineup on a night when the opposing backcourt has the offensive firepower of Doncic and Irving. But, the bottom line is that they’re tough covers for anyone, good and bad defenders. So, you might as well lean into matching offense with offense. Both Mavericks certainly got theirs in the first quarter, but the Sixers refused to let their two-man game pick them apart. Switching on those actions kept a defender attached to the ball, denying angles to get downhill and open threes for either star out of the screen.
Make no mistake, defense was entirely optional for both teams in the first half. But, I did like how Philadelphia trapped against Irving once it was clear he was feeling it in this game. They didn’t just sit in drop coverage with Embiid on the floor, leaving Dallas’ two best players to curl around screens and get a runway towards the rim.
The night after they switched everything all the way to a blowout win over the Heat in Miami without Embiid, the big man played high on the pick-and-roll with Irving. Embiid hedged, there to confront the ball-handler until his man got around the pick before evacuating back to the rim to get to the roller. He also trapped when Irving got the ball on the perimeter, daring him to bomb from well beyond the arc if he wasn’t going to lob the ball to a less capable teammate to release the trap. The Sixers showed Irving a handful of different coverages instead of marrying themselves to one concept, although nothing proved effective in stopping Dallas in the first half.
In a game that had a ton of offense, there was lot going well for Philadelphia to score 67 points in the first 24 minutes. But, the primary standout before halftime was Harden. He canned all three of his looks from deep in the first half. Harden also took note that Dallas had absolutely nothing to hold him back on defense, so he didn’t marry himself to jumpers. He sprinkled in a pair of blistering finishes, dashing past slow-footed defenders on drives to the basket.
Harden’s 19 points in the first half weren’t the full story, though. As efficient as he scored the basketball, Harden had the whole offense humming. He fed Embiid out of the pick-and-roll for easy midrange jumpers and buckets at the rim all half long, no one in a blue jersey even remotely capable of stopping the big man. There were a number of Sixers possessions in which the Mavericks didn’t even attempt to stop Embiid. They simply conceded inside positioning, gave him room to finish, and then inbounded the ball so that they could get down the court quickly.
The Sixers’ final basket of the first half was the perfect symbol of the chemistry between no. 1 and no. 21. Harden caught the ball on the move in transition and kept full steam ahead the entire time, never even looking back before delivering a behind-the-back pass to Embiid for a dunk. He knew his big man was going to be right behind him, trailing the ball in hopes of an easy bucket. That’s a play they’ve worked on all season, and usually to smashing success. And the less communication they need to have on it, the more unstoppable it will be. It certainly hit its peak on Thursday.
Embiid wasn’t the only beneficiary of Harden’s playmaking. The Sixers’ point guard whipped the ball around the floor all night long, racking up 13 assists. In a first half that required Philadelphia to match Dallas’ shotmaking, Harden spear-headed the Sixers’ offense. He created good looks from three, one after another. To his teammates’ credit, they capitalized on the leverage their floor general created for them. Dallas isn’t offering anything close to a good defense. But, the best version of Harden sniffs out and executes on every opportunity to get downhill, either dusting obstacles out of his way or using that leverage to make plays for others.
Philadelphia appeared ready to call it a night late in the third quarter after an abominable effort to defend the three-point line. But, as has been the Sixers’ MO all season, no lead is safe — for them or their opponents. Maxey captained a fourth-quarter surge for a lineup that had no Embiid and no Harden.
There’s probably a good bit of honesty in saying that that group took advantage of a Mavericks team that had checked out to open the final quarter, operating under the assumption that the game was already decided. But, Maxey set the tone for his group. They delivered a massive final punch for Philadelphia, starting the fourth quarter on a 15-0 run to cut the deficit to four points. Dallas led by as many as 25 points in the third quarter, Maxey was at the front of a push that brought the Sixers nearly all the way back to tie the game.
As much as Harden diced up the Mavericks with his passing and scoring in the first half, he accumulated six awful turnovers in this game. He telegraphed a pass along the baseline that was promptly intercepted by Irving to start a run-out for the Mavericks. He telegraphed a couple passes in the fourth quarter as the Sixers fought to give themselves a chance at a major comeback. Both were attempts to thread the needle across the floor, only to immediately be picked off by each of Irving and Doncic.
I’ve written this before and I’m sure I’ll write it again — that’s the downside of Harden’s game. You’ll have some inefficient shooting nights along the way. You’ll have a couple of games in which he commits too many turnovers. But, he’ll give you a laundry list of games in which he catalyzes victories. On this night, however, some of his decisions as a passer hurt the Sixers in key moments.
The Sixers need to put and end to this over-helping habit, and fast. They had one truly awful quarter all night. And if you take that one away, they win the ballgame. But, that’s obviously not how it works. The third quarter saw an avalanche from beyond the arc, and the Sixers were the victims. Whether guys were out of position or rotated too far over in help, Dallas punished the horrible defense after halftime. I don’t even think it’s fair to say that the Sixers’ defense was awful only in the second half. There was zero intensity in getting stops all game long, full stop.
But, the biggest smoking gun in that problem was the inability to stop three-point shooting. Boston has obliterated the Sixers from deep twice this season. Miami broke their hearts from the perimeter a couple days ago. And Dallas threw a party from outside on Thursday. I’ve been suspicious of the Sixers’ defense for most of the season — it’s difficult not to be when they’re not that long, not that athletic, and have two defensively-challenged guards in Harden and Maxey who get significant playing time. But, some of that opponent shooting luck that helped them early in the season is gone. It was target practice all night long for Dallas, who was on pace to break a record for three-point makes in a game before ultimately falling short.
If the Sixers don’t figure that issue out, they might as well not even show up for the second round of the playoffs. Sure, we can say that Thursday was an abnormality. They’ve only been on the losing end of one of those absurd barrages twice this season. But, you would be more willing to live with that if they made decent contests. There were moments in which the Sixers made things a bit challenging for Doncic and Irving. But, Dallas’ other shooters got naked looks all night long.
On the topic of defense, Embiid clearly went through the motions in this game. He autopiloted to 35 points to try to keep pace with league scoring leader Doncic, but everything else lacked much effort. None of the defensive intensity he showed in the first couple games out of the All-Star break was there. There was no effort to stop Doncic from getting to the rim even though Embiid was often in the vicinity to make a play. He didn’t try to assert himself on the defensive glass, noticeably just watching as a Maverick snuck by him for an offensive rebound to give Dallas a second chance while the Sixers were attempting to fight back in the fourth quarter. He is going to anchor the team’s defense when the stakes are the highest, and Embiid couldn’t be bothered to even try to finish off stops in this game.
Probably not consequential to the outcome of this game. But, Danuel House Jr. should’ve played more than 13 seconds. Rivers should really consider giving him another look to see if he can help them in the playoffs.
The Sixers (40-22) will visit the Milwaukee Bucks (45-17) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on ABC.