The Sixers (30-19) hosted the Memphis Grizzlies (35-17) on Monday night. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to five games. Memphis hoped to push its own winning streak to four games. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris combined for 64 points to help the Sixers hold off the Grizzlies in overtime, 122-119.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Grizzlies were without the services of Dillon Brooks, who is nursing a sprained left ankle.
Santi Aldama, and Two-Way contractors Tyrell Terry and Yves Pons, were on assignments with Memphis’ G-League affiliate and were not available.
Taylor Jenkins started Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Ziaire Williams, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Steven Adams.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who missed the game due to planned rest.
Furkan Korkmaz was out with a sore left knee, while Shake Milton missed another affair due to a back contusion.
Jaden Springer was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond.
The Sixers opened up with Tyrese Maxey defending Ja Morant. They profile similarly from a physical standpoint. But, Ja is obviously more seasoned and far more skilled. So, that felt like maybe an unnecessary test to provoke a superstar point guard early in the game.
There were some broken transition plays in which Thybulle just couldn’t get over to the speedy Morant in time. But, there were a handful of early Memphis possessions in the half-court in which an inferior defender was tasked with containing the first-time All-Star. No bueno.
Even without Embiid, the Sixers had one exciting player who made the game something of a spectacle. Tyrese Maxey was equal to Morant in the task of putting on a show for those watching. Morant had an incredible layup in the first frame, adjusting his body mid-air to finish over the defensive obstacles in his path.
Then Maxey responded, converting numerous complex layups over a very physical and athletic Memphis team. On a night where the premier point guard in the building was on the other team, and the Sixers’ featured star was out, it would’ve been easy for Philly to buckle from the jump. But, Maxey rose to the occasion and looked as fearless as ever flying up the court and down the middle of the driving lanes.
The Grizzlies have some of the best body control I’ve ever seen in my 13 years watching the NBA. They powered through contact on numerous occasions to get the buckets and go to the line for bonus points. On one hand, the Sixers certainly committed some soft fouls. But, it speaks to Memphis’ collective physical strength and touch around the rim.
Isaiah Joe had a pair of four-point plays in the first half, one of which came in the second quarter. A wing who usually struggles to hit the open ones from deep, the basketball gods rewarded Joe for fighting through his struggles with a pair of makes, plus the contact. I guess the key is tackling him while he’s mid-shot?
As good as the ball movement was in the first quarter, the Sixers quickly got away from it in the second quarter. And to compound the issue, they were settling for contested step-back jumpers. When you’re without Embiid, you need to savor every offensive possession. Philly might get lucky with the occasional step-back jumper, but they by and large lack the shooting skills to hit those at a high level. So, stalling out the possession for low-quality shots is a sure-fire way to let Memphis back in the game. And that’s exactly what happened. The Grizzlies got whatever they wanted in the paint throughout the second quarter, cutting a deficit as big as 15 points down to 1 late in the second frame.
Part of why Memphis fell behind was three-point shooting. Philadelphia’s early activity on the defensive glass regressed to the norm, and the Grizzlies were getting open threes on slap-outs off the offensive glass. The difference compared to the first Memphis game of the season was that the three-point luck wasn’t nearly as kind in this game. The Grizzlies hit 14 threes in the first matchup, a 35-point victory over Philly in Tennessee back in December. Memphis shot 2-for-10 from deep in the first half on Monday.
Nothing dampens the mood of a free Frosty off of a pair of missed free throws quite like Memphis getting the offensive rebound and rifling it out to the perimeter for a game-tying 3 early in the third quarter.
Andre Drummond tried his darnedest to stay in front of Morant on switches, but that’s just a ridiculous ask. It’s not even like he necessarily has a shortcoming, other than occasional silly fouls and focus issues. Morant is just that shifty and athletic. His gift is manipulating individual defenders and leaving them guessing.
One second, it looked like Drummond had him played well. The next second, Morant is gone, having shifted his balance, waited, and ducked under the biting Drummond for a layup. And if Morant isn’t doing that, he’s yo-yoing the ball as he probes the lane and exploding upward, carried by the jetpacks in his shoes as he glides up to the rim over everyone in his way. I’ve seen Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. I haven’t seen anything quite like the witchcraft Morant pulled on Monday night.
It would’ve been a great night for Seth Curry to find his footing as a shooter. Instead, he was doing his best Korkmaz impression.
The Sixers held the lead midway through the fourth frame, but they sure as hell tried to give it up. An unhealthy diet of wasted possessions due to turnovers kept Memphis breathing. Whether it was poor control of the ball that allowed Memphis to poke it away, stepping on the sidelines as they caught the ball, or throwing low passes out of bounds, the Sixers coughed it up over and over again in the most important quarter of the game.
I feel like I write about the Andre Drummond experience every game. He had 16 points, 23 rebounds, and 5 assists. But when it came time to put the Sixers in a position to win the game with a dunk, Drummond botched it, losing the ball and precipitating a live-ball turnover. And just as he did all night, Morant ultimately had an answer on the other end to tie the game on the final possession.
The Sixers did get one final possession. But just as it often unfolds in professional sports, officiating changed the game’s final possession, with the whistle going silent as a Grizzlie hit Curry on the back as he elevated for what would’ve been the game-winning shot. Then to make matters worse, the officials decided to punish Doc Rivers with a technical foul for lambasting the awful call. Officiating is a national epidemic in sports. It will never get better unless there are measures of accountability enacted.
This was a game that the Sixers lose 9 times out of 10, and they trailed by as many as 4 points in the extra session. Ostensibly even more demoralizing is trailing by a point right off the bat because of Rivers’ technical foul. But to the Sixers’ credit, they stuck with it. After a night of battling, they could’ve run out of gas. But as both teams traded spectacular buckets all night long, the Sixers saved their best for last.
When the Sixers got one final stop, they rifled the ball ahead to the motor that carried them throughout the night. Tyrese Maxey delivered a deja vu moment, coasting in for a layup, just like Allen Iverson, as time expired to seal a 3-point victory.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give Tobias Harris his credit. He delivered 31 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in 40 minutes of play. Amid a season with more highs than lows for the Sixers’ max-contract forward, he’s answered the bell lately. In Embiid’s absence on Monday, Harris stepped up to help balance the attack with Maxey. It wasn’t even low-post play that cashed the points. Harris fought through contact on his way to the rim, got to the line, and dabbled in an array of threes and midrange jumpers all night long. For a guy who is often criticized for not having an impact on winning, the Sixers needed each of his 31 on the night.
The Sixers (31-19) will host the Washington Wizards (23-26) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.