The Sixers (4-4) hosted the Washington Wizards (3-4) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to four games. Washington wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. A lack of size spelled death for the Sixers’ defense in the second half of a 121-111 defeat.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Wizards were without Corey Kispert, who was out with a sprained left ankle. Delon Wright missed the game with a strained right hamstring.
Isaiah Todd and Vernon Carey Jr. were on assignments with Washington’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable. The Wizards were without Two-Way signee Jordan Schakel, who was also on assignment with Washington’s G-League affiliate.
Wes Unseld Jr. started Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Gill, and Kristaps Porzingis.
The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who is still battling a non-Covid illness. De’Anthony Melton had a stiff left low back and was unavailable.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was out. Two-Way signees Julian Champagnie and Michael Foster Jr. were on G-League assignments and were unavailable, as well.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.
Harris had a really nice first half rebounding the basketball, although he finished the night with nine boards. Inconsistent performance aside, he made sure to fight for the ball on the defensive glass and be in the right places at the right times.
Maxey and Harden paced the Sixers’ offense, with the former scoring 32 points and the latter scoring 24 and dishing 10 assists. Harden had a more than adequate night shooting the deep ball, but there were too many times when the offense lost its punch because he dribbled the life out of the ball. Maxey took over as much as he could in the second half, dialing up a couple threes of his own and doing what he could to get to the rim against Porzingis and the other Wizards taking up space inside.
Across the entire NBA, I’m not sure there’s a team more relieved by any of their players sustaining a growth skill from one season to another than the Sixers should be with Maxey’s shooting. Whether it’s off the catch or off the dribble, Maxey has built on last season’s success in the early days of this season. Except now, he’s doing it on more substantial volume. Maxey is taking nearly seven triples per game right now. In last season’s breakout campaign, he attempted a little more than four per game. And he’s quietly beginning to take them from farther beyond the arc than he did last season.
His comfort in shooting off the catch has made life next to Harden copacetic. When Harden’s on the floor, the Sixers are finding success with him floating between a catch-and-decide shooting guard and a secondary ball-handler when the bearded guy needs a breather or wants to show a different look. When Harden is off the floor, Maxey turns into the lead guard, doing basically whatever he wants on the floor.
I would like to see the third-year guard cut out the dangling layups or the low-release scoops that he throws up when a defender is in the vicinity. He has the speed and athleticism to get right to the backboard if he can’t go all the way in for a dunk. Instead of leaving the ball vulnerable to being blocked, kiss it off the glass. Not only are those long layups vulnerable to being blocked, but there’s so much spin on them going up to the rim that the touch at the basket dissipates. It might be a case of Maxey doubting that he’ll get the call despite getting contact, but those flimsy layups are low-percentage shots that have no chance of garnering whistles.
Paul Reed checked into the game with less than eight minutes left it in the first half and immediately had a positive impact. He batted an offensive rebound out to the perimeter, setting up Harden for an open three. Reed then came down and walled off the paint and forced a Beal missed layup. Then in transition, he was rewarded for the defensive discipline with a dunk.
A 5-point swing in less than 30 seconds of game time to cut the deficit to three points when the Wizards threatened to pull away. He struggled outside of that sequence, but his athleticism aids the Sixers’ defense when they have to go more traditional. It seems like an entirely different team compared to when Harrell is in the game. Rivers has been much more liberal with using Reed early in this season, so we’ll see if he bends more and trusts the young guy as the season progresses.
The Sixers’ offense stagnated a bit more with Thybulle in the starting lineup than it did with Melton there. That was to be expected, given Thybulle’s offensive limitations. But, it wasn’t as much about the lack of respect the defense had for Thybulle as it was about rhythm. Washington sent double-teams and traps Harden’s way just as they did in the game the two teams played earlier in the week.
And just as he did then, Harden found the open man and rifled the ball his way to facilitate ball swings. But when the ball reached Thybulle as the inevitably open man, he was too slow to decisions, junking up the offense. To add to the indecision, Thybulle chose to drive into traffic without any obvious path to making something good happen. And with the film from their loss to the Sixers on Monday still fresh, the Wizards were quite aggressive in taking away the interior. Whether it was Thybulle or an assortment of other Sixers, there were an alarming number of Philadelphia misses at the rim in the opening frame.
Part of their early offensive woes came from trying to use Thybulle as a roller, just as they did with Melton to much success in Monday’s victory. But, Thybulle isn’t anywhere near the offensive player Melton is, and it showed. Thybulle’s struggles as a ball-handler were exposed, with him losing control of the rock before a play could even unfold. That Thybulle is such a straight-line player when on the move made the offense predictable, and the Wizards shut the Sixers’ offense off.
Some will say coaching is to blame for that, others will say players. Reality is somewhere in between. The leader of your offense should know much better than to be trying to thread the needle to a teammate who is pretty untrustworthy doing anything with the ball in his hands. It’s also on Rivers to recognize that the link between Harden and the rest of the offense is breaking at Thybulle, and that’s when you have to adjust. The flip side is that the weakest defender is always going to be assigned to Thybulle, and you want that guy attached to Harden when facing a switching defense. But, this Wizards team isn’t the tightest defensive group, so I’m not sure you’re picking your poison anyway.
Of course, maybe points would’ve been easier to come by with more ball movement. Way too much over-dribbling from Harden in the first half of this game. Half of ball movement is moving to open spots to make yourself available for passes, and that’s on the four other Sixers on the floor for checking out a bit and giving Harden reason to dribble idly. But, the other side is that Harden has to be decisive. Dribbling idly is indecision, and that slows the offense to a halt. Beyond that, the point guard’s job is to create offense for the whole team, and Harden wasn’t doing that to any real effect in the first half.
The Sixers have got to do a much better job of accounting for the trailing player in transition. Opposing players lingering in the backcourt or inbounding the ball have walked into wide-open threes far too often already this season. It’s one or two swing passes into an uncontested three off the catch.
Part of the issue is inherently transition defense. There are times when opposing offenses beat the Sixers’ defense down the floor on made shots, let alone misses or live turnovers. And when your transition defense isn’t good, the first two passes are going to leave the weak side of the floor open.
The Wizards stayed in this game in the second half because of two things. First, the size advantage Porzingis had over every Sixer on the floor was unsolvable. Even when they theoretically defended him well, he had no problem shooting over them. Probably a different outcome if Embiid is there, but that’s where leaning too hard into small ball can hurt. Second, once Thybulle left the game with an undisclosed injury (and did not return), Beal knew the Sixers had no one capable of stopping him and went to work. The Sixers spent extended stretches of the second half trading buckets with the Wizards. That’s not a winning proposition.
Philadelphia had a chance to take over late in this game, but ran their offense through Harris instead of going to Maxey, who had 32 points in the game. Harris made some a couple of big threes off the catch. But, you’re just not going to get sustainable offense from Harris post-ups, at least not sustainable enough to keep pace with the opposition and win a ball game.
The Sixers (4-5) will host the New York Knicks (3-3) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.