Tyrese Maxey shooting a jumper as he warms up for a game; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (33-17) visited the San Antonio Spurs (14-38) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to build on its victory over the Magic on Wednesday. San Antonio wanted to snap a seven-game losing streak. Tyrese Maxey led a massive bench effort as the Sixers downed the Spurs, 137-125.

Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.

The Spurs were without Devin Vassell, who is recovering from a procedure on his left knee. Tre Jones missed the game with left foot soreness. Jeremy Sochan was out with lower back soreness.

Romeo Langford has a tight left adductor and was out.

Charles Bassey is on a Two-Way assignment with San Antonio’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Gregg Popovich started Malaki Branham, Josh Richardson, Keldon Johnson, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jakob Poeltl.


Certainly not a ton to like about this game in the first quarter-plus. But, Tyrese Maxey was a neon bright spot from the moment he checked into the game. The early energy set the tone for a strong night from the reserve guard. He got downhill early in possessions instead of pounding the life out of the ball. There was no wasting time toggling through decisions when Maxey had the ball in his hands. He read San Antonio’s defense early and trusted his instincts to dictate a first move. I thought Maxey did a wonderful job of using his dribble to develop the play and move. He progressed the ball towards a shot instead of pitting the Sixers against the shot clock. That mindset scored Maxey 10 points in his first nine minutes of play. He put up 25 points in 27 minutes off the bench.

One play in particular saw Maxey attack the rim and then rifle a baseline bounce pass to the weak-side corner to facilitate a ball swing. Maxey has sneakily made those cross-court reads more consistently of late. He made at least two in this game. Quick memory says he’s made one in each of the last couple games.

Maxey making that pass once or twice per game isn’t changing the calculus for the Sixers. But, I do think his court vision and playmaking have improved this season while his scoring and shooting have taken a step back after a blistering second year. We can debate what has caused the respective shifts in power.

Personally, I think the path of going from a starter whose third season was largely a continuation of his success from last season to a foot injury that took him off the court for more than a month to toggling between starter and sixth man has contributed to some of the inconsistency. Maybe he doesn’t always trust his body after the foot injury. As charismatic and upbeat as Maxey is, maybe there is an element of self-doubt. Perhaps there’s some slight difficulty in reconciling with a bench role. There could be a struggle with finding the balance in mentality as he adjusts to coming off the bench. There’s also probably a degree of his being higher on the scouting report. So, teams are preparing more for him.

Whatever the case, it isn’t unreasonable to ask yourself whether Maxey’s second year was real or a ceiling. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder whether an undersized shooting guard who might not have the range of a Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard can have perennial All-Star upside, even though Maxey looked like a budding superstar last season. 

Those thoughts naturally come up more around the trade deadline, which is less than a week away as of this writing. But, I do think Maxey showing he’s taken even a small step forward as a passer and playmaker changes how you view him as a piece in potential trade packages. It isn’t like he just started to show growth as a playmaker, either. All season long, Maxey has consistently made the simple pass on the drive when the opposing big lifts away from the rim to contain the ball, lobbing up for a big or a cutter on the back-side of the play. 

The more you start to think about the fact that we really don’t know whether Harden will be a Sixer even a year from now, the more it matters that Maxey has taken that small step as a playmaker. Maxey probably won’t be a Harden-level genius as a distributor of the basketball. But, any evidence suggesting he can make those more complex reads as a passer should make any conversation about trading him for the sake of going all in on this season more difficult.

There was a stretch of three consecutive Harden assists to Embiid towards the end of the second quarter to effectively blow the game open for Philadelphia. There was a mix of pick-and-roll play, drive-and-kicking, and then a transition lob in a two-on-one advantage. The lob invoked an embrace between the point guard and the big man, the duo excited to put on a show. It was the embrace as they ran back on defense that shows the maturity they’ve both exhibited. Harden, the one who stayed back and initiated the celebration with Embiid, has undoubtedly sacrificed more to make this relationship flourish. He’s been a total professional in how he carries himself both on and off the court. Harden has been happy to adapt, at least when the cameras are on. And he’s celebrated his teammates’ successes instead of calling his own number or hunting individual glory. 

Embiid is unequivocally the better player, and deserves to be the center of the offense. But, he’s also adapted in his own ways. The big guy is running more pick-and-roll than ever before. He understands that it will get him easier buckets but won’t always end with him getting the shot. He’s also run the floor more in transition than ever before. The understanding is similar; just keeping pace with his teammates might yield him easy baskets. 

The two have made each other better players and teammates. It’s a crime that only Embiid was selected for the 2023 All-Star game. Even if this season doesn’t yield a championship — and assuming they don’t melt down in spectacular fashion — both Harden and the Sixers should be motivated to keep him in Philadelphia next season. 

I thought Embiid mostly did a good job of not being overly reliant on his jumper. Poeltl is by no means a slouch as a rim-protector, and the Spurs are long and unafraid of reaching in on drives or gambling on double-teams. Nonetheless, Embiid took it the rim all night long. Even if he didn’t get the bucket, Embiid’s aggression was rewarded with free throws. He hasn’t had the most dominant stretch scoring the ball since the Nuggets game last Saturday. But, Embiid has made a concerted effort to get to the rim more frequently when catching beyond a few feet outside of the paint this season. The result? He’s averaging a career-high 33.5 points per game, and shooting a career-high 56.7 percent on twos. 

A loss in any fashion would’ve been inexcusable in this game. But, the Sixers responded to committing three turnovers in their first four possessions by committing just seven the rest of the game. Great response.

Philadelphia’s bench scored 67 points in this game. They outscored San Antonio’s bench by 25 points. The bench only lost to the Spurs’ starting five by 16 points. Outstanding night for the reserve offense, even if the defense (more on that below) was horrendous.


The lone extenuating circumstance being injury, the Sixers could not have gotten off to a more terrible first few minutes of the game. They were dead asleep, committing three turnovers on their first four possessions of the game. Amongst the gaffes were Harris smoking a layup on a drive and Embiid passing into a crowd of Spurs when he had a jumper at the nail.

I do think there’s some signs of growth that they’re snapping out of the immaturity that settles in when you play down to competition. But, they just blew a 21-point lead in a home loss to the Magic. Orlando was sneakily rebounding after a rough 25-game start to the season. But, great teams have to blow the doors off of inferior opponents. A wire-to-wire drubbing every once in a while would be nice. That’s especially the case when you have older stars. Giving them the large majority of a second half off every now and then is a great commodity as you go through the dog days of an 82-game regular season.

I thought Harden was extremely passive early on, turning down open shots when snaking ball screens in space. It isn’t as if size was really there to bother him, as he created some great separation peeling off the pick. Perhaps he was trying to read Embiid’s decision in the actions. But, he turned down a number of would-be shots early on.

Embiid shorted a number of Spurs possessions as part of that early snooze fest. San Antonio got a bunch of second-chance buckets because he failed to block out offensive rebounders that were within a step of his reach in the first quarter. Embiid is responsible for securing the glass when the shot goes up and he isn’t the one making the contest. He either didn’t hold strong or didn’t position himself well, the likes of Poeltl and Zach Collins sliding in to steal rebounds. There’s no reason Embiid should only be averaging 10.1 rebounds per game. That’s pure effort.

Philadelphia’s bench held down the fort on offense after the starters opened with a stalled engine. But, the frontcourt of Montrezl Harrell and Georges Niang was absolutely dreadful on defense. You felt like you were watching the Spurs run practice drills geared towards scoring the ball within the arc. They had way too much space to attack, and most shots inside yielded either buckets or trips to the free throw line. Philadelphia’s brass must do something to sure up the backup center spot with the trade deadline and buyout season quickly approaching.

The Sixers (34-17) will visit the New York Knicks (28-25) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN. 


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