The Sixers (47-22) visited the Indiana Pacers (32-38) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to win its eighth game in a row. Indiana wanted to tie the Bulls for the final spot in the eastern conference play-in tournament with a win. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 62 points and 14 assists to lead the Sixers past the Pacers, 141-121.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who had a maintenance night as part of his recovery from a right foot injury.
PJ Tucker missed the game with a sore left ankle.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
The Pacers were without the services of Tyrese Haliburton, who has a sprained right ankle.
Bennedict Mathurin missed the game with a sprained right ankle. Chris Duarte was out with a sore left ankle.
Kendall Brown has a stress fracture in his right tibia and was unavailable.
Rick Carlisle started Andrew Nembhard, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, Jordan Nwora, and Myles Turner.
When you see Embiid dominate without a bead of sweat dripping off his face so often, snapping countless necks with the strength of his right hand by itself, it’s at the point where you wonder if something is wrong when he doesn’t apply his full capacity. He’s made an effort to dominate from tip-off to final buzzer since the all-star break. That consistent engagement and effort has not only thrust him back into the MVP conversation, but it’s brought him to the front of the debate. Yet, he didn’t seem interested in scoring so much in his opening stint of this game.
It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t engaged, fully aware that every night is an opportunity to stabilize or build on his MVP candidacy. Rather, his approach was different. The touches that have typically been shots were passes. It wasn’t that he was passive; Embiid wasn’t turning down open looks. But, he wasn’t asserting himself in ways that those who watch him frequently know he can. But, I didn’t mind his approach because he wasn’t making mistakes on offense.
Embiid read double-teams and shaders quite well, firing the ball across the court to hit open teammates. He saw the whole court, diming Harris in the post, leveraging his gravity to create a little space for Maxey on the strong side, and chucked the ball across the floor to open things up on the weak side. Embiid didn’t force his teammates to operate out of a slowed offense in the halfcourt. He was willing to match the flow of the game, pushing it in transition as a ball-handler or looking up for teammates running ahead in transition.
The message was that he felt like his team could win without needing an A-plus game from the ace. So, he used a night of rest for Harden to deflect the spotlight to his teammates in the first half. Much is made of Embiid’s maturity as a leader. And I think that’s the root of a lot of what we saw on Saturday night. Embiid knows he and Harden are going to need their teammates to step up when the games really start to matter. So, keeping them involved against inferior opponents when the margin for error is wider is important. Not only does it keep them awake, but it lets them know that their leaders believe in them.
That doesn’t mean Embiid went the whole night without asserting himself. He tested the waters in the first half, getting a feel for how much he would need to apply himself for his team to win. Seeing the likes of Maxey and Harris meet the task but the Sixers not blowing Indiana’s doors off, Embiid put a bit more weight on the gas pedal in the second half. He dazzled with his usual assortment of midrange jumpers and interior scores, and then took a seat for the entirety of the fourth quarter.
Underrated development of these last two games is that Embiid has gotten some extended in-game rest with his Sixers putting the game to bed in the second halves. Rare for Philadelphia to have a stress free fourth quarter. As Rivers would say, that’s some old-fashioned load management.
Of course, Maxey and Harris made it quite easy for Embiid to produce on offense without asserting himself as a scorer. They had it dialed up all night long. What do you do when Harden’s scoring and playmaking isn’t available? You break it up, divide and conquer. The second and third guys in line combined for 55 points on 21-for-30 shooting, 9-for-15 of which came from beyond the arc, and 11 assists against one turnover.
There’s something about Indiana that Maxey just loves because it feels like he’s on fire every time he plays the Pacers in their building. He pulled up for a midrange jumper after faking to draw a heavy close-out and attacking the ensuing space. He pulled back in transition and triggered a triple from the right wing, too. It was a 5-for-9 effort from beyond the arc for no. 0, but he also got to the rim for a handful of crafty finishes.
Maxey didn’t just show out as a scorer in this one. Seven assists against no turnovers despite a high-usage shot volume and scoring output is insane. I thought he made a couple reads as a passer that showed Harden’s mentoring. One that was particular noteworthy was a drive to the paint that ended with a bullet pass on the move to Niang in the weak-side corner. We’re not going to learn anything from a nice pass here and there. And as long as Harden is a Sixer, there aren’t going to be enough on-ball opportunities for Maxey to blend playmaking with scoring. But, the occasional great read as he moves within the flow of the offense is encouraging for the Sixers’ options at lead ball-handler if they have to live in a post-Harden world in the near future.
Harris’ three-point shooting in Charlotte traveled with him to Indiana, as he was lights out from beyond the arc in this one. But, a ton of his work came from bullying mismatches in the post to back himself close to the rim or to turn around for a midrange jumper. As much as finishing at the rim has been a roller coaster for Harris, he had a good night around the basket, too.
Melton put a hurting on the Pacers all night long, his defense bullying unaware Indiana ball-handlers. Six steals and a block for the Sixers guard in this one, and he even handled the ball in transition with good control. A little advice for the Pacers — pay attention to the ball-handler because if he has his back turned, a helper is going to rush the blind side and tip the ball away to create a transition opportunity. You have to help your teammate and call that out. Melton was outstanding at the point of attack in this one, finding the ball when his man tried to attack and getting a hand on the rock to turn the Pacers over and create a loose-ball opportunity.
The Sixers treated those in attendance to a dunk fest in the second half. Paul Reed, in particular, got in on the action there. Jaden Springer found him cutting baseline and fed him a dunk late in the fourth quarter. Perhaps Reed does this more than I notice, but it felt like he really timed his baseline cuts well when his teammates acted as short rollers in spread actions. As soon as the low man lifted to engage the ball, Reed was there to receive the pass for an easy flush.
Not a whole lot to take with you from this game, but Philadelphia responded to no Harden with a balanced effort from Embiid, Maxey, and Harris. The Sixers don’t need to rely on the same pillars to win every night. Guys can take a game off without it feeling like a death sentence. They know they have other sources of production waiting in the wings. Even if a key figure isn’t available, there’s another guy or two there to help carry the load. This Sixers team, unlike any in recent memory, is consistently winning in different ways. It’s anyone’s best guess as to whether they’ll get past the second round this season. But, for the first time in the Embiid era, I’m comfortable saying that this team gives me more reasons to believe in the high-end outcome than to doubt it.
Reed righted the ship in the second half, but some ugly minutes for both of Embiid’s backups in the first half. Reed committed two fouls in less than four minutes of action. The Sixers were outscored by five points in those minutes. Rivers went to Dedmon quickly, but he wasn’t much better in less than three minutes of action. He tried to throw a ridiculous lob to Harris that the forward had no chance of getting to. Dedmon then committed a foul on a basket he didn’t have a chance of stopping anyway. The game was probably a bit too quick for him, Indiana’s youth dictating the pace. Regardless of physical limitations, it looked like he was playing a different sport than the other nine guys on the floor.
Embiid took a coupe hits to the face in this one. He tends to take a little extra care when someone makes contact with his face. I’m guessing his history with facial fractures probably plays into some extra concern whenever he takes contact there.
House threw down a nasty dunk in the third quarter. Unfortunately, he put his knee through a guy’s chest to make it happen. An indisputable offensive foul wiped away what would’ve been a nice highlight for him.
The Sixers (48-22) will host the Chicago Bulls (33-37) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.