The Sixers (29-16) visited the Sacramento Kings (26-18) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to cap a five-game road trip out west with a fifth win. Sacramento intended to extend its winning streak to seven games. Tyrese Maxey scored 32 points to lead the Embiid-less and Harden-less Sixers back from a 21-point deficit to win, 129-127.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid and James Harden, who were both under maintenance for their respective foot injuries suffered previously this season.
Louis King and Julian Champagnie are both on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Montrezl Harrell.
The Kings were without the services of Neemias Queta and Keon Ellis, who are on Two-Way assignments with Sacramento’s G-League affiliate.
Mike Brown started De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray, and Domantas Sabonis.
I can’t say anyone took over the game for the Sixers in the first half, the bell going mostly unanswered in the first 24 minutes of play on a night when both Embiid and Harden were unavailable. But, Harris deserves his credit for being the one to lead Philadelphia’s charge. The outside shot has failed him in recent weeks, and the first half wasn’t an improvement on that. But, he was very aggressive in knifing through traffic as he fought downhill. The Sixers forward maneuvered his way into a handful of complicated baskets around the rim.
One of the best things he did was recognize that attacking Sabonis head-on wasn’t in the best interest of getting points on the board for a team that struggled to find offensive identity in the first half of this game. So, he attacked across the lane, challenging Sabonis to rotate away from sealing off the dunker. That mindset isn’t the same thing as fading away from contact or not attacking the basket aggressively. Rather, Harris knew he had more favorable chances of getting all the way to the rim if he attacked from a different angle. Once Sabonis was no longer the obvious helper on a drive, Harris attacked for scores against the likes of Barnes and Murray.
But by now, you know Harris usually isn’t going to go on a scoring rampage on most nights. Even when he’s higher in the pecking order. He just doesn’t have the physical traits or scoring chops to be a featured option more than once in a while. He weathered the storm through a cold start for Maxey, who came alive in the second quarter. A sleepy start for the Sixer guard was mostly erased with a couple of signature moves at the basket, Maxey stepping through congestion in the paint to lay the ball in.
Maxey used that flurry in the second quarter to engage himself in the game. Once Philadelphia cut the deficit to 10 points ahead of halftime, he was ready to take over. And take over, he did. The third-year guard converted a variety of difficult buckets over Sabonis in the paint in the third quarter, registering an and-1 on one of the crafty layups. I think Maxey’s ability to finish at the basket is perhaps a bit underrated, which is not an easy proposition considering that’s one of his most praised attributes. But, everyone talks about his speed. To be fair, they’re totally right. His speed creates separation and allows him to terrorize poor perimeter defenders and bigs who cannot move their feet.
But, speed means virtually nothing if you don’t have body control or the ability to slow the game down as you’re rising into your shot. As fast as Maxey is, he’s able to conquer mountains at the basket with his strength and time processing. He doesn’t lose control or come crashing down at the first contact. Maxey doesn’t throw bullets at the basket, either. No matter the context of the contest, he’s able to weather contact and angle the ball with enough touch to convert even the most complicated shots around the rim. Not only is he crafty, but he can also finish through fouls. It’s a gift that very few have. At his best, it’s perhaps Maxey’s best quality.
Maxey also knocked down a pair of threes, one of which being a 32-footer against the shot clock, in the third quarter. He scored 15 points in the quarter, taking over the game and giving the Sixers the lead after they trailed to the Kings by as many as 21 points.
That whole run by Maxey underscored a general theme for the Sixers in the second half. And it was one of the biggest reasons they clawed back into the game and took the lead. No one was afraid of attacking Sabonis inside. Licensed by Maxey’s success in attacking the heavy-footed big man, the rest of the team joined in. Shake Milton and Georges Niang, especially, got in on the party. Even if Philadelphia didn’t get all the way to the rim against Sacramento, the Sixers attacked the paint to collapse the Kings around the ball. Those paint touches generated swing plays to the weak side of the floor, plugging open shooters and drivers.
There were possessions in which Sabonis’ length bothered the Sixers, altering layups and short shots enough to fall off the rim. But, Harrell did a phenomenal job of cleaning up the offensive glass in the second half. The Sixers claimed a number of second-chance points on Harrell’s efforts, rendering Sabonis’ interior defense largely ineffective. It wasn’t like there were a number of options that Brown was comfortable with behind Sabonis. Chimezie Metu left the game after hyperextending his knee in the first half and did not return. Sabonis, a likely All-Star for what he does on offense, was involved in the Sixers’ actions all night long. He was totally helpless in stopping Philadelphia from converting high-quality shots in the second half.
Speaking of Sabonis’ rim defense, Paul Reed deserves some credit for his efforts on the Sixers’ basket. Buckets weren’t as easy to come by in the fourth quarter, the Kings’ defense tightening up as the threat of a horrible loss became more realistic. Yet, there was Reed, corralling three of his teammates’ misses in the decisive frame to create additional plays for Philadelphia’s offense.
On the other end of the floor, the Sixers did a very nice job of completing defensive sequences. A team that has often been marked by failing to finish defensive plays with rebounds, the Sixers were alert when the ball went up. They found the nearest King and boxed out, holding the Kings to a number of one-and-done possessions in the final 24 minutes. And the more the Kings felt the game slipping away, the more they rushed shots. The Sixers began to string those one-and-done defensive stands together, turning the game on its head. The simple effort to be attentive and box out helped Philadelphia win the defensive rebounding effort by five boards. It wasn’t even necessarily the biggest Sixers on the court doing the work, either. Maxey, Milton, and Melton combined for nine defensive rebounds in the second half.
Maxey earned the right to be the game’s big story. But, the Sixers don’t win this one without Milton and his soft touch in the paint. Seriously, he has incredible feel pretty much everywhere within the free throw line. Milton loves his floater, and he got to it often in the second half. Sometimes the shot is a bit flat. But, it doesn’t matter because he usually gets enough power under the rock to lift it over the rim. The touch takes care of the rest. He might not be the most prolific three-point sniper, but his midrange game and floater are so strong that you can qualify him as one of the team’s best shooters. He scored 11 of his 15 points after intermission.
The players obviously deserve a ton of credit for turning this one around. But, I thought one of the decisions that loomed large on the game’s outcome was what to do when Harris fouled out late in the fourth quarter. Rivers could’ve stuck with Milton, keeping him out there in a three-guard lineup with Maxey and Melton. Or, he could’ve learned more into defense and gone with Thybulle instead of Milton. As he’s done time and time again this season, he stayed with the hot hand in Milton. His team won, so good call.
Both teams made some insane shots in the first half of this game. First, there was Davion Mitchell banking in a 27-foot alley-oop pass intended for Malik Monk. Then, Matisse Thybulle banked in a short one-handed shot fading out of bounds on the baseline in an effort to salvage a difficult alley-oop pass. Lastly, Danuel House Jr. banked in a running 31-foot three from the left wing at the buzzer to cut the Sixers’ deficit to 10 points heading into halftime.
The Sixers were down by 20-plus to a good Kings team currently situated at the 3-seed in the West. Philadelphia, down an MVP candidate and another All-Star, fought back to even take an 11-point early lead in the fourth quarter. That’s a 32-point turnaround in less than two full quarters. Just an insane turn of events on the last game of a road trip out West when there were built-in excuses to lose. A true character victory for this group. The Sixers are the lone team this season to go undefeated on a cross-country road trip of at least three games.
This game was the polar opposite of the Portland game. Philadelphia didn’t give me anything negative to comment on until the third quarter. This time, the Sixers didn’t give me much of anything positive to comment on until the third quarter.
If you looked at the schedule ahead of time and considered the time between games, you could’ve predicted a maintenance game for the Sixers’ two veteran stars. But, this was a rough matchup for Embiid to sit. Fox is not an easy guard to contain, and he’s impossible to keep out of the paint once he gets his feet moving. Sabonis, while not an intimidating defender inside, is a very good passer out of the high post and can score inside. Those two got a heavy share of paint touches in the first half and collapsed Philadelphia’s interior defense from the jump.
Collapsing on the two biggest threats in the paint meant that the Sixers’ defense was constantly in rotation in the first half. Barnes was the biggest beneficiary. He had canned four threes by the early stages of the second quarter, and at least three of them were wide open. There’s getting into rotation on defense, and then there’s rotating too far away from shooters. The former is a requirement of the job, depending on what your scouting report says. The latter is a failure to know your personnel.
Barnes isn’t a great player. But, he’s a very capable shooter. Defensive rotations aren’t always about the quality of player, either. The context of how any particular guy is playing in that game needs to be accounted for. I don’t have a problem with players on heaters making difficult shots. The issue is that there wasn’t a soul near Barnes on his fourth three-point attempt, and he had already made his first three looks. That’s mindless positioning and awareness of what’s happening in the game.
Down the two guys ahead of him in the pecking order, this game was the perfect opportunity for Maxey to take over early. He was too reliant on the jumper when he did get his touches early on. That he couldn’t get himself going left the Sixers’ offense stalling as it looked for direction in the first quarter. Even when he started to get more touches towards the end of the first quarter, Maxey relied more on speed than craft around the rim. His shots up close had little chance of cashing in. Disappointing start for the charismatic youngster.
Rough first half for Reed. He had his back turned entirely on defensive pivots to the strong side of the paint. That positioning made it impossible for him to recover if the Kings made the dump-off pass inside. And the Sixers’ back-side help defense, like usual, wasn’t there. The Kings got a number of buckets inside on those weak-side dump-offs in the first half.
That wasn’t all for Reed. He was bullied inside by Sabonis in the first 24 minutes. Bball Paul also set a number of moving screens — in addition to his usual fouls — and at times when the Sixers desperately needed scores to stem the Kings’ tides.
Harrell wasn’t much better on defense in this contest, either. There were plenty of Sacramento possessions in which the ball whipped around to a King within one step of the basket and Harrell was nowhere nearby. But, he’s at least been around long enough to understand proper defensive positioning. It’s not like he’s switching, blitzing, or hedging, either. Harrell is typically in drop coverage. So, he shouldn’t be playing all that high or away from the basket. Lifting to confront the ball-handler is one thing. Being several steps out of position and opening the lane for a pass to the weak side of the paint is another thing.
The Sixers found a way to commit every single offensive foul in the book in the first half. Moving screens? Check. Charges? You bet. Slapping or elbowing defenders on blow-bys and drives? Yup. An impressive display.
Asked to come in and defend the final possession of the game, Thybulle went for the hero play and tried to strip Barnes as he rose into a three-point shot. Of course, a foul. The Kings were already in the bonus. So, any foul sent them to the charity stripe. Shooting foul or not, Thybulle made a terrible decision…again. Given his wingspan, all Thybulle has to do is contest. No need for a block or a strip. No need for a game-winning defensive play to shut the opponent down. Just pressure with the body and get your hands up and back. Simply another example of what makes Thybulle so frustrating and immensely difficult to trust in close games. That is, of course, if his lack of offensive growth wasn’t enough to write him off entirely.
The Sixers (30-16) will host the Brooklyn Nets (28-17) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on ESPN.