The Sixers (49-26) hosted the Dallas Mavericks (37-39) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Dallas wanted to build on Monday’s win over the Indiana Pacers. The Sixers won the fourth quarter handily to flip the Mavericks in crunch time, coming away with a 116-108 victory.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Mavericks were without the services of Frank Ntilikina, who has a sprained right knee.
Jason Kidd started Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, and Dwight Powell.
The Sixers were without the services of Louis King and Mac McClung, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Relative to his standards, Georges Niang has had a very rough time shooting the ball after the all-star break. I might have to die on the hill that he actually doesn’t get enough credit on defense. Of course, it isn’t dying on a hill if you actually believe it, which I do. But, I digress. The common refrain against Niang getting playing time when the shot isn’t falling is that his defense is so terrible that he’s actively harming the team.
But, no such problem tonight. He checked into the game and promptly buried a pair of threes in the first quarter to inject some life into a stalled crowd and a dead Philadelphia offense. He hit one in each of the middle two quarters, striking on four of his seven attempts in the game. It was his second and fourth hits that brought the building alive. Even if Niang is struggling to knock down shots from deep, he never stops shooting.
You might argue that that is for better or for worse. I would usually posit that it’s always for the better as long as a slumping shooter isn’t taking terrible shots when better looks are available elsewhere. I can tell you that Niang views shooting through the lens that the percentages say he’ll make one eventually. So, he’s never going to lose confidence. But, unlike many reserve microwave shooters, you can trust Niang to hit them at the most significant moments even as he battles a slump. In fact, there he was, knocking down a three from the top of the arc to tie the game near the end of the third quarter.
The Sixers were so starved of bench production after a rough road trip that anything would’ve been helpful. Niang checked in and promptly met the demand.
Philadelphia’s three-point shooting kept the game competitive when all else failed. The Sixers appeared to be in trouble in the first quarter, trailing by six points when Embiid checked out for the first time. Niang lit the fuse, burying the first two triples for the Sixers. Then, it became infectious. De’Anthony Melton soon laced one. The Sixers kept themselves within striking distance, countering every Dallas punch with three-point makes of their own. Not much else worked on offense, but the Sixers hit nine triples in the first half. That’s significant only in that it matched the Mavericks’ output.
The Sixers were out-shot from deep by 21 attempts in the loss to Golden State on Friday. The math might not always equal when you count the makes. But, you’re fighting a losing battle when the opposition takes that many more threes than you do. Despite the general offensive woes on Philadelphia’s side, they were neck and neck with the Mavericks from beyond the arc through the first 24 minutes of action. I would argue that that, by itself, was why the Sixers weren’t down by double digits at halftime.
There is mention below of how Harden’s burst wasn’t there at the start of this game. But, you saw it clearly as the game progressed. Harden absolutely dusted the likes of Maxi Kleber, Dallas’ best defender on a drive to the rim from the corner. He also blew by Powell on the other side of the floor. Combine that with the fact that he eventually found the mark from deep, and I think we can comfortably say that Harden progressively looked much better as the game went on. Any chance the Sixers have of reaching new heights in the playoffs is inextricably linked to Embiid and Harden being healthy enough if “fully healthy” isn’t possible. That Harden looked increasingly closer to the guy he’s been for the vast majority of this season was very encouraging.
Say what you will about the Mavericks, and debate whether this matchup belonged on national television if you’d like. But, this game was competitive as all hell and tight throughout. That no one Sixer stood out was symbolic of the way they closed the game. The offense junked up and sticky throughout, Embiid and Harden came together to form a two-man machine in crunch time.
It wasn’t always one or either of them getting the late-game scores, though. They spit the ball around the floor, plugging open shooters like Melton or swinging to the weak side to get a bad Dallas defense in rotation. As great and prolific a passer as Harden is, we can often characterize this offense as a two-man production in the guts of the game. It all started with those two, but possessions ended with a variety of blue jerseys contributing. It was the perfect dose of synergy to overtake a game the Mavericks controlled throughout.
Maybe there really is something to that “first game after a road trip” morass that Rivers talks about. For the entirety of the first quarter, the Sixers looked like they hadn’t played together in three months. But, the defense wasn’t the disconnect. Rather, it was the offense that looked disconnected and disjointed.
I can pardon Harden for looking a bit rusty after not having played in more than a week. His threes were way off the mark, and there was none of the playmaking touch or sense of timing around his teammates that Harden usually has. The more concerning trend was that he struggled with his burst. Harden didn’t have the snappiness between his dribble and his footwork that he usually has. So, not only could Harden not explode through the creases that Dallas’ defense gave him, but he also couldn’t create those advantages himself when the Mavericks didn’t readily give him angles to attack.
As much as you’re willing to accept a little rust after a relatively significant lay-off, the problem is that the Sixers’ offense runs through Harden when he’s on the court. If the mechanism isn’t functioning at anything near maximum capacity, that means the whole system is operating at reduced capacity.
Far too many possessions featured late offense, Harden unable to get anything going against a terrible Mavericks defense. Recognizing that no. 1 had nothing going, the Sixers tried to re-direct the ball elsewhere on the court. But, the shot clock became an enemy because of how long it took to get anything going. That also means Philadelphia didn’t get optimal looks on the shots they did get.
You saw Embiid try to make things happen late in possessions in an effort to take over the group project and save the team’s grade. But, Dallas knew that he was limited because of the lack of time. So, the Mavericks loaded up on his drives and put bodies in Embiid’s way. With Harden not ready to direct everything despite his choir waiting for his signals, everyone was forced to do a little more to correct the offensive slog.
As such, the Sixers committed a bunch of turnovers in the opening 12 minutes. There were bad passes towards the middle of the floor and strips in the lane, allowing Dallas to get out and run. There were poorly timed passes that missed their intended targets and went out of bounds. Everything the Sixers did on that end of the floor was off — energy, focus, execution, and decision-making. It put Philadelphia in a multi-possession hole throughout the first half.
The reserves added so little on the road trip that I would be willing to give the collective a passable grade for doing anything consistently well throughout this game. I still think the good can outweigh the bad in this game, but there were some terrible decisions from various reserves throughout the night.
First, there was a pair of terrible mistakes to end the first quarter. Jalen McDaniels took a corner three with six seconds left on the game clock. There’s nothing wrong with taking an open corner three, all things equal. The bad decision was that he left that much time on the clock. If he makes it, great. But, missing that shot gives Dallas a transition opportunity with a good bit of time on the clock to get a bucket.
The risk scenario was what happened. But, a fellow reserve took the downside outcome and made it 33 percent worse. Niang fouled Josh Green on a corner three at the buzzer, which he nailed for a four-point play. Shot fake or not, no reason to give body when the clock is already his biggest enemy on that particular possession. To make matters worse, the shot was late. It wouldn’t have counted if Niang hadn’t fouled him. But, the contact came before the buzzer, so the shot count.
Later in the game, McDaniels committed a flagrant one foul…in the backcourt. The Mavericks were some 60 feet away from their basket. There was no reason to make contact with enough force to warrant a flagrant that far from the basket. Just spotted Dallas a point for no reason.