Maxey-Blue/Dhwani Saraiya

The Sixers (18-16) visited the Brooklyn Nets (23-9) on Thursday night. Both teams intended to push their respective winning streaks to three games. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 59 points to power the Sixers past the Nets, 110-102. 

Before we get to what I saw, here’s the scene.

Contextual Notes

Danny Green, Tyler Johnson, and Myles Powell were in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and were unavailable to play for Philly.

Aaron Henry was out with a non-COVID illness.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was not with the the Sixers.

Coaches Doc Rivers, Sam Cassell, and Brian Adams entered the health and safety protocol during the day and were not on the sidelines for Philly.

Dan Burke started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Kessler Edwards was in the health and safety protocol and was unavailable for the Nets. Day’Ron Sharpe was undergoing reconditioning for return to competition after being in the health and safety protocol and was out. 

Joe Harris missed the game as he recovers from surgery on his left ankle. The unvaccinated Kyrie Irving is still ineligible to play in New York due to the state’s vaccine mandates.

Steve Nash started James Harden, Patty Mills, Kevin Durant, Nicolas Claxton, and LaMarcus Aldridge.

First Half

The Sixers leaned pretty heavily into the two-man game between Joel Embiid and Seth Curry early in the game. Philly got out in transition for 5 of the team’s first 10 points. But, an Embiid triple out of a pick-and-pop with Curry and a Maxey put-back on a Curry miss accounted for the 5 half-court points before the first timeout. Obviously, you don’t want to go away from what is working. But against a team that skews bigger like Brooklyn does, it might make sense to sprinkle in an off-ball touch when you have a small, slow guard garnering such high usage like Curry does. With Tyrese Maxey also starting in the back-court, there doesn’t need to be a significant imbalance between the two guards’ touches.

People love using the word “masterclass” on Twitter nowadays. So, I’ll use it here. Joel Embiid put on an absolute masterclass in the first quarter. And it wasn’t an overdose of jumpers. It wasn’t total finesse at the rim, either. Embiid mixed in some midrange jumpers off the dribble, a couple of threes, and leveraged his strength for a few finishes through fouls. His 16 points in 9 minutes was as dominant a showing as he’s had in a quarter all season long.

After his exchange with The Inquirer‘s Keith Pompey following a 5-point victory over the COVID-stricken Raptors on Tuesday night, Doc Rivers’ approval rating in Philly might’ve stooped to a new low. It certainly didn’t help that approval rating that the Sixers had one of their best quarters of the season — and perhaps their best first quarter of the season — as soon as Dan Burke sat in the big chair.

Second Quarter

With some never-before-seen post moves sprinkled between instances of great rim protection, Andre Drummond had a helluva re-debut in his first minutes spelling Embiid. It was perhaps the best both Embiid and Drummond had played in the same game, and the main reason Philly was able to establish separation in the first quarter and then maintain it when the former took his first break.

The Sixers would’ve easily pushed their lead to 20 in the first half if they weren’t a rebounding-challenged team. Without Ben Simmons there to swallow up loose balls that pop off the rim, the Sixers have struggled to both prevent opponents’ second-chance opportunities and create their own additional shots. As such, not only does Philly surrender some back-breaking threes off of offensive rebounds, but they also stagnate their own offense by only coming up with one shot per possession. That’s a weakness that will resolve with the conclusion of the Simmons situation if there is a conclusion to it this season. Otherwise, it’s a mortal flaw that will cost the Sixers more regular season games and knock them out come playoff time.

Philly would’ve led by more than one point at halftime if either of Tobias Harris or Seth Curry showed up to work. 3-of-16 between the two of them won’t cut it, and it was why the Sixers followed one of their best offensive quarters of the season with one of their worst offensive quarters of the season. Side note: if Furkan Korkmaz gets a look at a three and comes up woefully short, but there isn’t a defender in sight, did it really happen?

If you’re looking for a summary of the season for Embiid — who registered 22 points in the first half — and the Sixers, it was Georges Niang dialing up an open look from deep and the ball barely grazing the rim before hitting Embiid in the face. 

Third Quarter

With an assist-to-turnover ratio trending towards 2:1 this season, Embiid has begun to round his offensive game into completion. But in smoothing some of the edges, he would cut down on his turnovers and up both his scoring and free throw frequency if he kept the ball high when he attacks close-outs. He might have to mix in one dribble to cover the distance from the catch point to the basket, but he leaves the ball very low when he drives. That leaves him susceptible to helpers reaching in for slap-down strips. If Embiid simply kept the ball higher after picking up his dribble, it would make a difference.

Matisse Thybulle did just about everything he could to make things challenging for Kevin Durant, but the tricks that worked on Steph Curry simply do not affect the wiry all-world scorer. He wasn’t biting on fakes, losing Durant on close-outs, or giving up space on contests. Durant, as it turns out, is quite good at basketball. And it was more of the usual in the third quarter. You sometimes find yourself wondering whether his gift is his feathery touch, his loose feel, or his size for the forward position. All of it comes together to create something of a machine.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers opened the first frame with a beautiful touch of urgency on the defensive side of the ball, blitzing high Harden pick-and-rolls. The blitzing made Harden pause just long enough for the primary assignment to recover and prevent him from turning corners for downhill plays. Even when he did get to the rim, the Sixers met him with verticality on their contests, altering Harden’s shots at the rim.

That’s the approach you need to have when Ben Simmons isn’t there. He’s really a luxury on the defensive side of the ball because you can effectively assign him to one guy all night without having to worry about adjusting. So when he’s sitting out, you have to adjust your defensive strategy like most other teams who don’t have the Simmons luxury. Blitzing on ball screens is amongst the best defensive principles you can implement against a dynamic offensive player like James Harden. It’s also something the Sixers’ second unit has tended to do against superstar opponents when the game is close early in the fourth quarter.

Sometimes, you’re just limited to what your personnel is capable of doing. Against someone with court vision like Harden, you need to trust your back-line defenders to be in the right spots to counter passes if the handler breaks the blitz. But against a star like Jayson Tatum, you’re not as concerned about the pass. So, you might not worry as much about having the insurance behind you if that blitz is broken. That’s when you have to just concern yourself with taking away the drive from the ball-handler.

Furkan Korkmaz and Andre Drummond chose the fourth quarter — when the game hung in the balance — to tempt fate with some ridiculously fancy and risky passes. There’s a time and place, fellas! The fourth quarter of a close game against the Nets in Brooklyn — not the time and place.

As critical as anything in the fourth quarter was the Sixers winning the non-Embiid minutes between the third and fourth periods. Embiid rolled his ankle in the third quarter, and the Sixers were up 2 points when he came back. However, his rest seemed much longer than it usually is in the fourth quarter. Perhaps it was just a pronounced extension to give the ankle some extra care. If not, it was a bit of a gamble for Burke to keep Embiid on the bench as long as he did. 

Anyone who knows the Sixers knows leaving a lead in the bench’s hands is something of a lottery ticket. On Thursday, the second unit answered the bell. When Embiid and the rest of the first unit came back, the stress wasn’t about climbing back into the game. Rather, it was doing enough to outlast the opposition.

A dominant Embiid game, sure. But, the story of the fourth quarter was Tyrese Maxey. He effectively closed out a game for the first time in his career. He converted a handful of threes in the fourth quarter, along with a few other deposits in the frame. But the most important big-picture thing — Embiid looked his way and believed in Maxey. So often do we see Maxey relegated to the corner, with no one looking his way. That wasn’t the case on Thursday. Embiid was willing to open the offense up to Tyrese Maxey. And when the big fella called, the young buck answered.

Maxey didn’t cower under the spotlight. He just took what Brooklyn was willing to give him, and didn’t think twice. As simple and cliche as it sounds, Maxey trusted his preparation.

And the Sixers left Brooklyn with a win to finish a 3-0 road trip.

The Sixers (19-16) will host the Houston Rockets (10-25) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.