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November 25, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid nears triple-double, leads Sixers past Thunder

The Sixers' two best players gave them vintage performances Saturday afternoon.

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Embiid 11.25.23 Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid is making another strong MVP case with his recent play.

The Sixers finished up a quick road trip Saturday night when they visited the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder, armed with exciting young talent and led by superstar guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Here is what stood out from the Sixers' 127-123 win:

Joel Embiid asserts his dominance over Chet Holmgren early

Thunder center Holmgren has had a fantastic, historic rookie season so far. He represents one of the league's brightest young stars. His only issue: he gives up almost 75 pounds to Embiid. As soon as the game started, the NBA's reigning MVP went right to work against the 207-pounder. 

Embiid took seven shots and five free throws in the first quarter, but the vast majority of them came in just the first few minutes. Guarding Embiid was too obvious of an impossibility for Holmgren, and so the Thunder quickly brought reserve big-man Jaylin Williams into the game. Williams is not an ideal Embiid defender, either, but is at least capable thanks to greater strength and size. Williams also knocked down a pair of early threes to help Oklahoma City recover after a major Sixers run began the game.

Nic Batum shows his all-around prowess in the first quarter... again

Batum did everything the Sixers could have possibly asked of him early on in this one. He knocked down a triple, grabbed three rebounds and dished out as many assists. On top of that, he defended Gilgeous-Alexander and did a respectable job doing so, including blocking a shot. 

Batum's combination of shooting versatility, passing, defense and situational awareness make him a brilliant role player, who time and time again is proving that he has quickly become an invaluable piece for this Sixers team, someone who must be kept around for the rest of the season and used as a critical part of the team's rotation. He has very much earned his starting spot, which he will almost surely keep whenever Kelly Oubre Jr. returns from his rib fracture — which may be happening in the next week or so.

Embiid's passing shines in first half

Embiid had five assists in the first half alone, continuing to make astounding leaps as a passer and facilitator as his breakout season in that department continues.

Embiid's primary ability that enables him to be such a good passer is, ironically, his scoring. Because of his sheer dominance as an interior threat, like what he showed in the opening minutes of the game, teams are required to send multiple bodies at him on just about every touch. 

That has always been the case. But what has changed is how Embiid has learned to capitalize on this. He once would simply try to brute force his way through double-teams, which led to turnover after turnover after turnover. Now, he knows how to read defenses, manipulate them with his eyes and actions, and in turn set up his teammates with great looks.

Embiid is a brilliant thinker of the game of basketball, which makes it not too much of a surprise that he has been able to become an excellent passer. But that doesn't make it any less impressive or impactful. He has largely mastered the art of offensive basketball.

Nick Nurse sticks with Marcus Morris Sr.

The Sixers' head coach surprisingly started Morris at center in Embiid's absence in Minnesota Wednesday night, and while the Sixers did not win, Morris gave his coach a solid showing. His defense was poor, per the usual, but he displayed the shot-making ability that makes him a viable option to play in theory. Morris was able to take advantage of Minnesota's relative immobility by popping to the perimeter for jumper after jumper.

Despite some very strong recent showings from Jaden Springer, Nurse opted to stick with Morris in Oklahoma City against a guard-heavy, perimeter-oriented team. This seemed like an ideal spot for Springer, who could have taken a crack at Gilgeous-Alexander.

Tyrese Maxey bounces back

Since his brilliant 50-point display back on November 12th, Maxey had been in somewhat of a rut, not shooting over 40 percent from the field in a single game since then, a six-game stretch. Maxey was still shooting the ball decently from beyond the arc, but on the interior could not get going like he usually does.

Saturday evening, he was able to turn things around, scoring at every level with ease and frequently getting to the free throw line. It was a welcomed sight for a player who likely needed the extra day off that the Sixers received. Maxey entered the day leading the NBA in minutes played per game, and has yet to miss a game. While his stamina is remarkable, everybody is human, and the enormous workload likely impacted him to some extent.

Normalizing Maxey's workload at some point should be a priority, but it may not be doable until the Sixers add another reliable ball-handler. The backup ball-handler spot likely remains their biggest hole, as the only player they have there is Patrick Beverley, who has underperformed to a major extent on offense this season.

In any case, Maxey's resurgence was a boon for the Sixers, who rode strong showings from him and Embiid to the finish line.