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March 18, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Pacers for eighth-straight win

The Sixers continue to jockey for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

The Sixers ripped the Pacers' defense to shreds in a 141-121 beatdown of Indiana, winning a road back-to-back despite the absences of James Harden and P.J. Tucker.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Doubling and over helping on Joel Embiid is a strategy that might have baited him into poor decisions and a lot of ugly turnovers in the recent past. This game felt like a showcase of his evolution — rather than trying to simply bulldoze through traffic and do everything himself, Embiid moved the ball where the Pacers weren't, punishing Indiana for trying to win by loading up on one guy.

The Pacers made the terms of engagement clear from the opening tip, sending double (and sometimes triple) teams at Embiid to try to get the ball out of his hands. Zone defense was another tool in their arsenal, another tactic meant to prevent him from getting (or keeping) the ball in his hands. Save for a moment at the end of the first half, which featured an absurd Embiid coast-to-coast adventure that closed with a spin move and a Pacers foul, this game was all about the big man trusting the guys around him. 

While he only ended up with four assists at halftime, it felt like he could have been in double-digit territory with slightly better shotmaking from his teammates. It's one thing to make the correct reads when the correct options are right in front of you, but Embiid increasingly senses where the trouble is coming from before it gets there, and where the ball needs to go in order to deal with that problem. The Pacers simply could not figure out a coherent plan to deal with him, because every time it looked like they closed off an opportunity, he was ready to point out just how wrong they were.

Out of the halftime tunnel, the Pacers mixed up their coverages some, allowing Embiid to play more frequently against single-coverage in the third quarter. That, as it turns out, was not exactly a winning formula for Indiana. Having been held to "only" 15 points at halftime, Embiid would close the third quarter with 31, surpassing his first half total in just 12 minutes. It was basically a highlight reel of his season to date, with Embiid using pull-up jumpers and shoulder shimmies and every trick in his bag to tilt the floor in his favor. 

Rarely has a team looked as helpless at the Pacers did in this game, and keep in mind that they were defending a Sixers team missing James Harden.

It increasingly feels like Embiid has made the final evolution a star player can make, with his ability to read and control a game mentally matching his significant skill and physical gifts. It's at that moment that many players make the leap to title-winning star, applying the lessons of their failure to rise to the top of the NBA heap. We're a long way from knowing if that applies to Embiid, but the signs are there.

• Serving as the lead ballhandler has not always worked out in Tyrese Maxey's favor during his few seasons in the league, which was part of why Maxey as the bench captain went through such dramatic ups and downs in the winter months this season. But the Sixers needed him to step up and lead with James Harden out on Saturday night, and Maxey rose to the occasion, scoring 22 first-half points as the Pacers loaded up on Philly's MVP in the middle of the floor.

Sometimes I wonder if teams have updated their scouting reports on Maxey in the years since he entered the league. Though his pace is a big weapon, some guys approach a Maxey matchup as if they are safe sagging off of him a bit from the three-point line, blissfully unaware that he is willing and able as a pull-up threat. And once the Pacers handed Maxey a clean look or two to start the game, one shot turned into a Maxey barrage.

Maxey's blend of shooting, speed, and youth makes a big scoring run for the kid feel a lot different than Embiid and Harden explosions, even though those two have authored bigger and "better" scoring outbursts over the years. He attacks you early in the clock before your defense is set, whizzing past defenders for off-balance makes off of the backboard, and then he settles into a spot in the corner or the wing, waiting out most of a shot clock before banging a catch-and-shoot three on the late swing pass. It feels sped up and slowed down all at once, with his ability to succeed at multiple speeds driving his success in the league.

Indiana came into this game with a clear desire to make someone other than Embiid beat them, an understandable approach given his run of form and his history of destroying Myles Turner. What the Pacers forgot to do in the process was cover Maxey — when Turner would hug close to Embiid in pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, Maxey was a bolt of lightning, flashing through space and capitalizing on the reverence Indy showed for his teammate.

• De'Anthony Melton is one of the weirdest guards in the league in both good and bad ways. He can hang with elite wings defensively but can't seem to make transition layups. He is a brilliant off-ball defender whose intelligence does not always hold up on the other end of the floor. But he's in just about the perfect spot on this Sixers team — asked to do plenty but not required to do too much.

Thrust into a bigger role with Harden on the shelf for Saturday's game, Melton was absolutely terrific. He has had good games in recent weeks, but this is the first time in a while that Melton moved into ball-seeking octopus mode on the defensive end. If he wasn't bullying T.J. McConnell on the ball, he was flashing into the right spots away from the play, always in a spot to make a difference. 

Six steals in three quarters is, well, almost impossible to manage, but Melton did it without ever looking out of control or getting overly adventurous as a defender. Transition offense continued to be a bit of a mixed back for Melton, but when you cause as many turnovers as he did in this game, you afford yourself some room to fail on the break. 

Seriously though, what did McConnell do to Melton in the past? When somebody beats up one specific guy this badly, it almost feels personal.

• Tobias Harris was able to get more touches and plays called for him, and he played better. Sometimes, you don't really need to dig that deep with X's and O's.

It wasn't a hot start for Harris in this game, with the veteran forward missing an open shot or two early and coming down some from his bounce-back outing in Charlotte. But the Sixers didn't go away from him, and they managed to find space in the offense to get Harris designed looks in the mid-post against smaller defenders. That seemed to get him going a bit, and on top of that, the Pacers took a silly foul or two trying to prevent entry passes to Harris around the basket.

With the confidence flowing, Harris would go on to knock down a few threes before this one was wrapped up, padding Philadelphia's second-half advantage by being ready for Embiid's kick outs from the middle of the floor. Embiid getting to rest in the fourth quarter was far from guaranteed, with the Sixers struggling in the minutes without him in the first half. Harris ended up being essential to buying the big man more rest at the end of the game, adding some more scoring at the start of the fourth to keep this game out of reach.

It's good to see him bouncing back, as it looked like he might never have a good game again for a while there.

• It's just the Pacers without Tyrese Haliburton, but a win in this game is no less important than a win in a marquee game between now and the end of the season. Winning a road back-to-back without Harden — and doing it without ever breaking a sweat — is the sort of thing a real contender should be expected to do. We might honestly be past the point of needing to point this out, as the Sixers have earned at least a little benefit of the doubt at this point. They are playing great basketball heading down the stretch, and doing so no matter what the circumstances are night to night. 

Hell, the Sixers even look good when they turn things over to young players and backups in garbage time. Paul Reed was putting down reverse slams and running the floor hard until the very end of the game. Got to love that dude.

The Bad

• I don't care that the Pacers were missing Tyrese Haliburton, there's no real room for complaining about a performance like this on a back-to-back while missing your second star. They absolutely dismantled Indiana on offense. Savor it.

The Ugly

• Jalen McDaniels returned to the lineup on Saturday night, and what started as a welcome sight quickly turned into, "Oh, he's actually playing?" You could tell that the lingering hip issue was holding McDaniels back a bit, as the best way I could describe his movement against the Pacers is "stiff." He still showed off some decent vertical explosion and got to the right spots with off-ball movement, but it looked like a chore for him to do so.

The good news is that he looked a bit sprier as the game wore on. Maybe it did just take a bit for him to get loose and get right out there. You hope that's the case, as they don't need to be rushing anyone back this late in the season for a relatively uneventful regular season game.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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