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March 29, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers outlast Mavericks for 50th win of the season

Behind a 25-point effort from Joel Embiid, the Sixers won their 50th game of the year and took down the Dallas Mavericks.

The Sixers rallied from a tough start to beat the Mavericks 116-108, outlasting Dallas even without their best stuff.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Maybe this says as much about the Mavericks as it does about the Sixers, but even when Philly doesn't play well this season, it rarely feels like they let themselves get boxed into an impossible spot at halftime. It's always "Well they didn't play well, but they're only down 5-10 points" when they have an off night. They've had some monster comebacks, obviously, but they haven't left themselves with that much to do most of the time.

This was a game where even a novice could probably tell that the Sixers were getting their two offensive hubs back after a bit of time apart from one another. Their only real saving grace early was, well, Joel Embiid. Big shocker there.

Philadelphia's offense had just about nothing going except for Embiid dominating Dwight Powell early in the game, and that almost worked against them, as Dallas' small ball lineups that played in the game after Powell's two early fouls were tougher to deal with. From that point forward, the Sixers didn't get a ton of possessions with Embiid against single coverage, and they needed to figure out a secondary plan of attack.

I thought the story of the second half, and thus the win, was James Harden finally finding his footing after halftime. For most of the first half, he looked like the guy we saw struggle through a loss to the Bulls last week, so much so that you had to question why he was brought back for this game in the first place. But he slowly worked his way into this one, finding some extra juice to beat defenders off of the dribble in the second half.

That ended up being the difference. Possessions that were bogging down and/or relying on the Sixers hitting contested threes in the first half turned into no-win situations for the Mavs, with Dallas often needing to fly wildly at Embiid near the elbow just to get within range to contest. He made smart decisions out of that spot, hitting some quick trigger jumpers from midrange while sharing the wealth around the perimeter.

One of those games where you're just happy to get a win without having your A+ stuff, I think. Hopefully the big two have their sea legs back.

• The duality of man as explained by Georges Niang — Philadelphia's bench sharpshooter came out with both guns blazing on the offensive end of the floor, hitting three of his first five shots from deep while making some great decisions off-the-bounce. He also committed a heinous foul at the end of the first quarter, picked up a lazy three-second violation, and...wait, he actually got stops against Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic? Do I need to get my vision checked?

Niang battled in this game, looking much closer to the man who started the year on fire than the guy he has been over the last month or so. Maybe it's as simple as Niang needing a run of home games to get his legs under him, because he certainly seems to love shooting on the rims at Wells Fargo Center. And I thought Niang did an even better job of using that threat to shoot to attack the paint, putting in a good shift as a secondary playmaker.

• I think a good measure of a true title contender is whether you have a third guy good enough to swing a game when your two best players aren't at their best. The Bucks are/have been a good example of this, depending on who you think their third best guy has been in recent years (let's just say Jrue Holiday in previous seasons).

Tyrese Maxey is very clearly Philadelphia's third guy, and though he may not be in Holiday's weight class as a two-way player, he fits the bill of what you need in that spot. The Sixers struggled to get things going early with James Harden and Joel Embiid shaking off a bit of rust, and Maxey was called upon to go to work. No sweat. For much of the opening half, the Sixers ran a lot of their offense through the Maxey/Embiid combo, even with Harden playing 19 first-half minutes.

The Mavericks found out the hard way how tough it can be to keep track of Maxey over the course of 48 minutes. He was a one-man transition attack, an exellent marksman from deep, and he made a few trips to the charity stripe, which all helped contribute to the final margin.

• Paul Reed screaming at an official for missing a foul right after the same official gave him the foul call for an and-one layup is my favorite thing that has happened this season. 

10/10, zero notes.

On a more serious note, Reed once again showed why he should be the only big outside of Embiid to get minutes on this team. Joel Embiid left this game with foul trouble with three and change to play in the third quarter, and it looked as though the Sixers could be in trouble. With Dallas spreading the floor and playing small ball for much of the period, your hope was to try to tear them apart on offense. Downgrading from Embiid to Reed seemed like it would nuke that plan.

But Reed lived up to his end of the bargain on the other end, called upon to defend switches on just about every possession. Reed staying down and not fouling while defending guys like Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic says a lot about his evolution over these last few months.

• When De'Anthony Melton makes threes, I'm not sure there is a way to stop the Sixers on offense. He's one of the guys opposing teams will probably have to hope will beat them if they leave him open in the playoffs, and as long as he has had Harden feeding him the rock, he has been awesome from outside. The dream of the three-guard lineup in big moments lives on.

The Bad

• This late in the season, it is a little concerning that the Sixers can swing so wildly between championship-level defense and pickup game level apathy. You could perhaps convince yourself that the high end is what matters in the playoffs, but I'm not so sure that's the case, as I don't think a team just sheds its habits (good or bad) because the playoffs have begun.

Transition defense has been a problem for this team for the entirety of Doc Rivers' tenure in Philadelphia, and it's always the biggest tell of where they're at as a group within a given game. There were some ugly possessions on the break in this game, including one second-half possession where JaVale McGee just ran down the middle of the floor uncontested for a dunk.

(And that might not have been the worst transition bucket conceded to a Mavericks player on Wednesday night. Two Sixers players parted like the Red Sea instead of trying to stop ball with Christian Wood leading a break, and he ended up depositing two plus the foul when it was all said and done.)

The more worrisome sign for me is how finicky their switching can be, regardless of who is on the floor. It tends to be a bigger problem for their bench units, which might have to do with the newness of guys like Jalen McDaniels in the rotation, but it's far from where it needs to be in order to beat real contenders in the playoffs.

The Ugly

• Tyrese Maxey had one of the best defensive possessions of his career against Kyrie Irving early in the second half, and within a couple of minutes had a mind-numbing sequence out of a Dallas timeout on the same end. Progress is not always (nor often) linear.

• How often do you get to see a continuation that goes through the buzzer? We all got to see a pretty rare moment at the end of the first quarter, and the Sixers gave the Mavericks a leg up on both ends of the floor to make it possible.

Running the clock down on offense at the end of the period, the Sixers rushed through their possession for no real reason, Jalen McDaniels hoisting an ill-advised shot from the corner that gave Dallas a chance to score before the end of the period. And they did just that — Josh Green rose and fired a corner three as Georges Niang fouled him at the buzzer. The fans loudly booed the idea of having a chance to score a four-point play on a shot that clearly came after the buzzer.

I think the way it was ruled made sense, though. The clock did not literally stop but should have at the moment of the foul, and the continuation essentially happened with a dead clock at 0.2, allowing Green to score the hoop and pick up an extra point at the line. The clock not stopping instantaneously is all that made it feel weird.

Direct your criticism toward the Sixers' players on this one, is what I'm saying. McDaniels took a bad shot and Niang committed an awful foul.

I would actually argue that McDaniels managed to top that moment in pure stupidity with his foul in the final moments of the third quarter. In a spot where the Sixers needed to simply let Dallas run down the clock and hoist a buzzer-beater from around halfcourt, McDaniels decided he was going to try to run through a Maxi Klieber screen in the backcourt, and I do mean "run through" literally. He would eventually pick up a flagrant one for his troubles, giving the Mavs two shots at the line and an additional possession to end the quarter.

Put it this way — I absolutely hammered Matisse Thybulle for his tendency to pick up dumb fouls during his tenure here, and the Sixers did not upgrade in that department. 

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