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March 04, 2022

Instant observations: Tyrese Maxey stars in Sixers' win over Cavs

Tyrese Maxey's 33 points led the way for the Sixers on Friday, pulling them out of a big early hole to snag a 125-119 victory over the Cavs. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It feels beyond safe to call Tyrese Maxey the third most important player on the Sixers' roster right now, because he has carried himself and produced that way since the moment James Harden entered the lineup. Whatever has been required on a given night or even a given possession, Maxey has provided it, and he came throughout once again on Friday on a night where a lot of his veteran teammates were sleepwalking.

His stint as the starting point guard for this team feels like it will ultimately pay dividends even though he's got a different set of responsibilities now. You often see him pointing guys to spots and getting them organized on offense, doing "point guard" things even without the official title. They needed that on Friday night, and they certainly needed his urgency, with Maxey giving the Sixers a necessary kick in the ass.

But Maxey flashing speed and finishing ability around the rim is really nothing new nor special. The big thing for Maxey in the early days of the Harden era is that he's routinely making catch-and-shoot threes when Harden is running the offense. Being a reliable option when the pressure converges on Harden is an absolutely massive deal for Maxey (and by extension, the Sixers) because it leaves the opponent in a no-win situation. Nobody has had an answer for him since he was joined in the backcourt by No. 1.

This game was very much in doubt heading into the fourth quarter. James Harden was in foul trouble for most of the game, and Joel Embiid sputtered through a lot of it even thought he was available for more of it. And when it was time for someone to stand up and be counted, it was Maxey who took the ball and told everybody else to get the hell out of the way. His older teammates were happy to let him — after hitting a monster three coming around a Joel Embiid screen midway through the fourth, he stared down Kevin Love in isolation and hit a stepback right in his eye. Cold-blooded.

I don't know what the long-term holds for young Maxey, but I can tell you what I see night after night. He is a gamer, a 21-year-old who has earned respect and sometimes deferral from players with much longer resumes and longer lists of accolades than he has. That doesn't happen if you don't show them you are capable of at least flashes of greatness, and those are starting to become more frequent for him. This has been a hell of a week for him.

• When James Harden was actually on the floor, he certainly made a difference for the Sixers on Friday night. The Cavs were throwing multiple guys at him on almost every single possession with Harden on-ball, and he leaned heavily on the behind-the-back pass to get the ball away from pressure, finding Philadelphia shooters for some absolutely wide-open shots.

The low volume of shots Harden had through three quarters was a tad misleading, in that it left out the possessions where Harden generated contact and put himself on the line. In the first half, Harden and Joel Embiid earning trips to the free-throw line was basically the only thing stopping this game from turning into a blowout. Philadelphia needed the game to slow down — or for their own pace to pick up, but that's another matter entirely — to take the Cavs out of rhythm after an insane start to the game.

There was a lot of complaining from neutrals about Harden and Embiid engineering free throws after an opening weekend of charity stripe dominance, but this was a game where it felt more like Harden was making sure he got there. When the Cavs switched on defense, he had defenders reaching and slapping every which way trying to stop him, and Harden made sure to highlight every last one of those for the officials, even if he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar on a couple of occasions.

You could argue there was no bigger play in this game than Harden's four-point play in the third quarter, a made three that drew a flagrant foul on Evan Mobley for crowding his landing zone. After the free throw and a bucket from Georges Niang on the ensuing possession, the game had swung by six points, and a crowd desperate for a reason to get loud suddenly went into overdrive. 

Being able to run the offense through Harden and Embiid in crunch time is also such a blessing for this team. The Sixers played two-man game for most of the final stretch, and whoever had the mismatch was given the green light to go to work. This is light years ahead of the crunch-time offense they've had here for, well, basically any time following the Allen Iverson era.

• Georges Niang was one of the big winners of the James Harden trade on paper, and he is living up to that billing in practice. He has to feel like a kid in a candy score when Harden motions in his direction to come set a screen, because teams are just gift-wrapping him open threes at the moment.

But just ask Tobias Harris — getting open looks is not all that matters. You have to be prepared to let it go when it comes your way, and more importantly, you have to make the damn shots. Niang is absolutely thriving, and Rivers smartly decided to give him a chance to close with Philly's remaining four starters, putting him in Thybulle's place. I suspect you might see some more of that in the future, because a trustworthy shooter is going to pay dividends next to Embiid and Harden.

• For whatever issues Joel Embiid had in this game, the simple fact remains that the Cavs have no chance of guarding him in one-on-one situations. Jarrett Allen has been barbecue chicken when Embiid has had him on the block throughout his career, and while Evan Mobley has been one of the most impactful defensive rookies in recent memory, he's not in the same weight class (or even close) as Philly's MVP candidate. Embiid was getting position, putting his shoulder into one of Cleveland's bigs, and moving them roughly five feet back the second he got the ball.

The shame of it is, he ended up spending a lot of time on the perimeter in this game, missing some late-clock threes from the trail position after the offense bogged down elsewhere. We'll get to his negatives below, but at the very least, it's refreshing to see the Sixers win games where they don't get anything close to Embiid's best.

The Bad

• I was slightly concerned that Joel Embiid was going to leave the post and punch Tobias Harris if he ignored him posting up one more time. For whatever effort issues he had on defense in the first half, Embiid made a concerted effort to establish position on the block and take advantage of the Cavs when they were scrambling in transition. Unfortunately, there were a lot of possessions where Harris (or other Sixers players) either refused to pass Embiid the ball or never looked his way in the first place.

Harris not giving the ball to Embiid on a possession late in the first half was defensible in one way — running down the clock made some sense there, but you can do that with the ball in the hands of your best player. When the ball didn't come Embiid's way, the big man flailed his arms in disgust, waltzing over to the corner until Tyrese Maxey joined him on the strong side, with Embiid posting Evan Mobley up again before getting the ball and scoring an and-one at the hoop.

Post-entry passing is a skill, and not everybody on the Sixers possesses it, let's put it that way. I wonder what game Embiid's trainer happened to be watching when he sent this tweet out on Friday night:

A huge mystery.

• Has a team ever been as vexed by zone as the Sixers have been over the last half-decade or so? Different coaches, different players, and still we have to sit through the Sixers barfing all over themselves when a team isn't playing some form of man defense.

Speed of decision-making has basically always been the problem, and it continues to be an issue with this group. They continue to find gaps in the zone and then hand the advantage they were able to create right back to the defense, pump faking or passing out of their opening.

Mercifully, the ball movement was good for Philly throughout most of this one, so they were able to get clean looks all night and ended up powering through Cleveland's attempt to muddy up the game. 

• Tobias Harris has to make some open threes, man. His efficiency relative to his current quality of attempt is absolutely disgusting. I suspect he won't shoot this poorly all year, but he better get used to a catch-and-shoot-heavy role. 

The Ugly

• Philadelphia's opening quarter was one of the worst defensive efforts from the Sixers all season. It'll likely go down as one of the worst for any team this season, but even if we don't want to go that far, it was unacceptable on several levels and put them in a giant hole to open the game against a good Cavs team.

They did not have the required effort to match Cleveland's intensity to start this one, and they should have expected the Cavs to come in hungry after waxing them in a recent meeting. "Young team looks to prove themselves" is a tale as old as time, and Harden's addition to the team only adds to the juice other teams are coming in with.

The Cavs came in ready to play fast, and the Sixers were ready to just sort of stand around and watch guys go by them. Pick a guy in the starting lineup and they either got absolutely roasted or couldn't be bothered to care. Darius Garland had Matisse Thybulle spinning in circles trying to keep up with him. Isaac Okoro is one of the worst offensive starters in the entire league, and he routinely bullied Tyrese Maxey, taking advantage of the size discrepancy.

If we want to feature somebody on the lowlight reel, though, it has to be Joel Embiid, who probably had his single worst defensive stretch of the season. He did not hide his disinterest in the game very well, running at half-speed through a lot of possessions and not even jumping on a decent number of scoring plays in his vicinity. When he got touches on the other end, Embiid was one of the only Sixers players who looked remotely competent on offense, but that wasn't quite enough to make up for the tire fire on the other end. Embiid has earned rightful praise leading by example the last two seasons, but this was simply not good enough from him.

The Sixers would eventually pull out of their funk, ramping up the effort as the game wore on. But if you're going to faceplant against zone on one end, you have to actually give a damn on the other.

• Matisse Thybulle checking into the game for the final 10 seconds of defense in the first half is a coaching move from Doc Rivers I support. Matisse Thybulle immediately picking up a foul in that situation is the type of hare-brained shit that would get another rotation player thrown into the shadow realm instead of the starting lineup. The guy you are relying on to be the No. 1 perimeter defender on the roster can't make as many stupid decisions as he does. 

• Darius Garland is a hooper, man. Love watching that kid work.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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