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March 01, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers bully Heat despite late Joel Embiid scratch

The Sixers are now 9-4 without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

The Sixers got a terrific Tyrese Maxey performance and inspired play from their bench in a 119-96 win over the Heat, beating up on Miami despite the absence of Joel Embiid.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If you wanted to see something different, Doc Rivers gave you something different. With Georges Niang stuck in a bad shooting slump, Rivers made the call to leave him on the bench in service of some different bench groupings. And the results were...pretty damn good? At the very least, it gave us something elseto talk about than whether Niang was making shots or not.

I advocated for some playing time for Danuel House Jr. the other night, not because I think he's anything special but because the Sixers need to prepare some more defense-first lineups on the bench if Niang (I repeat) can't make shots in the playofffs. During his stints on Wednesday night, you can see exactly why House is hard to rely on, with the veteran wing swinging wildly between "coast to coast layup" and "massive miscommunication leading to an open layup." That said, you could certainly see the difference it made to have multiple athletes playing with bench groups, and the Sixers were flying around contesting just about everything with the McDaniels/House combo at the 3/4 spots.

The trickle-down of starting Tyrese Maxey and leaving him in to run things himself for a bit meant that we got a look at what could be if Rivers decided to change things in the rotation. Philadelphia's lineup to open the second quarter was a Reed/McDaniels/House/Milton/Harden group, and that eventually turned into Reed and McDaniels alongside a Harden/Melton/Milton combo. In either case, it puts Harden in a spot where he's playing alongside a decent-shooting group (Reed aside) without sacrificing athleticism or the ability to get stops.

(While we're on the subject, anyone who is a "Maxey needs to start" truther had to feel vindicated watching Wednesday's game. The Sixers were able to get him a handful of open looks to open the game with a spread-out floor and the team sharing the basketball, and he got rolling early as a result, helping Philadelphia stay in this game while their defense waited to catch up. We'll get to him in a moment.)

A game without Embiid could have easily been seen as an excuse to trot out the same old stuff and the lineup combinations they know, shrugging your shoulders if they failed or if the Sixers lost. I thought it was important that they instead used that opportunity to tinker with combinations they could end up needing down the road, and I'm interested to see if Niang ends up getting more DNPs. You love having his shooting, and Embiid loves having a sweet-shooting four next to him in bench lineups, but this was a look at a different world.

Not a misprint — the Sixers won the second quarter by a margin of 37-15. That's hard to do with a fully healthy team, let alone one without your star.

• Coming off of a great second half against the Heat on Monday night, Maxey was given a chance to start in a very small Sixers lineup to open the game. And boy, did he take advantage of the opportunity.

After the aforementioned hot start to the game, it took a while for Maxey to put himself at the center of the story again. But his pace was a critical part of their success all night long regardless of whether he was scoring or not — even when Maxey didn't score himself in transition, his leak-outs that Harden hit stretched the Heat badly in transition, leading to good looks for teammates a pass or two away.

Of course, Maxey had plenty of time to shine in this game. Pick your favorite highlight — was it this absurd lefty finish through contact at the hoop...

...or Maxey coming to a dead stop at the top of the key before canning a beautiful stepback jumper?

You can't really go wrong with either choice. Whether or not he should start is a different conversation, one we can have soon, but it has been great seeing him looking like himself the last couple of games, and the Sixers are simply a different team when confident Maxey is prowling the floor, leaving hopeless defenders in his wake.

• Harden is putting the finishing touches on what will probably go down (a big slump aside) as his best shooting season ever. His stepback jumpers have come roaring back after a down season last year, and with increased comfort as a catch-and-shoot guy — an adjustment that has been underrated outside of Philadelphia — Harden has turned into the constant perimeter threat they were hoping to get when they acquired him.

The Heat had basically no choice but to play up on Harden all night. On the rare opportunity where they afforded him space, he was comfortable pulling up and drilling a three before they had realized their error. Poor finishing inside the arc doesn't loom as large when you're on a roll from deep, and Harden was on Wednesday.

It wasn't the only way Harden put pressure on the Heat in this game. Free to run as hard and fast as they wanted to without Embiid to think about, the Sixers used every Miami miss as an excuse to tear up the floor, and Harden continues to thrive in his role as a hit-ahead surgeon. Flanked by runners all night, Harden did an excellent job to suck in pressure before releasing the ball at the last minute, making sure his guy was going to get fouled or get a wide-open look in the process.

The Sixers could have probably won this game by 30+ based on their average shot quality, which is something I still ultimately give Harden credit for as the floor general. His play in the first half was a big part in breaking this game wide open, even if he tailed off.

• Paul Reed absolutely played his butt off on Wednesday night, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The Sixers were down their best player and starting center, so that made it an urgent situation by itself, but he also has to be seeing the writing on the wall. Rivers has gone to PJ Tucker as a small-ball center fairly often lately, and went with Tucker to start this game to boot. Reed must be fearing a future where he doesn't play at all.

With that backdrop in mind, Reed came into the game on Wednesday night and changed the tone for Philly. The Sixers were playing All-Star Game defense to open this one, failing to contain ballhandlers while asking P.J. Tucker or Tobias Harris to protect the rim. Reed wasn't the SWAT team captain at the rim, but his length was a difference-maker all over the floor, including on switches, where Reed was able to clamp Tyler Herro in space on multiple occasions.

You can see why some are bullish on this young man when he's able to play with discipline — Reed slides his feet well, has plenty of length, and he can bother a shooter by simply going straight up, which is the final piece he often fails at. There were no silly fouls, no jumps into opposing players, just Reed trusting that his size and athleticism is enough. If that lightbulb is on, he is an impressive defensive player with a lot to offer.

And with Reed doing the job on defense Wednesday, it gave him a ton of runway to make an impact on offense. As tends to be the case, Reed played just a little bit harder than everyone else on the floor, and the ball found that energy. That description would sell him short, though, because Reed's craft around the hoop was excellent, the young big ducking under limbs and using that wingspan to score some tough reverse layups in traffic. Look at the shake from him here off of the dribble:

(Perhaps it's most noteworthy to say Harden actually looked for him, with Reed drawing a foul after sealing Gabe Vincent in early offense on a cross-match. Reed getting his number called in that spot is not normal, regardless of the size discrepancy.)

 My faith in Reed as a playoff contributor has been dwindling, but this was a great game, and one that will buy him some goodwill from the staff and the players.

• I'm a critic of all-bench lineups the same as anybody else who watches this team, but one of the guys who suffers when they go away from them is Shake Milton, and I would argue he doesn't really deserve that. Milton has been a really underrated contributor to a really good season for Philly, and perhaps that's the best argument for changing the rotations a bit. He makes good things happen on offense, and he's at least big enough to be bothersome at the top of a zone on defense.

•  An 18 point night on great efficiency for Tobias Harris. Not worth a huge blurb after a two-point game on Monday, but a good evening nonetheless. 

The Bad

• No complaints in this one. That's as good as it gets for a road team missing their best player in Miami. 

The Ugly

• Notably, Doc Rivers was not the coach for this game, he only coaches the games that make you mad.

• This is one of my favorite plays of the season:

You honestly argue this is a high IQ play to prevent a potential Butler layup. I don't even really care if it was or not because it was hysterical either way.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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