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March 03, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers overwhelmed by Mavericks shooting display

The Dallas Mavericks shot the lights out and handed the Sixers a 133-126 loss on the road, with a late Tyrese Maxey run coming too late to change the result of this game.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers entered the fourth quarter of Thursday's game down 110-91, short on answers and low on hope on the second half of a back-to-back. One of the men on the floor, Jalen McDaniels, had somehow committed four fouls in 30 seconds prior to the third quarter ending. Most people had either turned this game off or started filing their recaps early, and I definitely, certainly wasn't part of either contingent.

A funny thing happened to open the fourth — Tyrese Maxey took an all-bench group and immediately went on a 13-0 run to open the period. A game that looked gone was suddenly in play, and I'm not sure there's any reason or person to point to except for Maxey. 

Maxey's heater basically came out of nowhere, the Sixers drowning in a sea of made Mavericks threes before he came in and punched them right in the mouth. There was an and-one finish at the rim early, a steal that led to a McDaniels finish through contact in transition, a stepback three 30 seconds after that McDaniels finish, and then one of the most absurd shots I have seen from No. 0 all year, with Maxey taking a runner from midrange that hit the rim, kissed the top of the backboard, and eventually fell into the hoop, cutting Dallas' lead to four points, capping off a 17-0 run for the Sixers.

This is why when Maxey struggles, the entire fanbase loses their minds and says things like "Doc Rivers is ruining Maxey!" This kid is so damn good when he's on that you begin to understand he's one of the most important pieces they have in their push for a title. Embiid is capable of long, sustained runs as a scorer, and Harden is something close to an offensive genius, but Maxey is the guy who can light up a game quicker than all of them, pulling a blinding scoring run out of thin air even if it only takes a couple of minutes to put it together.

This has not been the easiest season for Maxey, who dealt with his first major injury as a pro and then had to figure it out as a reserve as Doc Rivers tried to ride a lineup that was working with De'Anthony Melton in his place. He has been open about the mental ups and downs and the toll this weird season has had on him, and so regardless of where he is in the lineup, it is great to see him battling through adversity. He was a bright light late in this game, and that helped put some shine on what was otherwise a rough night.

• The game ended, and that was the best thing for Philadelphia. 

The Bad

• It's the moment so many Sixers fans have been waiting for. Tyrese Maxey is a starter again, or at the very least, he was a starter on Thursday night with the full lineup available. So of course, Doc Rivers decided to go back to Maxey on a night where he was forced to guard Kyrie Irving. A very soft landing zone for No. 0.

I definitely understand the argument that Maxey is going to have to defend guys like that to hang in playoff games, so you might as well see what it looks like in tough regular-season games. But man, you probably need to give a guy just a little bit of lead-in to gear up for that sort of matchup. It was as ugly as you might have expected early in this game, with Irving hitting four of his first five shots and Maxey either flailing at air or not particularly close to Irving as he rose up to score.

To be fair to both Maxey and Rivers, though, it's not like anybody else was better at containing Irving. When De'Anthony Melton got his chance later in the first half, Irving cooked him just as bad as Maxey, using hesitation moves, elite touch, and pull-up shooting to run Melton ragged, and the Mavs went into halftime leading an absolute shootout, with Irving and Luka Doncic combining for 45 first-half points. Yikes!

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it got even worse in the second half. Rather than having Embiid sit more frequently in drop, they either brought him up to the level or had him hedge even harder, hoping to force the ball out of the hands of Luka Doncic. When they were able to get it out of his hands, the Sixers either didn't make the extra rotation or the initial positioning wasn't good enough, leading to a parade of open threes for the Mavericks in the corners.

Let's take a quick detour before we come back to this point...

• This game, folks, was a defense-optional affair. And if you're locked in a battle that looks like it will require 130 points to win, there are many worse players to have on the floor than James Harden right now. Dallas jettisoned most of their toughness on the wing in the process of acquiring Kyrie Irving, and for a half, Harden capitalized on it.

It feels like I am writing a version of this sentence every night, but Harden is locked in as a shooter, and that is eating away at any hope teams might have to slow him down. With Harden on the mend last season, there were times when you could sag off of him a bit and dare him to win as a shooter, cutting off many of his driving lanes as a result. There's no chance to do that right now, with his stepback jumper working and his catch-and-shoot comfort at an all-time high. With Luka Doncic cooking Philadelphia for most of the first half, Harden kept pace with the player many have compared to a younger Harden. Even when Dallas played decent defense against him, Harden found a way to can tough shots over tight contests, shooting Philadelphia out of tough situations.

A double-double was locked up for Harden at halftime, which is a hilarious thing to write and a perfect summation of his all-encompassing impact on offense right now. Harden's fingerprints are on basically everything good the Sixers do on offense, from the clean looks Embiid gets at the elbow to their best transition possessions, Harden always finding the leak-outs and flanking teammates surrounding him. For once, the Sixers were able to pull off the transition dropoff to Joel Embiid, after Harden has picked up several fouls trying to execute a variation of this sequence:

Unfortunately, Harden cooled after halftime, and as good he was on offense, he was stone-cold stupid on defense for most of the night. I don't use that word lightly, because I think Harden's game intelligence is one of the reasons he's such a great playmaker (and maybe even part of why he has high-profile failures in the playoffs, a perpetual overthinker). But he wasn't using his noggin at all in this one, and perhaps he simply didn't have the energy to dial it up. Watching him stray away from a guy like Reggie Bullock, whose only real purpose is to hang on the perimeter and shoot threes, did not exactly light my soul on fire.

Trying to pin this all on Harden, though, would be just as bad as pinning it on Maxey starting. Another detour...

 Joel Embiid got the night off on Wednesday as he deals with foot soreness, leaving him fresher than the rest of the group heading into this one. And against a Mavericks team ill-equipped to guard him, Embiid looked like the MVP-caliber guy he has been all year... if we were only considering offense.

Despite taking some grief from Shaq and Charles Barkley at halftime, I thought this game was a great blend of all that makes Embiid great at scoring the basketball. While he sprinkled in the usual diet of midrange jumpers, which he can and should unleash as often as he wants, Embiid also sensed the opportunity to simply drive defenders off of their spots and out of his way. Save for one misstep, where he got called for an offensive foul while using his off-arm in the paint, he played physical while playing completely within the rules. Embiid used his shoulders masterfully, shielding MAvericks players from getting near the ball as he either drew reach-in fouls or drove unencumbered toward the hoop.

And yet, like Harden, Embiid was basically drawing dead on defense, though a night like this sort of illustrates that Embiid can only do so much on that end if his buddies are getting cooked. Called into help many times with Irving and Doncic penetrating too easily, Embiid leaving the paint forced their "low man" to slide into the paint, vacating the corner that Dallas hit with ease all night. Snappier rotations elsewhere might have prevented those looks, but Embiid didn't have a ton of chances to stop the bleeding on defense.

(Every time he got Doncic on a switch, it felt like Doncic hit a ridiculous stepback jumper. There were a lot of ridiculous stepback jumpers in this game.)

Now back to where we were up top...

• Here's the reality of Thursday night's game: the Sixers did not help themselves at all on defense, and Dallas also shot the hell out of the ball, punishing a weary team on the second half of a back-to-back. Their early decisions, whether you're talking about starting lineups, defensive coverage, who they helped (or didn't help) off of, all of that stuff gave Dallas a chance to get rolling. But there was definitely a point where this thing was simply out of their hands, the Mavericks absolutely losing their minds and burying video game shots after getting into an absurd zone.

I tweeted this during the game and want people to think about it for a moment:

I'm not saying that excuses errors in gameplan, execution, or effort, but I do think we take for granted how ridiculous the NBA schedule can be at times. It's okay to just toss this one out and move on, it doesn't have to mean more than a single defeat on the NBA calendar. The furious fourth-quarter rally was a good effort, all things considered.

• Georges Niang is as cold as the Arctic Circle right now, and when that is the case, there's just no justification to put him on the floor. A night after he chose to give Niang his first DNP in a while, Rivers opted to go right back to him against Dallas, a curious decision when you consider that Dallas' current strengths are on offense.

On the one hand, no real reason to crush the head coach for using all of his bench guys on the second half of a back-to-back, and Niang has earned the right to play through some struggles with a ton of awesome shotmaking this season. But he is a tough watch when he's struggling to make threes, slow and plodding on defense with nowhere to hide.

• P.J. Tucker has been in a great run of form recently but he had absolutely no chance against Luka Doncic in this game. 

• I know he only got on the floor because Paul Reed picked up three quick fouls in the first half, but I truly thought we were done with Montrezl Harrell for the season. Not so fast, friend.

The Ugly

• With the Sixers still (kind of) in the game with under two minutes left, Joel Embiid just stood under the rim and watched Josh Green go up and get the ball, fortunate that he did nothing with the opportunity.  

• Jalen McDaniels committed four fouls between the 1:06 mark of the third quarter and the :26 mark of the third quarter. That is borderline impossible. Paul Reed is laughing 

• Jason Kidd's challenge in the first half is maybe the worst I've ever seen in a game. A first-quarter challenge on an obviously correct call? Brutal. The funny part was Kidd challenging ostensibly to save Luka from his second foul, only to leave Luka in the game with his second foul after the unsuccessful challenge. Why bother?

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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