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April 20, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers win wild Game 3 over Nets with multiple ejections

In spite of James Harden's ejection, the Sixers went up 3-0 on the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of the NBA playoffs' first round.

James Harden was ejected and Joel Embiid struggled on the road in Brooklyn, but the Sixers stole Game 3 with a 102-97 scoreline thanks to big-time shotmaking from Tyrese Maxey. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This game had all the makings of a letdown performance that at least gave the Nets and their fans a little bit of hope. Joel Embiid risked getting thrown out of the game early, and the more desperate Brooklyn team looked like they were willing to do whatever it took to change this series. Unfortunately, they ran into Tyrese Maxey, who sneered at the idea that he could be left alone for any period of time.

Maxey showed plenty of promise as a rookie ballhandler, including in some huge performances during that playoff runs, but he is just an entirely different weapon for Philadelphia now. The Nets have had a rough time over the last two games trying to figure out how to play him. Do you hug him close and try to prevent him from getting clean looks at threes? Or do you sag off of him, knowing his downhill speed is a big-time threat?

Brooklyn didn't find a happy medium, or even eliminate one of those threats from hurting them. With the Nets scrambling to double Embiid in the middle of the floor, Maxey just kept popping up where Brooklyn could least afford to have him. He was quick on the trigger as a shooter, nearly perfect from downtown in the first half, and he burned multiple Nets defenders who feared the shot enough to jump into the first row to contest it.

Philadelphia's inability to get him involved in the offense in the second half was a massive problem, and one of the biggest reasons they went off of a cliff after halftime. So of course, when the chips were down late in this game, No. 0 found the ball again and became Philadelphia's hero.

With the likely MVP of the league sputtering, missing shots, and struggling to find his footing, the Sixers called a timeout with 52 seconds left in the ballgame, fresh off of another effort play from P.J. Tucker. With a chance to take the lead, Maxey called his own number, hitting a contested pull-up three to push Philadelphia out in front for the first time in the fourth quarter. How's this for a star-level moment?

He has not shown an ounce of fear since making the leap to the league, and this was nothing short of a ski-mask robbery on the road in the playoffs. 

• We can try to sum this game up in a lot of different ways, but I have to start here – Joel Embiid did not show up ready for this game. This game did not play much differently than you would have expected on paper, with the Nets hungrier team in front of their home fans and down 0-2. They were going to do anything it takes to try to neutralize the talent gap between the two teams, and that includes physical play and mind games. Embiid has been around enough to understand that.

It looked at times like he was going to pull out of his early funk (and early rage, frankly) to impact this game. Even as the Nets leaned on and hacked and battered him, Embiid managed to have quite a defensive impact when he was dialed in. 

Here's the best way to sum up his value as a rim protector — Embiid made a great defensive play by not challenging a Nets driver at the rim in the first half. After flying toward the basket and looking like he was going to challenge a layup attempt, Embiid pulled out at the last moment while still triggering an up-and-under attempt that fell harmlessly to the floor. Despite Cam Johnson besting him at the summit earlier this week, the Nets are still running scared of him at the basket a lot of the time, which is why Philadelphia would like him to be able to sit in drop as much as possible.

When the Sixers needed a defensive play the most, leading by two in the final seconds of regulation, it was Embiid who came flying in out of nowhere, rescuing Tyrese Maxey as Spencer Dinwiddie attempted to score at the rim.

Had he been better early, they wouldn't have needed him that late. But hey, even a bad game featured a highlight-reel play in winning time, so take solace in that. 

P.J. Tucker has come up with so many, "Oh brother, THIS guy again?" rebounds (in a good way) in the first three games of the playoffs. He emerged from a thicket of 3-4 Nets players with an offensive rebound in the first half on a possession that must have drawn groans from the entire Brooklyn bench. 

The Sixers also had to abandon him for a big chunk of the second half because Tucker was completely out of sorts as a shooter, and Brooklyn ignored him entirely. There was a moment where you couldn't tell if he was ever going to come back into the game, and when Tucker checked back in for the stretch run, you had to hold your breath.

Tucker more than earned his spot on the floor with another flurry of offensive rebounds and effort plays down the stretch. Hell of an effort. 

• The playoffs so often come down to a series of individual matchups, with teams playing otherwise useful rotation players off of the floor by killing them for their defensive weaknesses. Philadelphia is finally a team who can play that game of hunt the bozo, but we think of that as the job of someone like Harden and maybe Maxey. In this series, Tobias Harris has been the guy often spotting the clown, laughing at Jacque Vaughn for presenting him with fresh meat.

Nets fans finally got their first extended look at Cam Thomas in this series, and you won't be shocked to learn that he is drawing dead against Harris in the mid-post. Several times on Thursday night, Harris leveraged his size and strength advantage to absolutely bury smaller Nets defenders, working his way from the block to the rim before depositing two points at the hoop.

It's one of the secondary consequences of doubling Embiid in the middle of the floor — when you're scrambling to try to make sure someone is in position to prevent easy buckets, beggars can't be choosers in matchups.

Beyond the matchup exploitation, I think Harris has pulled down more contested rebounds in this series than I have seen him grab across weeks of time during the regular season. He is playing like a guy aware of the opportunity in front of them. Good on him.

• De'Anthony Melton is the unsung hero of this game. He was put in an extraordinarily difficult situation having to fill in for an ejected James Harden, and aside from a crazy pass that he threw on a fast break that never came to fruition, I thought his activity and ability to attack a closeout were essential during this game.

The Bad

• James Harden's lack of finishing inside the arc was one of the big storylines heading into this game, with Harden boasting a ghastly 2/13 on non-threes across Games 1 and 2. If there was a silver lining to that fact, it was Harden appearing to have the juice to get by guys, which is arguably more important than some spotty games at the rim.

It would be going too far to say this was progression to the mean because there were moments when Harden coasted past a defender only to throw up a horrible-looking attempt around the basket. But Harden's isolation talents were a huge part of Philadelphia pulling out in front in the first half, with Harden turning to an unfamiliar pal to get there.

Mid-range shooting has never really been a part of Harden's arsenal, but he arrived at the start of the season with a greater willingness to lean on two-point jumpers. Harden got a few of those to go down during the first half, and that seemed to settle him down, with Harden slowly working his way into the game.

Emphasis on "slowly" — the biggest issue with Harden in this game was spending way too much time killing the clock early, leaving the veteran guard with a lot to do at the end of possessions. He came up big for them quite often, but having to walk the tightrope was a problem of his own doing, and arguably ended up doing more harm than his off-the-dribble creation could make up for. 

And then, well, there was the ejection, which we'll get to in a moment.

The Ugly

• The officials for Thursday's game showed a lot of mercy to Joel Embiid in the first quarter. Nic Claxton standing over Philadelphia's star center after a tangle was certainly worth a technical foul for instigating, but everything that happened from there was on Embiid. Rather than letting Claxton pass by or have a teammate handle the situation, Embiid kicked at Claxton, with both teams quickly circling around the pair before the officials went to the review board.

We were not able to hear the explanation from Tony Brothers in the arena, but I was convinced he was going to spend the rest of the game in street clothes away from the floor after that one. All the superlatives we've heard about Embiid — that he's a better leader, that he's more mature, and so forth – disappeared in a moment when they needed those things to matter the most.

Would I have done the same thing in that situation? Absolutely. But I also don't get paid millions upon millions of dollars to lead a professional basketball team. Nobody cares what I would do at LA Fitness.

• I won't lie, on the first couple of replays I saw of Harden's offensive foul late in the third quarter, I wasn't even sure I saw a foul there. It became a bit clearer with alternative angles that Harden had hit Royce O'Neale with a shot to the midsection, and on first glance, a flagrant one would have felt like a fair punishment.

Outright ejecting Harden with a flagrant two foul felt like a wild overreaction, and the only way you could really justify it would be to say it was a make-up call for allowing Embiid to stay in the game in the first half. We'll wait to see what the pool report says after this one because it's going to be a doozy.

• On the other side of Embiid annoyances, the one I won't fault him for was all the mini-injury scares throughout this game. First was the grabbing at his back after a shot there from Nic Claxton, then came a series of spills to the unforgiving hardwood that felt worse and worse the deeper we got into this game. Perhaps that's because everyone's nerves are frayed with him after years of playoff injuries, but either way, it was rough watching him grab and grimace and 

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