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March 28, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers' late comeback falls short vs. Nuggets

The Sixers battled hard without Joel Embiid and James Harden, but a late comeback bidwasn't enough in Philly's 116-111 loss to the Nuggets.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Every time you think you should simply write off the Sixers because they have absences at the heart of their lineup, you should make sure to check if Tyrese Maxey is playing or not. It may not be an "equalizer" to have No. 0 available with Joel Embiid and/or James Harden out, but when he is called upon to be the center of attention in shorthanded groups, it feels like Maxey always has something extra in the tank to offer for his team.

Monday night in Denver, the state of Philadelphia's lineup was bad enough to inspire a lot of fans to go to bed early in lieu of watching this one. Everyone who decided to give this game a shot was treated to a fireworks display from Maxey. Despite the Nuggets throwing everything at him, using any resource they could to keep him down, Maxey kept killing them, using that blinding speed to keep his team close throughout the night.

20 second-quarter points for Maxey are the most points he has ever scored in a single game during his career, and they needed them, with the game looking like it was on the verge of turning into a blowout as the Nuggets turned to their bench. The Nuggets either couldn't or wouldn't keep up with him throughout this game — he hit Michael Porter Jr. with a nasty stepback into a three, scooted past an ambivalent Nikola Jokic on his way to the rim, and used body language to send defenders whiffing at air inside the arc, somehow finding space at the rim even after lanes appeared closed off.

One of the freeing things for Maxey in this style of game is that he doesn't have to think for a second about what the big dogs want or how they want to play. This is his show, his pace, his time to shine. When Maxey wanted to run, the Sixers flew up the floor. When he wanted to matchup hunt, that was his call to make. And it was fun to see Maxey try to manipulate matchups and move pieces around the floor to find the best setup for his team, setting up guys like Jokic and Porter Jr. to fail in space.

In an act of what I can only call pure sabotage, the Sixers somehow allowed the offense to get away from him to open the second half, opting instead to run things through Tobias Harris and De'Anthony Melton. The results were, well, not good.

• Paul Reed vs. Nikola Jokic seems like a horrendous matchup for the Sixers and probably is if you let it play out over a longer period of time. But the thing that I love about Reed is that he plays as if he doesn't think for a second about who he's playing against. After Rivers avoided playing him during Jokic's minutes in the first half, Reed came in during the third quarter and served the reigning MVP quite a curveball.

The effort, activity, and finishing ability Reed showed off during that stretch is exactly why he should be on the floor over Dedmon and Montrezl Harrell in basically any real scenario. You're not going to be able to avoid the young player mistakes and errors of discipline that he makes, and small ball is likely to be a better option against certain opponents in the playoffs. But you're also not going to replicate what he brings to the table with anybody else, and you have a decent chance of junking up a game by playing a guy who is coming off of the bench like he was shot out of a cannon.

And give Reed credit — he has very clearly worked on his craft during his time in Philadelphia, as even the plays that look funky often end up with Reed slithering through traffic to score around the basket. He's not shooting over 57 percent from the field on the season by mistake, but because he has figured out his NBA niche, limiting wild shots and buying into the role laid out for him.

He didn't really make a dent in the end result, but he came into a game that looked completely done and gave Philadelphia a brief moment of hope. I don't ever have to think about whether the Sixers are going to get all that he has to offer. Give me guys like that, warts and all.

• As the Nuggets tried to see out the game with a trio of Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray, the Sixers had already waived the white flag. Or so it appeared on first glance — the deep bench group played their butts off in the final minutes, swarming and slashing and scoring to cut the lead to as few as six points, completely throwing Denver off of their game.

Featuring three guys who don't play outside of garbage time (Montrezl Harrell, Jaden Springer, and Furkan Korkmaz), the Sixers clawed to within three points of the Western Conference's No. 1 seed. Springer acquitted himself well, mixing it up physically and doing a great job to keep Jamal Murray in front of him, preventing the Nuggets from getting into their offense as quickly as they would have liked. That gave Philadelphia's rangy defenders, a la Jalen McDaniels, opportunities to crowd Nuggets players (including Jokic).

There were some complaints about Rivers not turning to Tyrese Maxey once it got close down the stretch, but after the hard work the bench group put in to make this game close, I liked that they just let it play out with the guys who had gone on the big run to begin with. 

The Bad

• As we reach the final stages of this season, I think I can wrap my head around why the Grizzlies were okay with giving up De'Anthony Melton at a pretty reasonable price despite his age and favorable contract. He is a solid player, but his swings in effectiveness have been fairly dramatic even for role-player standards. This was a night when they needed him to be a Steady Eddy, and they got perhaps the worst version of Melton you could imagine.

I've seen plenty of streaky shooters over the years — Robert Covington and Danny Green top the list from this Sixers era — but Melton is the first streaky layup shooter that I think I have ever seen. There are times when it feels as if he has never attempted a layup before, which is especially true when he tries to take on multiple defenders at a time on a fast break, often shooting layup attempts that are lucky to even hit the rim after screaming off of the backboard.

One thing I tried to warn Sixers fans about prior to his arrival in Philly was the need to anchor him with a true-blue point guard alongside him. Next to the likes of Ja Morant or Tyus Jones in Memphis, we saw what we see when Melton is next to James Harden in Philly, sliding into a secondary role that fits his talents. Sharing the backcourt with just Maxey, there's far too much of The Melton Show, as he tries to do too much on his own and ends up taking wild shots or turning the ball over.

This was an ugly, ineffective game for Melton and it went a long way toward sinking them.

• Georges Niang has taken more grief than perhaps has been deserved at times, but he deserves every bit of eye-rolling and groaning he inspired with this performance. This is somewhat of a nightmare matchup for Niang — the Nuggets cut hard off of Nikola Jokic in the middle of the floor, and will punish you for leaving open shooters free on the perimeter. Both of those things are problems for Niang, who is slow to react off-ball and cheats too far off of shooters while offering no additional paint help for his troubles.

This game showed the much uglier problems, though, namely that Niang is drawing dead against good perimeter athletes in isolation. He fouled Bruce Brown on drives multiple times in the first half alone, flailing at Denver's Swiss army knife on his way to the hoop. Niang should never be expected to defend Porter Jr. at basically any time, and MPJ showed the futility of asking him to try, roasting him pretty good in some possessions scattered throughout this one.

This was a decent shooting game for Niang and it still couldn't drown out how horrible he was on defense. 

• As far as I could tell, Philadelphia's logic behind starting Dewayne Dedmon was two-fold — he was the biggest guy they could put in that roaming role Joel Embiid starred in during their last meeting with Denver, and in the event that he had to guard Jokic straight up, he was less likely to concede real estate than Paul Reed. 

Something else to consider: Dedmon is bad, and should not play. High-level analysis, I know, but something worth chewing on.

Trying to get away with playing Dedmon and P.J. Tucker in the frontcourt together rests on Tucker hitting open shots and getting the maximum value out of Dedmon as a rim protector. Outside of a pair of blocks for Dedmon where he volleyball spiked the ball instead of, I don't know, just tapping it to start a break, Dedmon did just about nothing on the defensive end. And because Tucker was a complete non-factor on offense, all Dedmon ended up doing on offense is take up space in the middle of the floor, ruining whatever chance they might have had to attack the paint.

To be fair to Dedmon, I think that says more about Tucker and his recent struggles to put the ball in the hoop, rather than the journeyman center who shouldn't play a meaningful minute the rest of the year. Teams have certainly caught onto Tucker's reluctance to rise and fire, and they've constantly dared him to make them pay for leaving him alone. It's no shock that Rivers has left him on the bench in plenty of fourth quarters and big moments this year, knowing how that might impact their spacing. 

In the end, the Sixers didn't end up leaning on Dedmon too much, which I would argue is to the credit of the staff. Philadelphia tried to switch things up and keep the Nuggets guessing throughout the night, toggling between small ball and shooting and athleticism and size as they tried to find combinations that worked without their big two in the lineup to lead.

• Shake Milton has picked a bad time to completely go off of a cliff as a player, but they could really use the guy who spent most of the season making an impact off of the bench. 

• When you have a team loaded with stars and need him to step into a secondary role, Tobias Harris is going to get you 16 points. When you have a shorthanded group and need him to have a bigger share of the offense, Tobias Harris is going to get you 16 points. 

The Ugly

• The Nuggets playing in "Ball Arena" will never stop being funny to me.

• In my head, I've complained about the NBA schedule in roughly half of the recaps this year. Once again, a game that should have been primetime, clear-your-schedule viewing was destroyed by the grind of back-to-backs, road trips, and congested calendars. Adam Silver and the owners need to figure it out, because this is nonsense.

• Danuel House Jr. is just hilarious. Outlandishly funny guy in the locker room, slapstick comedy artist on the floor. No notes.

• Not sure what the point of replay review is if you aren't going to use the full replay to your advantage.

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