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March 06, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers win defense-optional shootout over Pacers

The Sixers stars all shined bright against the Pacers Monday.

The Sixers didn't play a lick of defense en route to a 147-143 win over the Pacers on Monday, running and gunning their way to a victory with a staggering offensive outing.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Just like I wouldn't blame his ups and downs on the bench as a product of his role, I am not ready to declare that starting Tyrese Maxey is the solution to all of his problems. But he has sure looked good during this recent run of games alongside the other nailed-on starters, and now that he has played his way back into the top group, it seems impossible that he's going to give up his spot.

Sometimes, there are a whole bunch of things to keep track of with Maxey on offense. There was basically only one in this outing — his shooting. Maxey walked into the arena and might as well have had his hair on fire, dropping a barrage of catch-and-shoot jumpers on the Pacers that seemed to get more ridiculous as the game wore on. What started as a pretty normal diet of wing threes transitioned into the absurd, with Maxey catching this Shake Milton kick out while off-balance, falling away from the basket as he let it go. In a night filled with reliable shotmaking, this still managed to stand out:

Philadelphia didn't exactly need him to do much as a driver or transition player, because Harden was diming up everybody as a passer and (sadly) the Sixers didn't get enough stops to take advantage of Maxey's speed on the break. 

There were some little effort plays made by Maxey in this game that I think he should be applauded for if/when they review tape from this game. Tipping defensive rebounds, closing out hard on shooters, plays that might not end up in the box score but ultimately help the team when they're done consistently over 48 minutes. 

• You are not going to see many better playmaking games than the one the Sixers got from James Harden on Monday night. 

This guy has every pass in the book available to him. He can hit a streaking player with a bounce pass that never causes them to break stride, or deliver a lofted outlet that falls into their hands like a Jalen Hurts deep shot. His behind-the-back passes in pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid are frequent, but they are function as much as form, plays that allow Harden to slide the ball around two defenders as they keep moving in the direction he is going. Whether he needs to go over the top, between defenders, or invent some solution out of mid-air, he figures out a way to get it done.

Look at how easy he makes this pass to House look, for example.

After a heater in Milwaukee, Harden didn't have the scoring touch in this game, but he didn't really need it.

• Myles Turner is a very good basketball player who performs well against a lot of good players. He has absolutely no chance of guarding Joel Embiid. Every single time these two play, Embiid sends him to the bench with foul trouble and prevents him from impacting the game at all, and that was no different than usual on Monday night.

After lining up against the ultimate bull in a china shop player on Saturday night, Embiid took some of the principles Giannis Antetokounmpo lives by and put them to use against Indiana. From the get-go, he set a physical tone on the offensive end of the floor, driving Turner (and Jalen Smith, and anyone else who got in his way) as close to the baseline as possible. Though he picked up one early offensive foul as a result, driving Smith into the hardwood with all of his might, he was rewarded for that aggressive play, putting Turner in foul trouble and marching to the free-throw line with ease.

(That style of offense was honestly Philadelphia's best defensive strategy all night long, as it brought the game to a stop and actually allowed the Sixers to get back and set up shop. It didn't exactly make a difference on that end, but that is one typical benefit of Embiid going to the free-throw line, and it should have helped if they had cared even a little bit on defense.)

It was far from a perfect game for the big man, whose ball security was basura for most of the evening. Embiid got picked from the blindside on a couple of occasions and his hands let him down a time or two throughout the night, with Embiid dropping one beautiful Harden outlet that should have led to a bucket in transition. 

That said, the offensive output clearly wasn't a problem, with Embiid sledgehammering the Pacers despite playing a B- game on that end. At one point in the third quarter, he had 25 points on eight shots. By the time the game had ended, his efficiency was only slightly less comical, the big man pouring in 42 points on just 16 shots.

• Down two regular starters, the Sixers had an opportunity to look at something different to open (and close) the game again on Monday night. De'Anthony Melton moving back to the starting group was no surprise, but it was cool to see Jalen McDaniels get the chance after stepping up in the second half of the Milwaukee game.

Some guys are going to score because they have a scorer's skill set, and some guys are going to have to carve out their living with activity. McDaniels probably leans toward the latter, but it's a good enough mix of both that you can ask him to do some self-creating without feeling terrible about it. Alongside the starting group, he didn't have to do too much in order to score. Harden was happy to reward the hard-charging McDaniels with shot opportunities whenever he ran the floor, giving Philadelphia a burst of pace and energy in the transition attack. 

Even when he didn't score, there was constant pressure on the rim because of McDaniels,  whose efforts on the offensive glass forced the Pacers to take multiple fouls to prevent him from getting to the ball. And they still couldn't totally erase his efforts there, with McDaniels extending possessions and buying extra opportunities for Philadelphia.

He was one of the deck chairs on their defensive Titanic, putting together some nice defensive possessions with well-timed stunts and flashing his length to make shooters second-guess themselves. We'll see what his role looks like by the time these guys hit the playoffs, but this has been a nice couple of games for him.

(I am not in the "start him over Tucker or Harris" camp but you could see why somebody might start thinking that way, watching what it looks like to have a genuine wing athlete in that top group.)

• Paul Reed looks like a young player who is starting to figure things out, and it could not have come at a better time for Philadelphia. 

You can chalk up some of his success to some simple lineup tweaks — he's in a better position to succeed if he doesn't have to cover for an all-bench, all-offense lineup — but he has just looked like a more polished guy on both ends on top of that. He's contesting shots without fouling, holding up well on switches, and his teammates appear to trust him more than ever on offense, with Reed flashing more craftiness at the hoop. It's cliche to say the game is slowing down for him, but that's how it looks, with Reed doing a nice job to get guys moving past him with pump fakes and shoulder leans around the rim.

This is a monstrous stretch for Reed, who watched the team bring in a backup center in the buyout market after struggling for playing time all year. He is stepping up and tying together some Embiid-less lineups, and as all of you know by now, that's a huge deal.

The Bad

• If there has ever been a game with less defense played, I can't remember watching it. Last Thursday's shootout with the Dallas Mavericks was pretty bad on that end, but you could at least say that the Mavericks' stars hit some crazy shots in that one. Can't say the same about Monday's meeting with the Pacers, which was a glorified layup line for most of the game.

Philadelphia's usual problems on defense (overhelping off of shooters) were present at times, though this was a game where the most basic goals of defense were not met. All it took was a ball screen or a little bit of movement for someone to shake free, and the Pacers were getting to the rim, whether it was Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, T.J. McConnell, or any number of other Pacers players capable of putting the ball on the deck.

It's never just about one player, and the Sixers were straight-up horrendous at containing the ball on the perimeter, playing matador defense and hoping someone would help out behind them. That said, I put a big portion of the blame on Joel Embiid, who showed up for this game with all the urgency of someone who had just chugged half a bottle of Nyquil. His interest in moving, contesting shots, or doing much of anything on defense wasn't there, and that had a knock-on effect on the rest of the group.

Whatever the Sixers tried, they either failed or were bad at. Zone defense has been a crutch (a crutch I loathe, by the way) for the Sixers throughout this season, with Philadelphia one of the more zone-heavy teams in the league this season. I'm not exactly sure what they hoped to accomplish other than saving some energy on the front end of a back-to-back, because the connectivity wasn't there. The shots zone is meant to prevent still happened anyway, and those shots weren't particularly well defended.

When the anchor of your defense is standing around and not contesting anything, it really doesn't matter what you try to throw at the opponent. Zone, switching, normal man defense, we saw all of it against Indiana. And boy, did it all suck. 

I suppose the good news is that the Pacers were just as bad on defense, surrendering an absolute truckload of open threes to the Sixers. A better, more disciplined team might have taken this Sixers defensive performance and beat them into the ground with it. 

• The one guy I think you could say played outright bad for Philadelphia was De'Anthony Melton. Keep in mind, this was a night where nobody guarded and a path to an efficient, high-scoring game was well-lit and open to all comers. Melton managed to stink it up anyway, bricking wide-open threes and offering little to offset that problem.

Will the Sixers ever be able to get him and Maxey going at the same time? It's one of the great questions of our time, up there with whether the chicken or the egg came first.

• Didn't like Philadelphia's pace late in this game. The Pacers had no chance trying to defend the Sixers all night, and the Sixers made it harder than they needed to be late by bleeding the clock. I get they were nursing a lead, but there was way too much prevent offense.

The Ugly

• De'Anthony Melton got called for a foul for having the audacity to get speared by a Pacers forearm in transition. He made some silly plays in this one, but good grief.

• Yes, Kate Scott, you can absolutely give Bill Kennedy credit for his announcements on NBA replay reviews. One of the many small joys of watching the league.

• I know that many people feel offense is the more important and more fun piece of the sport, but a game like this sort of highlights that you need to have some defensive pushback in order to make offense fun. Watching guys just light it up with no real resistance stinks, as we saw in the All-Star Game this year.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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