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February 13, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers beat up Rockets behind Harden and Maxey

The Sixers coasted to a 123-104 victory over the Rockets on Monday night, riding James Harden and Tyrese Maxey in a game that never got close in the second half.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden's threat to go back to the Houston Rockets in free agency this summer would probably have felt more threatening if the Rockets were even a single level above hot garbage. But with a chance to show out against his former team, Harden was the guy who helped Philadelphia pull away in the second half, controlling the offense after a relatively quiet first half.

Stimied as a playmaker in the first half, the Sixers did their best to stretch the Rockets and make them defend a larger share of the floor in the second half. Instead of putting Embiid on the block and setting up shop, the Sixers often had him working along the perimeter, either in tandem with Harden or as a shooting option to space the floor. It's something that was more common in the Ben Simmons days, with Simmons needing all the space he could get in the middle of the floor, but it's always of value when you can open it up for a group of guards to attack.

From about the nine-minute mark of the third quarter onward, Embiid and Harden simply took over the game on offense. You saw them in just about every possible configuration: Embiid swinging the ball from the left wing, finding Harden for a catch-and-shoot three in the trail spot; Embiid knocking down a three from the right wing, Harden kicking one out after torching his man on an island; and finally, Embiid and Harden just carved the Rockets up with DHOs on the right side of the floor, allowing Harden to get to his dominant left hand.

Even when Harden didn't find the corner and get to the basket, he was feeling it from deep, so he was able to punish any lapse in concentration from the Rockets on closeouts. While Harden has not been the free-throw machine he was at his peak, his return to form as a shooter has been a massive development for Philly. He is padding leads and keeping them in games they might otherwise fall out of, and Monday's game fell into the former category. This was a fairly close game until the third quarter, and then Harden threw a haymaker to essentially put it out of reach.

I didn't think the game was anything special for Embiid, who could have easily turned this into a one-man show against a player as ill-equipped to guard him as Sengun is. That being said, it's almost better that he responded as he did in this game, using the attention focused on him to help out his partner in crime rather than bogging down the offense.

Bad opponent, all that jazz, but Harden being able to (mostly) lead the offense on a night when Embiid was below his MVP-level standard is nice.

• It was a good night for Tyrese Maxey, who didn't have a whole lot of resistance thrown in front of him by the Rockets. Houston is near the bottom of the league for good reason, and Maxey was happy to take them up on the offer.

The three-guard lineup was one of our great points of fascination for a moment there, and while it has fallen out of favor in recent weeks, Tucker's injury forced Doc Rivers to give it an extended look in the second half on Monday. I thought the results there showed why you want to try to get Maxey more time with that top group — when you have Maxey as the beneficiary of an open jumper out of sets led by Harden and Embiid, there are numerous possibilities that can spring from that moment. It mostly led to open three-point attempts in this game, which was great for Philly, but Maxey is obviously better equipped to put it on the deck and make something happen in the paint.

In bench-heavy lineups or Embiid-led lineups with Harden on the bench, we saw plenty of Maxey getting busy as an attacker. Maxey's two-man synergy with the big man is certainly not on Harden's level, but Maxey is finding more and more ways to play off of Embiid as time goes on, shooting through gaps and hitting Embiid with pocket passes on his way to the cup. He's not the most advanced passer in the world, but Maxey is flashing playmaking vision in fits and starts, using that killer first step and collapsing defenses to pick out shooters around the floor.

A ton of good stuff from No. 0 in this game, and he was ultimately the guy tasked with seeing this game out as the stars enjoyed some "old school load management" deeper in the fourth quarter. Job well done. 

• All things considered, I thought the Sixers offered a fine enough defensive performance in the game, at least if you separate "rebounding" from "defense" (and I typically don't). Embiid had some excellent rim protection moments, Jalen McDaniels had some great late help (it pays to be super long), Paul Reed had an effective stint off of the bench, and so on. 

• Jalen McDaniels just looks like a competent, athletic NBA wing. I know that doesn't sound mind-blowing for their only addition at the trade deadline, but Sixers have needed one of those for quite some time.

Being able to ask McDaniels to do simple things, like lead a fast break after coming up with a steal, is a huge offensive upgrade over any other wing they've played off of the bench in recent memory. McDaniels had a pretty finish through contact in transition for his only points in the first half, doing all of the work himself for three the hard way. 

There are issues to sort out on both ends, namely where to be and when for a new team, but you can see the vision. He plays hard, attacks rebounds by actually going after the ball (what a novel concept!) and actually leverages the tools he has at his disposal, which has been a rarity for the Sixers this season. He was the second man off of the bench in the first half and the first after halftime once Tucker went down due to injury, and McDaniels could very well play himself into a bigger role.

• Paul Reed might end up shelved by Doc Rivers once Dewayne Dedmon is in the building, but I think that would be a mistake. At the very least, Reed needs to be part of a competition for the backup role behind Embiid, and I thought Reed did well for himself in this game in spite of a few cheap fouls. Lots of activity, a couple of nice finishes, and one of the more hilarious matchups in NBA history against former Sixers big man Boban Marjanovic in crunch time.

The Bad

• The Houston Rockets do not have a good basketball team. The Sixers have seemed a little too aware of that across two games against the Rockets this season, and it has allowed the Rockets to make up some of the gap between the two teams with effort and activity.

As was the case in the first meeting, the Rockets didn't exactly light it up from the field or from deep, but they were a far more committed team in the rebounding department. Houston pounded Philadelphia on the offensive glass, securing second and third opportunities on a regular basis with the Sixers mostly just flailing at potential rebounds. At halftime, the Rockets had pulled down an offensive rebound on over 48 percent of their misses, an absolutely gargantuan number.

Some of this is simply by design — the Rockets essentially concede transition buckets with aggressive pushes for second-chance points, so if you can punish them for selling out, the game is basically over. But the Sixers were only sporadically able to do so, and it allowed Houston to hang around through halftime, setting up a second half that didn't have to be dramatic.

Joel Embiid has come under fire for his rebounding issues recently, and he deserves a bit more scrutiny for his apathy in this one. The Rockets crowded his airspace and took advantage of Embiid standing flat-footed near the rim, and Embiid's positioning frequently let him down, potential boards floating over his head into the hands of Rockets players.

This is something you had to be prepared for coming into the game, and the Sixers either slept through the pregame notes or decided they weren't of much use.

The Ugly

• P.J. Tucker was ruled out for the game with what the Sixers called "left calf tightness" midway through the second quarter, and whenever an older player is pulled because of any sort of soft tissue issue, you have to start worrying about the repercussions. Yes, the Sixers called it tightness and not a strain, which is an important distinction, but it's still a worrying sign that he was pulled so quickly.

I know he hasn't endeared himself to Philadelphia with pretty poor play for most of this year, but Tucker has genuinely looked closer to himself lately, at least contributing on offense and looking like he can move on defense. He is probably not going to live up to his contract unless he raises his game considerably in the playoffs, but the Sixers are going to need him in the postseason regardless. Here's hoping this was just a precautionary move.

• Dear lord, the Rockets stink. The Sixers losing to them in December looks worse by the day.

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