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February 04, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers coast past Spurs behind big Embiid and Maxey games

The Sixers shook off a slow start to dominate the Spurs on the road, coasting to a 137-125 win after a 47-point second quarter changed the course of the game.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers' starters needed someone to pull them out of their slumber, and who better for the task than Tyrese Maxey? Back in his home state, though admittedly not super close to home, Maxey came off of the bench and immediately gave Philadelphia a lift, making up for a sluggish start for the rest of the gang.

His first make of the game showed exactly what has changed since Maxey's rookie year. Turning the corner after a Joel Embiid ball screen, Maxey saw San Antonio dropping toward the rim and rose up for a pull-up three with no hesitation, canning a triple before the Spurs knew what had hit them. The timidness he showed as a rookie has long since faded, and with ownership of the second unit, he has the license to kill whoever stands in front of him.

That seems to be the identity of that backup group. They certainly can't defend anyone — not even poor Matisse Thybulle can make up for a quartet of Harrell/Niang/Milton/Maxey — but they're going to go out and get buckets, and they'll do it without letting much time go off of the clock. Maxey and Shake Milton have both been given permission to run whenever possible, and the Sixers were able to pick up some quality looks in early offense as part of that initiative.

But give Maxey credit for what he did in a halfcourt setting against San Antonio. Partnering with Harrell, Maxey seemed to make the right read basically every time down the floor, getting all the way to the rim for free throws and layups or dumping passes off if the Spurs overcommitted. Maxey earned praise as a lob passer in college, perhaps even leaning too much on that part of his playmaking, but he found Harrell a pair of easy buckets in the second quarter in addition to some kick outs that might have earned Philadelphia even more points.

You discount the performance some based on the opponent, as the Spurs offered little resistance at times, but Maxey getting all the way to the rim is always a great sign for Philly, something the coaching staff has been on him about from the day he arrived here. And Maxey's confidence only grew as a scorer the deeper they got into this game, as we got to see him drop some gorgeous threes in early offense late in the game.

He was the spark they needed to get rolling, and they never looked back after young Maxey gave them some juice.

• Joel Embiid's opening turnover of the game was as ugly as it gets, followed soon after by a sloppy giveaway against a late Spurs double. Embiid picked his scoring up for the season in the first meeting with the Spurs last October, but you were left to wonder if this was going to be a similar outing, one where the Sixers gave away a game against an inferior team.

And then the big man decided it was time to turn it up. As soon as Embiid and James Harden came back into this game in the second quarter, deep into the period by their standards, the Spurs just got bulldozed by the two most talented guys on the floor.

Spending the early part of the game around the elbows, Embiid shifted his rolling just a bit in an effort to get deeper catches. With Embiid getting within 8-10 feet of the rim, Harden was dropping passes off to him with little work left to do, Embiid having already sealed off the closest defender. Nobody shoots the midrange like Embiid, but that shot was basically abandoned for the sake of deep paint touches, and that change had the Spurs scrambling, leaving shooters open elsewhere while bodies flew toward Embiid.

Embiid would get involved in the outside marksmanship, too, canning a three in both of the first two quarters. The second make came with Harden hunting a switch, dancing in front of Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl, Embiid only needing to flash out to the right wing before dropping three more points. It shows what can happen as Harden inspires more fear as a scorer, gifting Embiid open jumpers to prevent the guard from making it to the rim.

And oh yeah, then there was this:

Embiid was bigger, quicker, and better than the Spurs for the final 3/4 of this game. While you would have liked for this energy to be there from the start of the game, there was definitely an understanding that they could dial it up at any time and roll a shorthanded, pretty terrible Spurs group. The Sixers becoming a team that can play with its food a little bit is quite a development.

• If you were expecting Harden to come out and have some sort of All-Star statement game, you had to leave this one disappointed, but I almost think it was better this game. He didn't come out gunning and hunting a big scoring night, he didn't make the game about himself, Harden simply came out and played the way he has all season. And that is a huge part of why Philadelphia is winning — his focus has been on what's working, not on glory hunting.

Harden settling into this role while being much better as a scorer this season was far from a given. He was the star of the show in Philadelphia's first two games of the year and has reclaimed at least some of his old burst, but like an aging pitcher, he has used his best stuff situationally, mixing speeds and using his mind as much as his might. He has always had an "old man game" to some extent, but it has been fun to watch his playmaking take center stage after he destroyed the league as a scorer during his prime in Houston.

There's basically no way to highlight Embiid's accomplishments this year without showing love to his partner in crime, who has made it one of his primary goals to get Embiid the best looks possible. It has not gone unnoticed here, even if it did with coaches in All-Star voting.

• I think Matisse Thybulle would have to shoot 40 percent from three for a year before I believed he could be a reliable shooter. But I think there's room for optimism regarding his offensive approach, as he has shown more of a willingness to attack the basket without needing to be spoon-fed his looks. On at least a few possessions over the last week or so, Thybulle has made an aggressive move to the basket and looked to score, and he completed one such move on Friday night, attacking from the left corner before dropping in a floater.

A small step, but a critical one. His shooting is an issue because he hasn't proven capable of doing much else on offense, and any additions to his game begin to ease the pressure on him to make shots. Any added utility makes a difference. And Thybulle did some other "little things" during Friday night's game, digging out loose balls and rebounds by making good use of his tools.

I've said it on podcasts and other platforms a few times recently, but I am increasingly leaning toward thinking they need to hold onto Thybulle at the deadline even if he's in just a small role for the playoffs. Pray he adds his brand of chaos on defense, and be ready to leave him on the bench on nights when he isn't rolling. 

• Encouraging week of playmaking for Tobias Harris, who had quite a few chances in the second half to lead Philadelphia as a ballhandler. There was some beautiful chemistry with Embiid in this one, the big man deferring to Harris and letting him attack off of ball screens, and Harris created wide-open threes for teammates that deserved better results.

It has been a season filled with examples of Harris' versatility, whether they're locked in a dogfight or beating up a young team. 

• Ho hum, another great shooting night for Georges Niang. Big shocker.

• Shake Milton deserves some love for another steady effort off of the bench. 14 points on just seven shots, just the way you'd like it.

The Bad

• Can't say the Sixers came to San Antonio ready to beat up on a struggling Spurs team. Philadelphia's first three possessions of the game were turnovers — a hilariously bad pass from James Harden, a travel from Tobias Harris, and a jump-pass attempt from Joel Embiid that got the result it deserved. Less than 90 seconds into the game, Doc Rivers called a timeout, his team down just 5-0. It certainly felt like the right time to give his guys a wake-up call.

That was about the extent of the bad stuff unless you want to zero in on Montrezl Harrell's horrendous defense. I'm inclined to let it slide, feeling generous on a Friday night.

The Ugly

• Really enjoyed the interview with Philly's own Gene Banks during the NBC broadcast on Friday. I am an admitted Duke hater — Vince Carter and Ed Cota were my guys growing up — but the former Blue Devils star was a welcome addition alongside Kate and Alaa, who did a good job blending stories from the past with his thoughts on the present. 

• Harden getting to the rim for a tough finish late in the half was awesome to see, but watching him clutch the elbow on his shooting arm before going straight to the locker room was unsettling. He did play to start the second half, so hopefully just a bang of the ol' funny bone.

• Shout out to the Rights to Ricky Sanchez crew who flew to San Antonio for this game. Anyone who would fly to Texas to watch the Sixers play this team is my type of sicko.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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