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October 31, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers ride Maxey and Harden to win over Wizards

Sixers NBA

The Sixers used big nights from Tyrese Maxey and James Harden to pick up another win without Joel Embiid, rolling to a 118-111 win on the road against the Wizards.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden's first bucket of Monday's game felt like a statement of intent. Leading the Sixers on an early fast break, Harden put his head down and powered through some light contact to open the scoring for the night. Without Joel Embiid in the lineup, Harden was going to need to do some heavy lifting, and you might as well start the work early.

No game since he joined the Sixers has looked closer to the heliocentric Harden offense of his Houston days. In the first quarter, the offense was almost exclusively about his production, and I mean that literally. Between his 15 points and six assists, nearly all of Philadelphia's 30 points were scored or created by their lead guard. Washington didn't have many answers for him — he got into the paint and distributed when they played up on him, and Harden had the jumper working, so sagging was not exactly a recipe for success.

After spending some time on the bench, things slowed down for Harden and the Sixers, and perhaps that's the cost of playing such a style in 2022. Harden may be back closer to his old self than he was last year, but he's still pretty far removed from the physical force he was at his peak. A pair of back-to-back turnovers where Harden was stripped in the lane reinforced this idea late in the second, the Sixers guard in need of a reset at halftime.

There wasn't another scoring barrage, but that was a reflection of Washington's defensive strategy rather than an indictment of Harden. The Wizards began throwing multiple guys at him on the ball, and as we saw throughout the stretch run last season, that's often a worse strategy than simply letting him attack you as a scorer. When you leave his teammates wide open to put pressure on him, Harden is going to find the right guy more often than not, and he racked up 17 assists in the face of Washington's pressure defense.

Total control of the game, generally speaking. Exactly what you want to see from Harden on any night, but especially on a night with the big man missing. 

• It was another quiet open for Tyrese Maxey on Monday, and that was more about the Harden show than anything else. There weren't many opportunities for young Maxey to let it fly in the first quarter, so he faded into the background until his moment came.

Kristaps Porzingis is not exactly the strongest guy in the world, and nobody seemed to be more aware of that fact than Maxey. Throughout the game, but especially in the second half, Maxey repeatedly took it right at Porzingis as if he was determined to prove he could go right through him. The results suggest he was not wrong to think that way:

This has been the more underrated development Maxey has made over the last year-plus. Members of the coaching staff repeatedly emphasized that they wanted to see Maxey get his hand to the backboard on more drives, and he has answered the call, showing off a more diverse finishing package but also weaponizing his improved strength. Maxey getting into a guy's chest and then scoring after he has dislodged them becomes more common by the game.

Of course, we don't have to ignore his insane shooting range to talk up his drives to the hoop. This kid has logo-type range at this point, and when you combine his self-confidence with the assurances of everybody around him, you create the most dangerous guard possible. Maxey no longer needs to think about whether he has the authority to pull up from deep range, and when teams give him space in transition, he feels borderline automatic. He's making difficult shots look like a walk in the park:

It's easy to shrug off the absence of Embiid when you have a kid just shy of his 22nd birthday hooping like Maxey is. He's already a heck of a player with a lot more time for growth, and like some fans, I'm not entirely sure you can go away from him in the biggest moments of games, even with bigger name stars on the team.

• As if anyone needed to be reminded that I am the preeminent De'Anthony Melton guy on the Sixers' beat, I continue to be impressed by the impact he's able to make even when his box score line suggests an ordinary performance. Philadelphia's small-ball looks (and normal looks, to be fair) still feel in need of a ton of work on the defensive end, but their bouts of success/competence feel like a direct product of his work. He flashes through space like a madman, deflecting passes and tagging rollers and making the necessary rotation to stop the house of cards from crumbling.

(I will say that I've been a bit underwhelmed by his on-ball defense, where he's been up-and-down and certainly not a true "stopper" of high-level players. That's not a huge deal in general because of the overall value I think he adds, but on a team with defensive warts elsewhere, his ability to guard his man will probably be more important than it would be otherwise.)

Whatever you think of him as a lockdown guy, he was everpresent as usual in this one. He has been one of Philadelphia's best players in transition going in both directions, hounding ballhandlers on defense and serving as a great lane-filler the other way. Once again, he did everything from serving as a pick-and-roll "big" to shooting catch-and-shoot jumpers from the wing. His utility as a roll man has been a great early-season surprise, and figures to loom large in potential playoff lineups when Philly turns to small ball.

On good scoring nights for Melton, I feel like it's going to be hard to justify keeping him out of crunch-time minutes and closing lineups. Even on off nights, I think he has a good case to start on merit, and he's going to put pressure on Doc Rivers to play him more and more as the season wears on. 

• Perhaps unsurprisingly given the amount of time they've spent together as teammates, PJ Tucker was one of the big beneficiaries of the Harden-led offense in this one. Never known as much of a scorer, Tucker has mastered a few shots to play his role and mostly does the dirty work otherwise. They called him into action in this one, and he responded with a perfect opening half on offense, 5-for-5 from the field for 11 points.

The lead feature of his half was a push shot that has not gone down basically at all since he arrived in Philadelphia, and it was good to see Tucker find success with it on Monday. Operating from floater range and around the dunker spot, Tucker's touch returned to him, as he filled in for Joel Embiid as a roller quite adequately.

Outside of corner threes, most other offensive contributions from Tucker are going to feel like a bonus, and he went well over expectations in this one.

• There were two plays in the first half that showed exactly why Matisse Thybulle is back in the rotation and likely to stay there. On two separate occasions in the first quarter, Thybulle turned potential Washington runouts into turnovers sending the Sixers back toward a scoring opportunity, doing so with little more than effort and quick hands. One of those plays was a particularly inspiring sequence — Thybulle crashed the offensive glass, tapped up an offensive rebound that the Sixers ultimately couldn't corral, and instead of dropping his head in disappointment, he kept his pursuit going and eventually poked the ball away for a steal.

Unless Melton was on the case, there were very few moments like these in the opening run of games for Philadelphia. Thybulle has his warts, as you saw when he airmailed a pass on the final possession of the first quarter, but love the energy he has brought to the lineup.

• Montrezl Harrell had his best game in a Sixers uniform on Monday, with his high-energy minutes to close the third quarter helping the Sixers finally start to pull away from the Wizards. It's easy to boil his game down to simply playing hard, and there was plenty of the usual manic energy from Harrell, but he also busted out a beautiful fading score in the post and some nice work as a roller.

Dare I say it — I think his defense has been much better than expected, at least his defensive positioning. There haven't been many times where I've thought he hurt the Sixers with poor awareness, and that was one of the biggest concerns you could have about him coming into the year. He's an asset in games like this against teams the Sixers should beat.

• Georges Niang has been absolutely cooking from deep, and though he'll probably come down to Earth a little bit, he's in a perfect position to continue crushing from deep. Niang is playing next to attention-drawing, big-ticket stars, and he knows exactly what his job is when a pass swings his way. He's moving well, he's shooting well, the vibes are excellent.

The Wizards also didn't really guard him, for some reason, which was an interesting decision.

The Bad

• My biggest complaint about the offense in this game comes down to pace and decisiveness. Harden is going to absorb a lot of the blame here, and he deserves some of it, for the Sixers plodding through a lot of possessions. I do not love how often the Sixers have ended up in situations where Harden is dumping the ball off with three seconds or less on the shot clock.

There does need to be a bit more awareness shown by Harden's teammates, though, when teams are throwing double teams at Harden. Philadelphia's emphasis on consistent spacing around their stars has been good for the pick-and-roll attack, but timely cuts and off-ball movement are welcome when Harden is getting trapped and forced into uncomfortable spots. With nobody moving, Harden often has to go into protection mode just to avoid a turnover, and with his passing talent, they should be the aggressors instead of the victims.

• I'm not here to argue the Sixers' defense was good, necessarily, but I think they undid a lot of decent work throughout this game by taking stupid fouls late in the shot clock. Reaching and hacking and gambling for no good reason are all examples of bad defensive habits, but I think they're in a different category than the laziness and poor execution we saw in the opening pack of games.

I guess you could call this progress?

The Ugly

• Montrezl Harrell was in a lot of pain after catching a stray elbow to the face in the first half, so we send a get well soon card to the big man.

• I hope Kyle Kuzma enjoys his moment on Shaqtin' a Fool later this week.

I'm sure he'll laugh along with the rest of us.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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