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February 27, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers lose nail-biter to Heat ahead of big road trip

A James Harden buzzer-beater rimmed out on Monday night, as a slow start doomed the Sixers in a 101-99 loss to the Heat.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It has been tough sledding for Tyrese Maxey recently, and it didn't look like he'd break the trend during a miserable first half on Monday night. Maxey was unable to beat basic pressure on the perimeter, dribbling the ball east and west even with ball screens to give him a chance to turn the corner. There was even a moment where Maxey didn't seem to realize what the Heat were running on defense, dribbling side-to-side against zone and essentially just lighting seconds of the shot clock on fire.

Everything changed for Maxey in the second half, and it's worth noting that he got a very early sub to join the starters on the floor, checking in for a struggling De'Anthony Melton at the 7:51 mark of the third quarter. It was the Maxey show from that point onward, with No. 0 putting up 17 points in the period and singlehandedly changing the energy of the game (and the building). 

Maxey's run started because of the pace he injected into this game, outrunning the Heat in transition and blowing past everybody for some easy buckets on the break. This had been a stagnant, slow effort for the Sixers up to that point, so that was a big positive on its own, but seeing a couple of layups go down seemed to give Maxey a jolt of confidence. 

After getting the cheapies to go down, Maxey provided the sort of avalanche that felt commonplace for him early in the season, showing off a bit of everything — stepback threes, runners in traffic, some physical drives toward the basket, and he put the cherry on top with a slam in the third quarter, beating a closeout in the corner before rising up to flush one.

The Sixers aren't going to get the best version of Maxey every single night, but games like these show the value of his youthful exuberance. Philadelphia was stuck in the mud for most of the night, in desperate need of somebody with young legs and energy to pull them out of the swamp. Maxey basically did that by himself, and his veteran teammates owe him a thank-you card for that effort.

(Unfortunately, he fouled out with just over three minutes to play, so his issues on the defensive end remain, well, issues.)

• The only other real positive in this game for me was James Harden, who had to play heavy minutes with Joel Embiid battling foul trouble for most of the second half. It's remarkable how much more confident I am in him as an attacker in isolation situations this season. He probably bit off more than he can chew going at Bam Adebayo on a few occasions — that's probably the best switch defender in the league — but he was otherwise pretty awesome on offense, hitting big threes and picking his spots effectively throughout the night. 

That said, could have used that shot at the buzzer, obviously.

The Bad

• Philadelphia came out of the All-Star break and turned into two pretty inspiring performances against very good (or in Boston's case, great) teams. If you were expecting them to come off of a tough loss against the Celtics and use that as fuel to dominate the Heat, you must have been shocked at what you saw on your television on Monday night.

The Sixers got punished on the offensive glass by a team whose only road toward good offense is winning the rebounding battle? You're joking. I can't believe it. This has never happened before.

I can imagine this is getting old for all the fans at home, because it's certainly getting old watching it from press row. Philadelphia did a fine enough job closing out, rotating, and making Miami work, with the Heat finishing the first quarter 11/27 from the field. It's the 27 that is noteworthy there, though, because Miami ended up getting 12 more shots than the Sixers in the opening period. Even if you have a terrible offense, extra possessions allow you to hang in games.

There were far more problems than just the rebounding, unfortunately. Miami's off-ball movement and repeated actions gave the Sixers a lot to keep track of, and they were able to keep the Sixers in scramble mode for far longer than Philadelphia would have liked. Better players/shooters might have made them really suffer, but Miami still hit enough shots to pad a decent first-half lead.

Stuff like this is why there a lot of people reluctant to latch onto this team until they prove something in the playoffs. The Sixers are more than capable of dialing it up against the best teams in the league, but Miami is a decidedly middle-of-the-pack team, and the Sixers gave a middle-of-the-pack effort for a lot of this game. That is not going to be good enough during a daunting close to this season.

• Some big Doc Rivers gripes for me in this game:

  1. The Sixers sat in zone for way, way too long in this game. I don't really understand the idea behind that against the Heat specifically, because I would much rather take my chances that they're unable to create dribble penetration than allow a team filled with decent catch-and-shoot guys to bomb away from deep. Unsurprisingly, the Heat rained threes on Philadelphia all night.
  2. Sitting Embiid with four fouls is not how I would have managed the game. The Sixers were able to get away with it, but losing Embiid minutes by pulling him is no less damaging than losing Embiid minutes because he fouled out at the end of the game.
  3. Not sure why Rivers was holding onto two timeouts in a one-point game with less than 40 seconds on the clock. Draw something up and run some real offense.

With Maxey throwing haymakers in the third quarter, it would have helped to have Embiid there to send them over the top. Not a great night for the head coach.

• I would put a lot of blame on the slow start to this game on Joel Embiid. We spent most of the weekend talking about his ability to lead and inspire in different ways, with the big man turning in a spectacular defensive effort vs. Memphis and an awesome all-around effort against the Celtics. This was neither, Embiid mostly just going through the motions as the rest of his teammates followed suit.

After the win over Boston, Embiid talked about the importance of making quick decisions, and followed that game up by playing slow, lethargic basketball. And that happened on both ends of the floor — I'm not sure what was worse, Embiid getting stripped on some ugly possessions on the block, or Embiid letting Cody Zeller (who looks like a 45-year-old accountant) run right past him after a made Sixers basket for a quick two points the other way.

The mental sharpness just wasn't there. A look at the box score would have suggested Embiid was handling himself just fine, with the center posting good efficiency and decent numbers at halftime in a game that was still within reach. Actually watching it was a much different experience. 

(Bam Adebayo also locked him up on the game's most important possessions, after outplaying Embiid, albeit an injured Embiid, in the playoffs last season. Something to make note of.)

• Philadelphia's bench is in a bad spot right now. Could just leave it there and say all that must be said.

When Georges Niang doesn't hit shots, it's scary how fast the bench goes careening off of a cliff. I was one of the main people making the argument that Kevin Love didn't add much to this group because Niang has been better than him, so I appreciate that Love had a first-half possession where he drove past Niang so quickly it looked like Niang was glued to the floor. While I assume Niang will bounce back at some point soon, it is ugly for him right now.

Deadline acquisition Jalen McDaniels has not been a whole lot better recently, even if it's a different flavor of bad. McDaniels is certainly putting in the effort on defense, and he was a friendly bounce or two away from some offensive highlights, but there's a lot of hare-brained activity happening with him. Even when he made some nice effort plays on Monday, you were left wanting more. McDaniels came down with a nice offensive rebound in the fourth quarter, and then completely missed a wide-open Maxey at the top of the key.

Here's how dire I think things are — Doc Rivers probably needs to think about getting Danuel House Jr. some minutes over the next few weeks. House was maybe their worst rotation player at times early in the season, but they should probably give him another look, if only because they need to see what all the pieces look like now that the roster is set. Having to call on House in a playoff game after not playing him for months would be a silly thing to do.

• At this point, I think the argument for putting Maxey into the starting lineup just to shake things up is fine/fair enough, especially because of what they're getting from the guy who took his spot. De'Anthony Melton got quite a few quality looks in Monday night's game and came away empty more often than not. Though he made some nice effort plays in transition, standing out as one of the few guys doing so, he wasn't especially good in the halfcourt. on either end, and I think you could argue his brand of chaos creation might be more effective in their current bench lineups.

The Ugly

• Prior to Monday night's game, I asked Doc Rivers about the lineups with P.J. Tucker at center and how they'll balance keeping Tucker fresh for the playoffs with working on the lineup combinations that will work in the playoffs. Rivers basically said that they wouldn't, and that saving Tucker's legs/keeping everyone healthy is the much bigger priority.

So of course, Tucker played a bit of small ball in the first quarter of Monday's game. It didn't happen for long, and it doesn't really matter what Rivers says at a presser, but I find this as amusing as the concept of "three starting lineups" for the Sixers.

• James Harden's foul on Jimmy Butler in the corner was a real head-scratcher.

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