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December 06, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid's 50 points lead Sixers past Wizards

The Sixers struggled with three-point shooting and defense early, but ultimately handled the 3-16 Washington Wizards Wednesday night.

Coming off an extended break, the rejuvenated Sixers returned to action Wednesday night with a road contest against the Washington Wizards, who entered the night tied for the second-worst record in the entire NBA. Here is what jumped out from the Sixers' 131-126 win, as Joel Embiid led them to victory with a marvelous 50-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist showing:

Kelly Oubre Jr. returns, shines in second half

After missing 11 games with a rib fracture, Oubre Jr. returned from his rib fracture in this one. Oubre entered the night averaging 16.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game across eight contests, after really starring in his role early in the season — first as a key reserve, and then as a starter in the immediate aftermath of the James Harden trade. With Nic Batum having established himself as a well-fitting starter on this team, Oubre slides back into the bench role that suits him well.

If Oubre's play moving forward is anything like what he gave the Sixers at the outset of the year, they are going to get some much-needed energy off the bench, as well as versatile three-point shooting and defensive juice

Oubre played 19 minutes in this one, scoring 12 points on 5-8 shooting. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse played him in shorter bursts early, as coaches often do when a player returns from a long-term absence. Oubre's second half performance was inspiring, as he showed flashes of his early season self after getting his feet wet earlier in the game.

Embiid dominates, but Sixers struggle from deep early

Embiid scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the first quarter, knocking down seven of his 10 field goal attempts and toying with Washington's defense with ease. Embiid was getting the best of Wizards starting center Daniel Gafford early, but when Gafford went to the locker room after four minutes with a leg injury, Embiid was battling against an undersized Danilo Gallinari, who stood little chance defending the reigning NBA MVP.

The Sixers should have put a ton of points on the board in the period. However, Embiid's supporting cast combined for just 10 points in the first quarter. How could this be? Embiid got whatever he wanted, and in turn generated wide open threes for his teammates. Unfortunately for Embiid, he and his teammates shot a combined 0-11 from three in the first quarter. They largely generated fantastic looks that, on a normal day, would have yielded a major lead early on. But they just wouldn't fall early on in this one.

De'Anthony Melton continues to improve

Melton scored a dozen points in the second quarter alone tonight, and also dished out three first half assists. He knocked down a triple, as he often does, but he also converted three different finishes at the rim, where he has often struggled during his Sixers tenure.

Melton entered the night shooting nearly the same percentage from three-point range — 40 percent — as he was from the rim — 41 percent. It is an interesting dichotomy, and while the Sixers are extremely grateful that Melton has become one of the league's better three-point shooters, their starting offense would be even more dangerous if he became somewhat of a threat inside the arc. Wednesday night was another strong step in the right direction for the sixth-year guard.

Half-court heave spurs Tyrese Maxey

Maxey struggled quite a bit in the first half, particularly from beyond the arc, where he was 0-4... until, to beat the buzzer at the end of the second quarter, he heaved one from half-court and banked it in. It was, of course, a product of luck more than anything else. But it is also a shot Maxey takes several times during his pregame warmup routine before every single game. In any case, it did him a lot of good.

In the third quarter, Maxey got in one of his classic grooves. He was dominating on drives, consistently getting into the lane, absorbing contact and finishing through it with layups and floaters, even when the fouls were not always called. Maxey has not been overly efficient in recent weeks, so it was encouraging to see him get things going and look like the version of himself that couldn't be stopped early in the season.

An interesting rotation tweak... and correction

In nearly every game all season in which Embiid and Maxey have both been available, Nurse has staggered the two of them rigidly to ensure he always has at least one of them on the floor. Typically, Embiid plays the entire first and third quarters, while Maxey plays the entire second and fourth quarters. It's a way to ensure the Sixers have an elite scorer on the floor at all times, and it allows both players to shine on their own for certain periods of time without having to defer to the other.

In this one, though, Nurse played Maxey and Embiid together for the entire first quarter then played a significant portion of the second quarter with neither on the floor. This seems like an unnecessary challenge for the Sixers' bench units, especially when Tobias Harris is not playing particularly well to theoretically bolster those units. It's unclear what led Nurse to do this, because in the second half, Maxey got his customary rest in the third quarter and returned to open the fourth when Embiid sat.

It may have been as simple as not getting enough dead balls in the right moments. It may have been something more. That much is unclear, but as Nurse continues to tinker with his substitution patterns, it's something to keep an eye on.

Sixers exhibit poor defensive effort but hang on for win

Every good NBA team plays down to lesser competition at different points during the season, and the Sixers have certainly never been an exception to that. But after four days off, one would have hoped for much better intensity from the Sixers, particularly on the defensive end, against one of the single worst teams in the association.

Their issues were not schematic, nor were they caused by some sort of outrageously hot Washington shooting streak. The effort was just poor. The Sixers did just enough down the stretch to get the win, and it's hard to imagine these issues persisting in big games, but performances like these are ones they should want to avoid.

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