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January 31, 2022

Instant observations: Maxey outlasts Morant as Sixers beat Grizzlies

The Sixers won what is undoubtedly the most exciting game they've played all year, a 122-119 overtime barnburner against the Grizzlies that ended with a streaking Tyrese Maxey layup.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Finding a way to get this version of Tyrese Maxey when Joel Embiid is on the floor is still the holy grail for the Sixers. While those two have been slowly building chemistry in fits and starts, Maxey is a completely different guy when he's able to go out and control the offense from the perimeter, which is a luxury he was afforded against Memphis.

Early on, the Sixers were able to get stops and run against the Grizzlies, which allowed Maxey to pick up some points in transition and get the wind behind his back. It's not as though those points were all freebies, though — Maxey had to make some tough buckets through contact, around length, and on reverse attempts, finding ways to score against a big Memphis frontcourt.

Once the early ones get down, it was on for Maxey, who managed to outpace Memphis star Ja Morant for the first half of this game. Morant had the flashier moves — he had a sequence late in the second quarter that nearly made my jaw drop — but Maxey was simply more effective, using his speed to get by bigger defenders and find the painted area. Scoring around Jaren Jackson Jr. can't be easy to a guy his size, so Maxey was happy to flex when he converted a layup through Jackson Jr.'s contact late in the first half:

Playmaking was a secondary concern for Maxey most of the night, but the early scoring outburst helped him suck defenders into his path to set up other teammates. He had a beautiful lob feed to Andre Drummond in the first half of this one, using a hesitation move to get to the paint, getting ever so close to the basket before flipping it up to his center for an easy two.

Memphis came on strong in the second half of this one, dialing up the defensive intensity as Morant came to life on the other end of the floor. And it was Maxey who most often put a stop to Grizzlies runs, keeping the Sixers ever-so-slightly out in front to give them an opportunity to win it down the stretch. The English he had to put on some of his layups to give them a chance was Shakesperean, and Maxey found a way to get them to drop anyway.

This kid is a joy to watch when he has it rolling, and he was worth the price of admission* on Monday night. It felt fitting that he got to put the finishing touches on the victory with a layup to close overtime, moments after scoring the bucket that put them out in front for good. Hell of a performance. 

(*I assume so anyway, I get paid to come to these games so I simply have to guess based on the vibes.)

• The Sixers fanbase is obviously dying for a big trade at the deadline, the Ben Simmons elephant just sitting in the corner mocking them at this point. But if a deal doesn't get done, Tobias Harris simply being good again would be a huge deal coming down the stretch, perhaps as good as a new addition to the team.

Boadly speaking he continued with the same approach that has served him well over the last few weeks. Open catch-and-shoot opportunities feel like the biggest indicator of where Harris' head is at and who he might be on a given night. On Monday night, he continued the trend of firing when he was open, and even when he stepped out of an opportunity or two, it was a quick move in search of a better shot or a move directly toward the rim.

The other end was occasionally an adventure for Harris, who had to guard Jaren Jackson Jr. for a lot of the game. JJJ is the bigger guy and was a problem for Harris in the post, drawing some fouls and pulling off post moves I'm sure Harris was envious of on Monday night. But Harris did a nice job of making JJJ work on the other end, attacking him with his face-up game and forcing him to guard him out to the three-point line, opening up some opportunities for other guys in the paint.

There were some questionable decisions down the stretch, and Harris did get stuck in no man's land a few times against Memphis, but overall I thought this was a good one.

• Andre Drummond has not had a chance to start a game in quite a while, thanks to Joel Embiid's good health and the insane run the franchise player has been on since late November. But with Embiid resting, the Sixers needed Drummond to answer the bell, and Philadelphia's backup big man went above and beyond to get them off to a great start.

Few positive things happened for Philly in the first quarter that didn't somehow involve Drummond. He did a nice job protecting the rim and stepping when it was required to slow down Ja Morant, and his risky playmaking paid off with a handful of assists. But his work on the offensive glass stole the show, with Drummond just moving guys out of the way in order to create extra possessions the Sixers needed.

You don't come up with double-digit rebounds on both ends of the floor without doing dirty work, and Drummond was working overtime in this game, literally and figuratively. Playing 40+ minutes after being relegated to spot duty for most of the last two months, he came up with critical blocks while playing with foul trouble in the extra five minutes, a testament to his mental focus late. 

Hats off to him after this one. Great game.  

• This is the sort of performance we have been waiting to see all season from Isaiah Joe. I understand that you're not going to be able to create multiple four-point play opportunities in many games (you'd be lucky to have that chance ever), but he looked much closer to a real role player in this came, good at what he needs to be and a helpful participant in the offense even when he wasn't spotting up from deep.

One moment stood out in the first half — Tobias Harris got himself into a bit of trouble posting up Tyus Jones, with Jaren Jackson Jr. sending help to squeeze Harris and nearly force a turnover. But Joe recognized the trouble spot and flashed through the lane, scoring a layup to the delight of the home crowd.

Obviously, the jumper matters most, and Joe getting some shots to go down is the primary concern until his percentages climb into the territory everyone expects him to get to. 

• He gets a lot of heat, some of it deserved, but I thought Doc Rivers handled this game about as well as he could. There was more lineup staggering, some successful zone defense, and they played their butts off in a game where they could have packed it in and accepted a loss to a better team (at least a better team with Embiid on the bench). That was a heck of an effort.

The Bad

• I'm not sure I have seen a worse performance from a Sixers player this year than the one we got from Seth Curry through three-quarters of Monday night's game. He spent the majority of this game unable to hit water from a boat, bricking quality look after quality look from all areas of the floor. Midrange pull-ups? No chance. Open threes? Think again. Perhaps he's trying to show solidarity with his brother, who has been on a notable shooting slump lately, or perhaps he's simply not right physically. 

Somehow, someway, Curry was able to find the range and find himself in the fourth right when the Sixers needed him most. With Maxey the guy cooking for most of the night, it was surprising to see them take it out of his hands in service of Curry-led possessions late in this one. Regardless, Curry rewarded the coach's confidence by coming up large when it mattered, and I suppose that wipes away the rest.

• Matisse Thybulle almost inarguably had the toughest job of any Sixers player on Monday night. Ja Morant has been absolutely on fire lately, dropping 30+ with regularity and spearheading the Memphis attack as the Grizzlies make the leap from a young, promising team to simply a good team. Morant is the head of the snake, and Rivers asked Thybulle to cut that off, mirroring their minutes most of the night.

That decision didn't stop Morant from impacting the game, but it did limit his effectiveness enough to give the Sixers a chance. Morant had five turnovers by halftime of this one, and Thybulle was a big reason why, clearly bothering No. 12 with his length and persistence on the defensive end. On plays where Morant usually has a bit more space to shoot or playmake, Thybulle hugged him close and got his mitts on anything within reach, blocking or deflecting Morant's attempts to send the Sixers running the other way.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, Thybulle's impact only lasted for about a half, and then Morant found a way to get downhill in pick-and-roll or force switches so he didn't have to deal with Thybulle in the first place. On the biggest possession of the game, Morant left Thybulle behind as if he was standing still, which is the sort of thing you rarely see happen with one of the league's best perimeter defenders. 

Rarely have we been able to say, "There's not much he could do" discussing Thybulle defending someone, but this was one of those rare occurrences. Morant ate Philly alive in the second half, and Thybulle has to wear some of that.

The Ugly

• I don't think there has been a better in-person experience for me this year than watching Ja Morant on Monday night. Getting another guy who is good enough to be an All-Star starter is probably an unrealistic goal in terms of getting running mates for Joel Embiid, but man, when you see what "special" looks like in the form of an opposing perimeter player, you start to see the hill the Sixers have to climb in order to get contention ready.

Not that they'd ever trade him, but what would you give up to get Morant? I'd trade Memphis at least half of Philadelphia's historical landmarks and probably one or two culinary specialties at least. Figure out whether you value water ice or soft pretzels more and start from there.

• The poor guy is already getting roasted by just about everyone on social media, but he deserves it — a fan hit on 20 during an in-game blackjack promotion Monday night, earning loud boos from the fans after he busted and earning him a spot on the wall of shame for the rest of his life. Next time, they should probably get a guy who actually understands how to play blackjack. 

(Then again, maybe that's the point. Not like most of the people who get to do the shooting contests can shoot a basketball. And for the record, I would fare poorly in those too.)

• There will be a lot of eyes on the last two-minute report tomorrow, and for good reason. That was a chaotic finish to this game, and Doc Rivers had every right to be irate at the no-call on Seth Curry to finish the game. The officials probably should have let him skate without a tech in the circumstances.

This is something you won't see happen very often:

Not the headline of the game, obviously, but some shaky officiating late.

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