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December 30, 2021

Instant observations: Embiid and Maxey carry Sixers to big win vs. Nets

Kevin Durant and James Harden combined for 66 points, but it wasn't enough against Philly, who was without Doc Rivers

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined to push the Sixers to a huge victory over the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a statement 110-102 victory on the road.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Their defensive execution wasn't the best throughout the first quarter, but Philadelphia's opening period against the Nets on Thursday was one of their best of the season. Hot-shooting carried them to an eight-point lead after 12 minutes of action, but there was more to it than simply making jumpers, with plenty of repeatable things happening all over the floor.

The big story, however, was the same as it always is. Joel Embiid was absolutely ridiculous for most of the first half, bailing out the Sixers with some insane shotmaking over outstretched arms. This was an inside-out attack that gave the Nets fits for 24 consecutive minutes, with Embiid pouring in 22 points before halftime on a wide variety of looks. There aren't many centers who can score through contact out of a post-up, score off-the-dribble in transition after pulling down a defensive rebound, and bank in stepback threes. He did all three within the first two-quarters of this game.

How exactly are you supposed to guard Embiid when he shoots like this? Those early-season issues with the new Wilson basketball appear to be fading, with the big guy finding his groove and doing his best to drag this team to respectability. Embiid stayed ahead of the game against the Nets by (mostly) avoiding putting the ball on the floor too much, establishing and reestablishing position as many times as he needed to create the seal and twirl toward the hoop.

The jumper began to tail off in the second half, though some of the problems felt contextual rather than a reflection of Embiid's play. Far too often, Embiid was asked to shoot a late-clock jumper following possessions where the perimeter guys failed to create separation and defaulted to kicking it out to the seven-foot shooter with the clock winding down. Even though he is capable of thriving in that context, it's not something they should be asking him to do for a full 48 minutes.

But when it was time to put this one away, Embiid made all the right decisions from the center of Philadelphia's offense, including with when he needed to exert max effort to get the job done. The icing on the cake was a humongous offensive rebound in the game's final 20 seconds, with Embiid scoring through contact to put the game out of reach.

And while I wouldn't call this one of his best performances on defense — the Nets forced him into a lot of help situations by roasting the other defenders around him — there were still some brilliant highlights, including a chasedown block of James Harden after he turned the ball over in the third quarter:

The Sixers have talked tough about holding out with a Ben Simmons trade if it's necessary to maximize their return, but it's really difficult for me to see a scenario where you can just punt a year of this guy's prime. He is as good as it gets.

• We have seen Tyrese Maxey show flashes of chemistry with Joel Embiid recently, but this was the first time that it felt like both players had room to thrive playing next to one another, the sort of organic chemistry you can't fake or force. They are learning how to find and play off of one another, and some of that is as simple as Maxey showing courage to let it fly from deep. And, you know, making those attempts, because nobody cares about your courage if you're bricking open threes.

On an Embiid ball-screen early in the first quarter, Maxey had a bit of daylight in front of him, taking (and making) a confident pull-up three we started to see a lot more in Summer League. When Embiid hit the bench nursing an ankle issue late in the third, it was Maxey who buoyed the Sixers offense and left them in a position to win one in the final quarter, hitting back-to-back threes and nearly making a third on a heat check two-for-one attempt late in the quarter. Maxey would bury a massive three down the stretch as well, with an offensive rebound from Matisse Thybulle giving him the chance to push the Sixers out in front.

Maxey playing with that sort of confidence is heartening even when the shots don't fall, because Philadelphia's offense feels more dangerous when it was Maxey handling the ball as opposed to, well, just about anyone else in the perimeter rotation. He was at least willing to try to challenge the Nets when they simply switched pick-and-rolls. Even if Maxey missed shots while attacking bigger defenders, those switches left the Sixers in advantageous positions on the o-glass, forwards or bigs suddenly matched with guard-sized players.

The chemistry between young guard and franchise center was on display down the stretch as well, with one of the plays of the young season for Philadelphia — on a short roll toward the hoop, Embiid found Maxey in the corner while on the move, trusting the second-year guard to make good on the opportunity. If Mike Breen were calling this game, it was a "Bang!" moment.

If he has enough time, you look at this kid and just believe he's going to figure it out. Hard worker, competitor, and already producing.

(A bonus note: whether this is a coaching point or not, Maxey seems to be figuring out that he should be trying to inject more pace into this team. His actions on the break against Brooklyn were more purposeful than they've been in some other recent games, and if he can improve their transition offense while discovering some synergy with Embiid, they will be off to the races.)

• Andre Drummond came out of the health and safety protocol as if he was shot out of a cannon, giving the Sixers a huge lift off of the bench against a team that can be exploited on the offensive glass just as much as Philadelphia. With a small-ish frontcourt in the game for Brooklyn, Drummond went to work on the glass as if he'd never left the lineup, creating extra possessions all by himself.

Much to my surprise, Drummond even showed off some good touch around the rim against Brooklyn, which was a huge departure from the normal Drummond experience. There was a soft jump hook that fell in off of the rim, a touch shot from in close, and some makes that don't require any touch, including two lob finishes on passes from Shake Milton and Tobias Harris.

Getting absolutely anything from Drummond in his first game back was a huge bonus, and between protecting the rim and his one-man act on the glass, he was one of their best players on Thursday night. The run Philadelphia went on to start the fourth quarter was almost all Drummond — with a lineup on the floor together that I can't remember sharing the floor previously (Drummond-Niang-Thybulle-Korkmaz-Curry), they inexplicably held off the Harden-led Nets.

• There was one noteworthy difference between Dan Burke coaching the Sixers and Doc Rivers coaching the Sixers — staggering lineups. The all-bench groups that have featured throughout Rivers' tenure were nowhere to be found on Thursday night, and while that's partially a product of the lineup getting reinforcements, there was a deliberate attempt by Burke to protect his backups by giving them a starter or two to run with at all times. Though Thybulle is a guy I'd consider a pseudo starter who technically kept them from going all bench to start the fourth, that felt like a product of Embiid's ankle issue changing the plan.

Now, whether you think Tobias Harris or Seth Curry are capable of lifting up those guys is another story. The Sixers are not structured like a lot of modern NBA teams, where a perimeter alpha tends to be the guy tasked with carrying backups. 

• Kevin Durant went out and got his, as Kevin Durant is going to do, but Matisse Thybulle made him work as hard as you could expect, and I thought he did a good job of weaponizing his athleticism on offense even if it was mostly as a rebounder. Get in where you fit in.

• Whatever the Sixers need to do to get Seth Curry back into the mind frame he was in to start the year, they should do it immediately. Some of the shots he hesitated to take against Brooklyn were downright shocking, with the younger Curry brother staring down open threes and midrange looks alike, gunking up an offense that already has enough problems without him getting more gunshy.

After halftime, Curry began to come alive, punishing the Nets for switching Nic Claxton on him in the hopes that the bigger defender could dissuade Curry from taking midrange jumpers. Think again, Steve Nash.

The Bad

• Tobias Harris is giving the Sixers almost nothing right now, which is one of the biggest reasons they're fighting tooth and nail for wins every single night, if not the single biggest reason. He has a lot of freedom within their offense, other players defer to him and let him run plays, and he absolutely wastes the golden opportunity he has in front of him.

There are a bunch of actions that pay dividends for the Sixers a high percentage of the time. You have the two-man game involving Seth Curry and Embiid, Maxey attacking a spread floor, Embiid in single coverage on the block, and so on. Nowhere near that category is Harris isolating against a defender, whether that's attacking from the perimeter or trying to make it happen from the mid-post. And his inability to get by guys or leverage advantages this year has been shocking, even if you're down on Harris generally — when he can't score with Patty Mills on him in the post, it says that he probably shouldn't be getting the ball in the mid-post area, full stop.

Some of his issues feel unsustainable in a good way. I can't imagine he's going to continue to miss layups at the rate he is lately, his Game 7 issues last June aside. But you can see the difference between Harris initiating compared to someone like Maxey, and it doesn't flatter the older, more expensive veteran. The Nets felt quite alright switching against Harris, even sagging enough to dare him to shoot at times, which should embarrass a guy whose calling card is supposed to be scoring and exploiting mismatches.

There is simply no excuse for how bad the Sixers are at defensive rebounding. They were not exactly up against a great offensive rebounding team in the Nets, and Brooklyn often made them look silly on Thursday night, slithering into the paint and going past Sixers players, helping to make up for the possession advantage the Sixers held for most of the night.

Without putting that whole problem on Harris, he is a way worse rebounder than he has any right to be, and some of their most egregious examples of poor glass cleaning fall on him. The effort to box out is rarely there, and not only that, Harris frequently stands around waiting for the ball to come to him, allowing guys who have no business beating him to rebounds go right past him. Patty Mills, the small Australian guard, was one of a few guys who took advantage of his lackadaisical approach.

(I do think the overall conversation about rebounding on social media during the game was overstated. The Sixers missed a lot of shots on the extra possessions they created by turning the Nets over, so the Nets built up big numbers on the defensive glass. Philly was competitive (mostly because of Drummond) in the offensive rebounding category all night. But I get it, because watching teams exploit their weaknesses is infuriating even for a neutral.)

As long as Harris is being miscast as one of the top dogs on this team, there will be an artificial ceiling on it. By virtue of Harris making all that money, it will be tough to change the calculus while he's on the roster. At the very least, the Sixers would do well to take more responsibility out of his hands in service of developing Maxey further.

The Ugly

• You have to admit, the Sixers coming out and playing that well to open the game with a new coach in charge is pretty funny. It doesn't mean absolutely anything, because they were basically guaranteed to be revved up for this game against a mostly healthy Nets team, but it's definitely funny.

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