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October 20, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers come up short against Bucks even after fourth quarter tear

Basketball returns to Philadelphia! In their home opener down in South Philly, the Sixers fell to the Bucks 90-88, falling to 0-2 to start the 2022-23 campaign. The team's two stars had divergent performances with Joel Embiid's offensive play increasingly stagnant while James Harden looked like his 2018 MVP self. 

To start the season, I will be on instant observations duty with our excellent Sixers beat writer Kyle Neubeck on his honeymoon (congrats!), so here are my takes from the night that was down at the Wells Fargo Center... 

The good

• Tyrese Maxey is so lightning quick. It's an extremely low bar to clear, but the Sixers haven't had a player who's both this fast and this good at basketball (sorry, Ish Smith) since Allen Iverson himself. Seeing Harden lead the break off a turnover in the first quarter, loft a pass to a streaking Maxey, and then have the 21-year-old go up for a dunk had this Wells Fargo Center crowd rocking.

Unsurprisingly, Maxey can torch former Sixer and current Buck George Hill off the dribble. In the Sixers' 2021 second-round loss to the Bucks, Hill played 110 minutes. Maxey played just 77. Maxey had yet to become the player we now know him to be at that point, but it's a decision that's increasingly bizarre in hindsight with how lost Hill looked as a Sixer. 

• It's another similarly low bar to clear, but James Harden is the best passer I've ever seen in a Sixers uniform. Yes, that was one facet of Ben Simmons' game that was unquestionably great, but the playmaking praise and "passing gene" applied to Simmons are even more true for Harden. 

It's Harden's offensive versatility that makes him even more deadly. He looks refreshed driving to the cup compared to the player Sixers fans saw at the end of the 2022 season. He drained five threes against the Celtics on Tuesday. His mid-range jumper was lethal on Thursday. A defense having to take into account all those elements is already on skates when Harden hits Maxey for an easy basket. He was the whole offense when they went from flailing in the second half to battling back to take a late lead. 

Through two games, Harden has been his Rockets-era self. The sustainability of that over the whole season remains to be seen and we're going off just two games here, but Sixers fans should rightfully be excited about the Harden they've gotten this week. 

• After a sloppy third quarter where the team looked completely dejected, the Sixers got some real juice from a lineup of Harden, De'Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker and Montrezl Harrell early in the fourth. That's a Daryl Morey fever dream of players connected to the Rockets (though Melton never suited up for Houston). They were everywhere on D and running a Harden-captained break with ease. Heading into the fourth, I saw a team ready to roll over and this five-man unit brought life to the arena. That's an "instant energy" lineup Rivers should be willing to use when momentum appears to be slipping away. 

With things tied up at 80-80 and fewer than seven minutes left, Doc Rivers went full Moreyball and had Tobias Harris sub in for Harrell and played Tucker at small-ball center for a short burst. I'm shocked Rivers was willing to do so this early in the season. 

That run made this a legitimate basketball game for the last few minutes. A playoff-like atmosphere took over the WFC. Harden turned back the clock. They just couldn't nail it. In the most Sixers fashion possible, they lost a game they had no business winning the entire way until they were actually leading late and came up short. 

The bad

• Embiid's third quarter was one of the worst I've seen from him in years, if not ever. He scored zero points in the whole second half. Strangely, Rivers didn't give him a breather until there was less than a minute left in the third. Get him off the court when things clearly don't look right instead of doubling down on him "playing through it" against a team featuring several all-league defenders.   

As I wrote on Tuesday, I'm grading Embiid on the scale of an MVP, not just a regular ol' dude off the bench or even an All-Star. His counting stats were good against the Celtics, but something just feels off with him. I can't pinpoint it. The offense looked messy. The total earth-shattering Embiid of the last two years has yet to show up in this young NBA season. No, I am obviously not forecasting a true step down from his All-NBA form, but the Sixers matched up with their two biggest threats to an NBA Finals berth this week and Embiid was the superior superstar in neither of those games. 

When the Sixers were down one with under 24 seconds remaining, Embiid found himself with the ball in an ISO situation. There was a weird murmur throughout the arena, as everyone, press row included, was confused why they were running things through a version of Embiid as cold as ever rather than a version of Harden hotter than he's ever been as a Sixer. He promptly tossed a ball out of bounds on a pass to Maxey. The Sixers retained possession, but an ensuing drive to the basket from Harden didn't connect for a game-winner. 

Overreactions to a two-game sample size are a fruitless endeavor, but I'm at the Wells Fargo Center to write about how this squad looks and size up what that means for when the real season starts in the spring. The early returns aren't great for their MVP-caliber big man. 

A Saturday matchup with the lowly Spurs might just be what the Sixers need to fine-tune things and right the ship on the way to another 50-win season. 

• After Harrell was the first big off the bench on Tuesday, Rivers went to Paul Reed early on Thursday night. 

In the second quarter, Harden attempted to run a pick and roll with Reed. I'm not sure Reed got the memo because Harden had to just yell, "Roll! Roll! Roll!" a bunch. It looked as if Reed was trying to set up for a pick and pop. I love Reed's energy out there, but I can't in good conscience ever recommend running a pick and pop for Reed in the second quarter of a nationally televised home opener.

Shortly after, Reed was tasked with d-ing up multiple-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not an ideal matchup by any means, but Reed relatively held his ground until Antetokounmpo drove and Reed fouled him. The crowd did not like that in the slightest. Hey, the people love the B-Ball Paul experience. 

The ugly

• The bell ringer for the season opener of a team that believes they have championship aspirations? Former owner Michael Rubin. He would not have been my first thought. Grabbing Bryce Harper or another Phillie felt like a no-brainer with their playoff run. The Eagles are undefeated and have their bye week! A.J. Brown, Haason Reddick, Avonte Maddox and Miles Sanders were all literally at the game. That was... a decision on the Sixers' part. Nothing gets the Philly faithful riled up like Michael Rubin! 

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