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    Instant observations: Sixers outlast Celtics in (sort of) statement win

    Kyle Neubeck Avatar
    November 8, 2023
    Maxey shooting a jumper.

    The Sixers nearly gave away a double-digit lead in the final minutes of the game, but a strong defensive outing from the group allowed them to hold on for a 106-103 win over the Boston Celtics.

    Here’s what I saw.

    The Good

    — This game was billed as the first big test of Tyrese Maxey’s season, rightfully so. In the early stages of the game, it sort of looked like the same old story. Boston’s bigger and more physical guards were able to guide him where they wanted on the floor, which led to some tough shots for No. 0 at the rim and from midrange.

    But unlike in the past, when he would have slid into a secondary role and hung out on the wing, there was nowhere to hide for Maxey in this game. He had to take a step forward because he didn’t have someone like James Harden alongside him to take all of the responsibility. And that worked wonders for Maxey in this game, as we all watched him problem-solve in real-time.

    It all began to come together in the dying moments of the second quarter, on a possession where Derrick White stunted toward Embiid in the middle of the floor and gave Maxey extra space. Maxey read White’s body language perfectly, side-stepping into a three that he canned with ease. You could tell that shot put some pep in his step on the next possession because Jrue Holiday turned his back for just a moment and Maxey got ready to fire from parking-lot range, though the make would end up being waived off because of a foul on Embiid in the paint. But the confidence was there, and he played with a lot more purpose from that point forward.

    Maxey had already been a key weapon in Philadelphia’s transition attack, and one of the biggest changes to this team’s identity is a result of his pace. With no Harden to wait around for and Nick Nurse mandating tempo, the Sixers are flying on the break, with Maxey often the beneficiary of long, lofted outlet passes from the other four guys on the floor. When he starts a bit slow, as he did Wednesday, Maxey can build a bit of confidence by making a few cheapies in transition.

    (Easy for me to call them cheapies, of course. I couldn’t move that fast with a jetpack strapped to my back.)

    But the pivotal stretch came at the start of the fourth quarter, with Embiid on ice and Boston looking to chip away at the lead. Maxey turned to old reliable, his runner and floater package, to basically carry the offense by himself during that stretch. There was no fear shown, no hesitation in his game, just Maxey slicing and probing and looking for any crease in the defense with which to work. And when you looked up to see Embiid checking into the game, Boston had only dented their lead by three points, a result you’d take after nearly six minutes of basketball.

    For most players in most games, you’d look at Maxey’s points scored per field goal and say that it was a bad night for him. But I would imagine Nick Nurse will take a victory lap after this game because Maxey did what he has demanded out of him for months — just keep firing, and let the chips fall where they may. Loved this outing for him.

    — Robert Covington was often a maddening player during his first run here, perhaps because he was overextended as one of their most important guys. But boy did he make a notable difference in this game, coming up with some key deflections, energy plays, and even a made three during the third-quarter run that put Philly up double digits.

    It was true five years ago and it’s still true now — if Covington is in the game, you can bet he’s going to get his hands on the ball at least once or twice. Drivers can’t feel safe with Covington pinching in from the perimeter, and those same tools make him a useful offensive rebounder, too. On a key play late in the third, Covington threw his body into traffic to pry a ball loose, relocated out to the perimeter to get himself set, and canned a big-time three to the delight of the home crowd.

    RoCo doing RoCo things. Nice to have him back.

    — I waited too long to begin writing about Tobias Harris, but this dude is playing inspired basketball right now. Given more freedom and responsibility on offense, he has risen to the occasion, reminding people of why the Sixers traded for him and paid him a fortune in the first place. He is the walking embodiment of all Nurse has preached this season, guarding and running and popping up in the right places at the right times to try to put them over the top.

    Harris has put together some huge possessions when games have hung in the balance this season, and I can’t overstate how important it has been for him to set an example by running the floor. His teammates are rewarding him over and over again for getting ahead on the break, with Harris able to attack favorable matchups and draw some early clock fouls by forcing cross-matches.

    And yes, there has been some good, old-fashioned shotmaking from Mr. Harris, who is probably going to crash down to Earth there at some point. But enjoy this ride while it lasts.

    — Paul Reed had a bit of a rocky start to this season, but the past few games have been a return to form for BBall Paul. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Reed has basically stopped experimenting with the things we heard about in the offseason, mainly outside shooting. By keeping him focused on what he does well, like offensive rebounding and finishing around the hoop, Reed is back in the good book.

    The energy changed when he checked into this game to open the second quarter, with Reed throwing his body around with reckless abandon. But apart from the offensive rebounds and putback dunks/layups, Reed also had a moment of brilliance in isolation, putting Jrue Holiday in the spin cycle en route to two points at the hoop. Welcome back, Bball.

    — Joel Embiid has had his best games against the Boston Celtics when he wastes no time getting to work. Al Horford is an intelligent and purposeful defender, but there is a physical disadvantage he’s dealing with whenever he has to guard Embiid. It’s just a matter of taking advantage.

    There was some sputtering from Embiid to open this one, with the Celtics throwing different looks (e.g. Jrue Holiday) at him in order to throw him off of his game. Over time, it turned into the Embiid vs. Horford show we’ve all come to know over the years, and I thought he handled that matchup well. There were a lot of catches on the block that led right into moves, Embiid not giving the older player a moment to settle in, crowd him, or reach for the ball as he went into his attempts to score.

    This was an ugly, junk-ish game for a lot of the night, though, because I thought he overpassed when he could have just taken jumpers in isolation. Nobody except for me wants him to be a jump shooter, I know, but I’d rather see that than watch him dribble into traffic repeatedly. And he proved that philosophy correct with a bullseye jumper in the final minute, providing just enough room between the Sixers and Celtics to escape with a win.

    And the rim protection has been something special early in the year. Hope it continues all season.

    — Nic Batum is going to play a ton of important minutes for this team until/unless he is moved later this season.

    — I think this game showcased the team’s identity shift under Nick Nurse (and without James Harden) about as well as you could hope for. The Celtics couldn’t fall asleep in transition defense because they’re no longer playing a team walking up the floor every possession. The Celtics couldn’t hunt one apathetic defender on or off of the ball, because the Sixers are playing damn hard on that end of the floor, flying around and closing out with a trust that the rest of the group will match their energy. You don’t need to go deep into tactics to see or feel it.

    This team has bought all the way in, and even though they melted down a bit in the final minutes, I don’t think that takes away from what they showed for the first 45 or so.

    The Bad

    — The Sixers staggering Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey is the right thing to do. There should never be a lineup on the floor without at least one of them, unless we’re talking garbage time when the two of them are waving towels from the bench. But if they’re going to do that, the Sixers also need to pick up a ballhandler at some point this season, because the Maxey-less lineups are not sustainable even with Embiid on the floor to prop them up.

    In theory, you can get away with playing a group of secondary creators alongside Embiid and just dump the ball to him on every possession. But it severely limits your options with what you can run if he has a group like Robert Covington, Nic Batum, Furkan Korkmaz, and Patrick Beverley on the floor together with him. Korkmaz ended up being the guy running sets in the first quarter, and though he’s okay as an occasional creator, he was stonewalled in the paint to the surprise of absolutely no one watching this game.

    Maybe another star gets added to the lineup and ends up playing those minutes with Embiid in the long term, but I wouldn’t mind them taking a flier on a normal, relatively cheap backup guard strictly to play those minutes. An innings eater would do here.

    — De’Anthony Melton’s cold Game 6 against Boston stuck in the minds of fans all summer for good reason. Had the Sixers’ two-way guard been even lukewarm in that game, Philadelphia would have been in their first conference finals in 22 years, and then who knows how the offseason plays out.

    I say that because, unfortunately, Melton wouldn’t have been able to hit water from a boat on Wednesday night. Aside from one corner three late in the first half, he was absolutely hopeless on offense, given acres of space on the perimeter to jack up a bunch of bricks. It wasn’t much better when he tried to score at the rim, which has always been a bigger issue for Melton to begin with. He turned some relatively painless scoring opportunities into slasher movies. The big, bad Al Horford was always sort of in the frame and forcing him to lose all composure.

    Somehow, it got even worse in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. He bricked an open three that probably would have put the game away, and then tripped over himself for a horrible turnover that allowed Boston to cut the lead to four with a minute left. Suddenly, the good vibes had evaporated, and the game was there to be had for the Celtics.

    There has been a lot of discussion about who the fifth starter is for Philadelphia, with Kelly Oubre considered a sort of temporary placeholder while they integrate the new guys. Are we sure they don’t need to put two starting spots up for grabs? Because if Melton doesn’t pull out of this slump soon, they probably owe it to themselves to look at some different combinations to open and close games.

    The Ugly

    — I am not going to seek out what Nic Batum’s finger looked like when he came off of the floor late in the first half, and the reactions online suggest I am right to stay away from that picture.

    — It was not exactly a banner night for the zebras. Missed travels, ridiculously sensitive technical fouls, iffy foul calls, this one had it all.

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