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We got the first 50-point game of Tyrese Maxey’s career on Sunday evening, with the fourth-year guard putting on a dazzling display in a 137-126 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Here’s what I saw.
— A week ago, the Sixers used a single play to absolutely dismantle a bad Wizards team. When they went over the tape to prepare for the Indiana Pacers, they must have seen a similar weakness in coverage, because they spammed the exact same empty corner pick-and-roll to open Sunday’s game.
It turns out to be hard to stop Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey when you get the former rolling downhill and the latter in space with options to pick from. Myles Turner has always been in hell trying to keep up with Embiid — he’s fortunate to simply avoid fouling out — and Maxey added more complication to his life with a heavy dose of speed. The action is devastating because of how many ways Philadelphia can beat you. You can try to sell out to stop the ballhandler, but then Embiid has a free path to the rim. You can hang back to stop Embiid, but then Maxey can get to the rim. Even if you time it well and get over to contest Maxey at the last second, he can use his stellar runner and floater package to (likely) score two more.
You would have forgiven the Sixers if they only ran one play the entire game, but they apparently decided to take mercy on Indiana after scoring or drawing a foul on five consecutive possessions to open the game. How kind of them.
— Whose first half was more impressive between the two stars? Was it Joel Embiid waltzing to 19-5-2 in a single quarter without breaking a sweat, or Tyrese Maxey lighting the nets up in a run by himself to open the second? If it was an argument in the first half, there was no debate about the overall performance — Maxey got him by a decent margin.
Maxey’s was certainly the more dazzling display, with a bit of sizzle to go with the substance. The Pacers brought in backup big man Jalen Smith to fill in for Myles Turner, and Maxey took him for a ride for about six consecutive minutes. If he had to switch or step out on him in space, you could just forget about it, and when Smith made the mistake of conceding space to Maxey on the perimeter, the fourth-year guard was happy to step into deep pull-up threes to pad Philadelphia’s lead.
Philadelphia’s perimeter leader is quickly inching into “What the hell do we do with this guy?” territory. He has a scoring weapon to utilize from every area of the floor, and with his playmaking chops improving with each passing game, it’s harder and harder to sell out to stop him. There were several plays where Maxey the passer was actually let down by his teammates, including on a gorgeous threaded pass in the first half that bounced off of Paul Reed’s hands and went out of bounds.
Hell, what about Maxey’s defense so far this year? He had some blown assignments and miscommunications like the rest of them on Sunday, but every game he is coming up with at least one or two WOW moments on that end. Did you think he was capable of this?
Though this is about roster construction as much as anything else, you almost have to worry about Maxey-less minutes more than the Embiid-less minutes. James Harden was the maestro of the early fourth quarter last season, carrying bench lineups with his combination of scoring and playmaking at lead guard. Maxey has blown away any reasonable expectations you could have as the leader of that group — after serving as the No. 2 for most of the game up to that point, he has been seizing games and offering the final knockout blow for Philadelphia in those minutes.
You can’t put a ceiling on what this guy can be at the moment. With range out to 30+ feet, killer speed, and synergy with a dominant big, there is no stopping him. The Pacers did everything they could to keep the ball out of his hands on Sunday night, doubling him out to halfcourt, and he still controlled the game down the stretch, dropping his first-ever 50-point game. Something special is brewing here.
— Myles Turner has to be the best player in the league who simply has zero chance against Joel Embiid. Turner is everything a modern big should be on paper — he can step out and hit jumpers, protect the rim, and he’s a decent (though not great) rebounder. But the Pacers would have about as much success defending Embiid if their game plan was to put a cardboard cutout of Celtics big Al Horford out there to scare Embiid.
Unlike in some meetings in the past, Embiid didn’t just bully the slighter Turner and put his ass on the bench with foul trouble. The jumper was working from the first possession onward, with Embiid opening his night with a baseline jumper and expanding the range from there. There were a handful of sloppy, stilted possessions in the first half that Embiid just shot his team out of, hitting turnaround jumpers and awkward angle shots that would make a lot of scoring greats shake their head in disbelief.
I did think Embiid took his foot off of the gas in the middle portion of this game, and the Sixers were certainly worse off as a result. My least favorite play of the third quarter came after Philadelphia looked to have a chance to get a fast break going, and he threw a pass with about 25 percent purpose to a streaking Maxey, which the Pacers pounced on and turned into a transition three of their own.
So that we’re not putting it all on him, I think the Maxey-less lineups definitely suffered (again) from a lack of shot-creation ability. When you’re putting groups like Covington/House/Korkmaz/Beverley next to him, Embiid is going to be asked to be a jumbo point guard on basically every possession, and that has never been a recipe for consistent success. Admittedly, they had some near misses on Embiid passes to cutters and shooters breaking free, but on the whole, those minutes featured a lot of side-to-side movement with no downhill threat, making life easy for Indiana on defense.
(This is where I think they’ll miss Oubre until he’s back in the lineup at some point. While he may have his warts as a creator, he’s got a competent handle and can at least dribble you out of some trouble late in the clock. Bigger loss than I think people probably realize because of that.)
In any case, this was still a largely positive outing for Embiid even if he lost the headlines to Mazey. The big man continues to show up on the glass this season, a welcome change after watching teams kill the Sixers with second-chance points in seasons past. On the offensive end, there were a few second-half possessions where Embiid created two and three chances to score for Philly on one trip down, and then eventually drew fouls as Indiana hauled him to the ground, helpless to defend him any other way.
— They didn’t have the loudest stat lines you’ll ever see, but I thought the two-man combo of Patrick Beverley and Paul Reed brought the required amount of “dawg” to the game in the fourth quarter. Indiana looked to be on the verge of a somewhat shocking comeback victory. But between Maxey’s outburst and the energy of their bench mob, Philly managed to right the ship and get this game over the line.
Reed really struggled through the first few games of the season, but he has looked much closer to the guy who closed last season strong in the last week or so. Maxey hasn’t needed much assistance to destroy backup units, but every little bit helps.
— The cost of two guys going nuclear for an entire half, as we learned with James Harden and Joel Embiid running the show, is that the rest of your guys might struggle to build any forward momentum. Philly’s top duo had 51 points when the halftime buzzer sounded, while the rest of the group had 18 on 8/21 from the field. That’s, well, not the best, and it was the main reason the Sixers struggled to pull away from Indiana.
Tobias Harris has been ultra-efficient to start the season, but he came crashing back to Earth a bit in this one, clanging open catch-and-shoot jumpers while failing to make up for it with the in-between and at-rim finishing. The Sixers definitely tried to feature him, feeding him a few early-clock touches against smaller players in the mid-post, but his success rate was nowhere close to good enough despite getting those favorable matchups. As the Pacers made their run to get back into this game, the Sixers went back to the Harris well in the third quarter, and it didn’t get much better.
— The defense kinda sucked in this game, but Maxey though.
— Wells Fargo Center spent something like $15 million on the gigantic jumbotron that hangs over the court, and for like half of every game the information that they leave up there is completely wrong or unusable. Either whoever is in charge of updating it is constantly asleep at the wheel, or jumbotrons are like cars and depreciate considerably the second they leave the lot*.
I’m not asking for much, but an accurate reflection of the stats and the players on the floor would be cool.
*Are there jumbotron lots? I’m going to have to look into this.