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The Sixers earned their seventh straight win despite a poor first quarter against the Pistons, riding Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid to a 114-106 victory.
Here’s what I saw.
— Joel Embiid was among the many Sixers players who slept through the first quarter of this game, and you couldn’t even argue that he found his rhythm late in the first half. This was a game more about Embiid being overwhelming than Embiid being good. Even with a very good young big in Jalen Duren to battle him, the Pistons had basically no chance to keep Embiid from bulldozing his way to the rim.
Tyrese Maxey was slow to start scoring the basketball, but he picked up on how inadequate their Embiid coverage was fairly early, hitting the big man over and over and over again with pocket passes and slick entry feeds. We’ve seen Embiid dazzle with shooting displays in the past, but there was a different sort of approach in this game. It was downhill, smashmouth basketball with an intent to get to the rim, and even after picking up some cheap fouls early, Embiid kept coming, rolling hard and putting the Pistons in no-win positions.
It was an unending free-throw parade for one of the league’s best foul-drawers, and in the eyes of many viewers, this is how this dude ought to play every night. Forget the trail threes and the attacks from the elbow — run the floor, seal your man, and dare them to try to stop you within six feet of the basket. There was a possession in the final three minutes where he missed multiple attempts at the rim and just would not be denied, eventually pulling down one last offensive rebound before scoring the putback.
I don’t want to give him too much credit for the hellacious blocks at the rim because he did have some poor effort plays early, but I think by the time it was all said and done, Embiid had left a big imprint on the game on both ends. If load managing at the start of the game is what it took, I suppose you can’t argue with the results.
— Tyrese Maxey took a long time to get going on offense in this game, but he deserves tremendous credit for the strides he has made on defense this year. One game after he looked genuinely good guarding guys like Jaylen Brown, Maxey was a disruptive presence against Detroit.
Under Nick Nurse’s guidance, the Sixers have pinched in on drivers a heck of a lot more than in years past. While Maxey isn’t thought of as a guy who can cause a lot of trouble with his length, his pace and timing allowed him to break up a ton of plays in Detroit. Maybe RoCo’s teaching him some dark arts on the defensive end, or maybe this is just the result of years of experience and a scheme that suits him a bit better. Whatever it is, there are far more moments in each game where you can think to yourself, “Man, Tyrese is getting after it on defense.”
When Maxey is able to be the source of a turnover, he can cut out the middleman for a fast break, charging through weak transition defenses without having to collect an outlet from a teammate first. That up-tempo play helped sustain him early in the game, when his runners and floaters were hitting iron and his confidence appeared to be waning.
(Also in the good column — Maxey earned a fair few free throws in the first half, putting pressure on Tony Brothers and Co. to blow the whistle with physical, downhill play. If your shot isn’t falling, that’s how you have to make a living as a guard.)
You knew he was going to turn up for winning time, of course. The stretch to open the fourth quarter is quickly becoming his favorite period of the game, with Maxey turning loose and rampaging through second units before the closing lineups come in. He and De’Anthony Melton overwhelmed the Pistons to open the final period, and all of those shots that Maxey couldn’t get to fall suddenly began to drop.
I love the relentlessness he is playing with as the featured guard this season, shaking off any cold stretches when the team needs him most.
(And by the way, the box score stuffing this dude is doing is crazy. Maxey is hitting the glass hard, playmaking without turning the ball over, and exceeding expectations in every possible way. That All-Star momentum is building.)
— Robert Covington has been a hugely positive force for the Sixers in the early stretch post-trade without having to do anything out of character. No longer asked to be a top-assignment defender in the starting lineup, Covington’s ability to deflect lazy passes and strip drivers in his airspace remains elite.
How else do you explain Covington coming away with four steals in 13 minutes? On a night where the Sixers were offensively challenged for a good portion of the game, they had to find a way to stop an exuberant Pistons team from busting open a huge lead. Covington’s minutes off of the bench certainly helped.
— Ho hum, another hyper-efficient Tobias Harris game to open the season. He is crushing under Nurse’s leadership, striking the perfect balance between on-ball creator and off-ball target. Love to see it.
— For anybody who loves to complain about a head coach’s rotations, we could have a freaking field day talking about what happened early in this game. The Sixers threw an Embiid/Morris/Batum/Covington/Beverley lineup out there at one point in the first half, which might have a single ballhandler if you added up the dribbling ability of every guy in the lineup.
De’Anthony Melton’s start to the season has complicated matters in a big way, as he should be a connector in a lot of lineups and is borderline unplayable on offense right now. As a result of his ice-cold start to the year from deep, Melton has had to get a bit bolder than is advisable in attacking the basket, and his success rate there hasn’t been much better. And it has certainly been uglier at the hoop, where his shots are often caroming off of the bottom of the rim or flying off of the glass into the hands of the opponent.
With Melton unable to give you trustworthy minutes as a secondary ballhandler, Nick Nurse has been left with a series of tough choices. Do you put Jaden Springer into the game, hoping that his offensive concerns are outweighed by his defensive impact? I wouldn’t have advocated for the route Nurse took, mostly because I think Marcus Morris is beyond washed, but I suppose for the time being they might size up with big wings and hope that defense and Embiid carry the day.
Notably, good Melton minutes in the second half led to Philadelphia pushing to a double-digit lead. And Nurse abandoned Marcus Morris altogether, so he didn’t get it wrong for long.
— Every time Tyrese Maxey passes up a semi-open three, an angel loses its wings. And Hades had to be whooping and hollering on Friday night because Maxey’s approach from beyond the arc swung wildly from possession to possession for no discernible reason.
It wasn’t as though Maxey ignored the three-point line entirely because he hit a beautiful stepback three in the first half that you would have expected to turn into a big scoring run for No. 0. But I thought Maxey was far too gunshy despite getting a fair amount of threes up by the end of the game. After crushing with his runner/floater package during an important fourth-quarter run against the Celtics, Maxey leaned far too heavily on the in-between game against the Pistons.
In any case, he ended up finding his way, obviously.
— The Sixers have made effort and hard work their calling card early in the regular season, and decided they had simply had enough of that after using it to beat an elite Celtics team on Wednesday. There are times when effort is used as a stand-in explanation for what’s actually going on, but the Sixers simply didn’t show up ready to play on Friday night.
It’s always easy to pin it on the franchise player, and Joel Embiid absolutely didn’t help matters. Jalen Duren has gotten off to a strong start this season, and Embiid got beat down the floor by the rising big early on Friday night, allowing Duren to score an easy bucket in transition. There was a lack of sharpness all over the floor — Embiid tried to throw an entry pass to Marcus Morris late in the first quarter that must have missed his teammate by five feet or more, and not because he sailed the pass over his head.
But he wasn’t the only guy who showed up with a casual attitude. All five Sixers players had a brain cramp at the same time on first-quarter inbound play, with Melton picking up a five-second violation in the process. These guys let Detroit hang around much longer than was necessary, and it was great to see them return to form in half two.
— Seeing what you have in Marcus Morris is perfectly understandable this soon after trading for him. But if 2023 Marcus Morris is going to pick up techs for arguing with officials over foul calls, he should be sent to the phantom zone never to be seen or heard from again.
Even without that technical foul from noted enemy of the podcast Tony Brothers, Morris was worse than anyone could have expected. This was a golden opportunity to play real rotation minutes in two different lineup styles — an Embiid-led lineup and the Maxey-led bench — and he was horrific in both. The problem was the same in both configurations, with Morris lost at sea on the defensive end. Detroit hunted him with cuts whenever he was on the floor, and his slow reaction time forced him to take multiple cheap fouls, gifting the Pistons free points.
Can’t say I am interested in seeing much more of Morris, because if the hometown rejuvenation effect isn’t enough to get him rolling, I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly spring to life in the middle of the season.