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The Sixers won their fourth straight game in a comfortable victory over the Phoenix Suns, riding Kelly Oube early and Tyrese Maxey late in a 112-100 win.
Here’s what I saw.
— We are rapidly approaching the point where a big Kelly Oubre Jr. half might be expected, rather than a pleasant surprise. He has taken the opportunity to start and run with it over the last two games, and at this point, the only case to bump him from that top group is to provide scoring punch for a backup group that needs it.
But if you’re asking me, I think it’s basically a no-brainer to reward a guy who is playing like this. He’s going to come back down to Earth as a shooter/scorer at some point, so don’t expect to live in a world where he shoots 70 percent from the field for entire halves. Even still, he’s creating a lot of his own luck. Oubre is running hard in transition to set himself up for quick layups and open threes, cutting like a madman away from the ball, and saving any hero ball for late in the shot clock. His numbers aren’t coming from hijacking the offense and gunning, but from finding a home within Nick Nurse’s system.
None of the scoring would matter if Oubre was checked out on defense. He got in some early foul trouble against Phoenix on Saturday — not shocking given the difficulty of guarding Kevin Durant — but he managed to dial it down slightly without mailing it in, which a lot of guys struggle with. Oubre was still flying in and flashing for block and steal opportunities, keeping his foot on the gas for the good of the team. He has generally been locked in there to start the season, which Nurse has expressed his excitement over repeatedly.
He looks like a guy out to prove something this year, perhaps because he didn’t expect to end up in a spot where he took a minimum contract. Maybe the structure Nurse has put in place has helped him get to this place, too, after playing in a crappy situation in Charlotte last year. Whatever the reason is, the Sixers have to be over the moon about how much he has given them already, and if he plays his way out of their price range next summer, it will be a great reflection of what he offered this season. Keep the good vibes rolling, brother.
— It took a bit of time for Joel Embiid to get rolling in this one. Early in the game, there was a bit too much self-creation for the seven-foot center, with wild dribbling and foul-baiting attempts going wrong for the Sixers’ alpha. Too many turnovers, and not enough of a plan for how to make his life easier.
After halftime, though, Embiid looked like a completely different player. He simplified the approach in some respects, taking more outside jumpers instead of trying to dribble through the Suns on every possession. But you could argue it was just a matter of shotmaking opening the whole floor up for the big man, and it looked like he was seeing the game quicker than everyone else for most of the half. There was a beautiful pass to De’Anthony Melton on a backdoor cut, a casual (but spectacular) late clock three to end the third quarter, and a baptism of Drew Eubanks for good measure.
(I respect the bravery of Mr. Eubanks, but that was not a battle he had any chance to win.)
But the best part of this game for Embiid was that he was able to sit his ass on the bench in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter as his teammates took a small lead and turned it into a comfortable one. Tyrese Maxey caught fire, Tobias Harris started playing some big boy basketball, and that was basically all she wrote.
— Do we view Tobias Harris’ play this year as any kind of commentary on the fun he had playing under Doc Rivers and with James Harden? He certainly has the look of a guy happy to do something other than standing in the corner for half of the game. Even on a low-volume night, he feels more engaged.
Tyrese Maxey’s speed may be Philadelphia’s top weapon on the break, but Harris’ combination of size, strength, and speed isn’t that far behind. He’s able to serve as both a lane-filler and the lead ballhandler on the break, with Harris often taking defensive rebounds and going coast-to-coast as smaller defenders bounce off of him.
Those early buckets in transition seem to be fueling Harris’ confidence for the moments that really matter. This game was hanging in the balance entering the fourth, and Harris was a huge part of Philly pulling away from Phoenix, as he scored some tough baskets in and around the paint. His field goal percentage is going to crater at some point because it simply has to, but it has been a joy to watch him in this run of form.
One other thing that I loved and the home fans gave an ovation for — he ran the floor hard and got an early touch against Grayson Allen on the block, throwing his weight into him several times before drawing a foul and two free throws. If he’s going to get post touches, those are the ones I want to see, with Harris getting to punish a smaller defender after earning the opportunity by sprinting himself into a good situation. When all else fails, throwing the ball to Harris down there is a pretty good backup plan on a given possession.
— One noticeable difference between Nurse and former coach Doc Rivers is that the new guy has been more willing to completely change the rotation after halftime. Philadelphia’s backup group in Maxey-less lineups was starved for shot creation on Saturday, so in the second half, Nurse opted to leave Kelly Oubre in with Embiid for the duration of the third quarter, giving him a boost of assistance from the perimeter. Perhaps more importantly, Nurse had Maxey and Harris on the floor to open the fourth quarter, making sure the Sixers had a pair of their best offensive players on the floor to get through minutes without the big guy.
While it’s going to take time to find their best lineups, it’s striking to see Nurse toy with so many different groupings already,
— The Sixers didn’t stop Kevin Durant entirely, which is basically impossible, but I loved seeing them throw a variety of looks at him throughout the game.
They rotated through different defenders sort of by necessity, as early foul trouble plagued both Oubre and Harris. More importantly, though, I never thought they let him get settled in with an expectation of when and how the help was coming. When Patrick Beverley had to take shifts against Phoenix’s spindly, all-world scorer, Embiid was on full alert, not hard doubling as much as he was constantly shading toward his area of the floor. The big man walked the line well, keeping track of his own assignment while making Durant second-guess himself while operating from the mid-post.
And then Durant caught fire in the second half, so none of that really mattered. But still!
— Tyrese Maxey has been shooting the hell out of the ball this season, so a down night (or down half) from the field isn’t anything to fret over. His track record from deep speaks for itself at this point, but that’s also why he has to carry himself like a player who expects to make every shot he puts up even if he’s in the middle of a tough game.
I thought he lost sight of that at times on Saturday afternoon, sputtering through the first half of his birthday game. It’s one thing to miss shots, and he was 4/12 heading in at halftime, but he compounded that problem by second-guessing himself and his reads. Maxey had at least two turnovers on possessions where scoring opportunities were there and he hesitated to let the ball fly, throwing ill-timed passes that the Suns broke on. I would rather see Maxey go 6/25 than try to turn himself into Rajon Rondo. His scoring gifts are too great to underutilize.
(A more charitable view of Maxey’s pass-heavy approach early on is that he has better control of games now, and knows that he can wait for his opportunity to strike with the ball in his hands more often. And teams have certainly taken notice of the danger he poses, with the Suns throwing traps at him from time to time in this one.)
The good news? Maxey certainly found himself in the second half, shining bright in the fourth-quarter run that put this game away for the Sixers. After spending so much of this game looking to facilitate, Maxey apparently decided that he’d had enough, looking for the pull-up threes that have featured in all of his best performances. He even dropped one over the top of Kevin Durant, hitting a beautiful stepback over a much larger defender to the delight of the home crowd.
At the end of the day, it’s a beautiful thing that we can nitpick a 22-5-10 game from Maxey because he has set the bar so high. He’s now capable of turning in high-quality games without being at his best, which is a scary thought.
— It was a good second-half run for Paul Reed, who has needed one of those.
— I think the Sixers badly need another ballhandler. They have a surplus of guards on the team, which has not been the case in recent history, but they have very few players on the team who can actually dribble.
That would be a problem for any basketball team in the world, but it’s compounded somewhat here due to the brand of basketball Nick Nurse wants to play. With the ball-sharing style they’ve adopted this season, there’s a bit more pressure on each individual guy to create. And when you have a group like Patrick Beverley, Robert Covington, Furkan Korkmaz, and De’Anthony Melton on the floor around Joel Embiid, it necessitates a lot of ballhandling from Embiid. At best, those guys are secondary creators in a lineup with a real perimeter threat, and in RoCo’s case, he’s not really a creator at all.
That was part of what got Embiid off to a poor start on the turnover front, with the big man coughing up some cheap turnovers attempting to take Suns players off of the dribble.
— I wish every player on the Sixers would approach rebounding as Jaden Springer does. He comes absolutely flying through the air from whatever angle he can find to chase down boards, and while he doesn’t always emerge with the ball, he is guaranteed to make life miserable for whatever guy is going up to try to beat him for it.
Offensively, I am getting worried about how out of sorts he has looked since the regular season started, so he’s going to have to figure out a plan there in short order. He got caught picking up his dribble in a bad spot twice in the same quarter on Saturday, which is no bueno.
— It looked like a potential De’Anthony Melton breakout game early, and then he went right back to clanging open threes. They’re surviving his rough start to the year so far, but they’re going to need him to step up whenever Oubre’s shooting regression hits.
— The first 3.5 minutes of this game were as clunky as it gets, with non-stop whistles on both ends of the floor screwing everything up. 1 p.m. starts are already kind of brutal — these guys are wired to peak in the evenings — and this made that phenomenon five times worse.