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    Instant observations: Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid dominate Raptors

    Kyle Neubeck Avatar
    October 28, 2023

    Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid scored 34 points each, leading the Sixers to a 114-107 win over the Raptors to grab Nick Nurse’s first win for Philadelphia.

    Here’s what I saw.

    The Good

    — There has been some clunkiness for Philadelphia to start the year, but the good news is that their primary duo is already showing considerable synergy in the two-man game. It helps that Joel Embiid is one of the league’s deadliest scorers and Tyrese Maxey might be on the verge of another leap, but they are slowly figuring out how to play off of one another with the help of Nick Nurse.

    You can tell that Maxey spent a lot of his summer working on the pocket passes Embiid needs to dominate from his floor spots. Across the first two games, Maxey has weaponized his speed without always needing to go full throttle, which was one of the final steps he needed to take on offense. That downhill pace is obviously a huge asset, but he’s figuring out how to cripple teams with acceleration and deceleration, either to put the ball in Embiid’s stomach or to find the extra space to score.

    It’s not like the kid needs much space to get going, either. In fact, while he has a long way to go to match Damian Lillard’s CV, you’re seeing him take a lot of the deep pull-up threes that Lillard has used to petrify opponents. You’re left with bad options playing Maxey these days — you can fight over the screen to dissuade him from the pull-up, but that might allow him to go all the way to the hoop.

    Not too long ago, one of the biggest knocks on Maxey was his unwillingness to shoot the ball from deep. What a distant memory that feels like now, with Maxey comfortable taking basically any type of perimeter shot that exists. The stepback hesi, the spot-up, even off-movement threes like this one that he wouldn’t have even thought of taking a few years ago:

    Trailing at halftime, there was no telling where this game was going to go in the third quarter. Almost by himself, Maxey willed it in one direction, catching fire from deep and forcing the Raptors to call a timeout to stop him from burning down Scotiabank Arena. But the damage was already done. He just kept throwing haymakers as the quarter wore on, depositing tough runners over outstretched arms after the Raptors eventually drove him off of the line.

    If you were to get the Sixers’ brain trust under the influence of a truth serum, I wonder if they’d even want James Harden to come back right now. While he would make a meaningful difference for their potential title chances, letting Maxey run the show and go through any corresponding growing pains is worth its weight in gold. And if the assumption is that the Sixers won’t bring in another ball-dominant guard in a potential Harden trade, then this version of the team is a better placeholder for the team he will lead down the road.

    — On the Embiid side of the coin, it’s basically business as usual for the big man. His floor spots are his floor spots, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Sixers’ opening quarter featured a healthy dose of Embiid midrange jumpers as they tried to get their MVP rolling. Mission accomplished, as he had 16 points on the board before halftime.

    Nick Nurse knows better than anyone that the Raptors are ill-equipped to deal with the big man, and with Embiid coming off of a pretty rough outing by his standards, force-feeding the big man the rock all night would have been understandable. But I thought the best part of this Embiid performance was the team not having to do much other than getting him the ball in the flow of the offense.

    It was a vintage shotmaking display from the big man, who jabbed and faked and slithered around the free-throw line until he had the window of opportunity he needed. When Toronto started to respect the jumper and get in his chest, we saw some beautiful moves toward the basket from the big fella. All these years into his career, it’s still bewildering to see a guy his size Euro stepping around defenders for layups.

    And this was a balanced effort for Embiid, who had some strong rim protection at the other end to go with a handful of assists and just a single turnover. This is more like it from the MVP.

    — I have no more sarcasm to offer on Kelly Oubre Jr. after being lukewarm about his arrival to Philadelphia. Some late-clock hero ball aside, he has done basically everything you would have hoped for across the first two games. And I am not going to get on the guy’s case for getting tossed a hand grenade late in the shot clock, anyway.

    Oubre’s work on the defensive end has been pretty damn good so far, with the veteran wing embodying the approach Nurse wants from his guys. While Philadelphia’s other perimeter players have struggled to find the balance between showing drivers a crowd and contesting perimeter shots, Oubre has managed to excel in his role, pinching toward the paint without losing sight of his assignment. And when the Sixers have been able to get stops, he has been a weapon in transition.

    He has constantly found himself in the right places at the right time, whether he’s picking up loose change on a rebound or cutting through open space for a quick shot at the basket. The shooting numbers look uglier than I think they were in the flow of the game, and the calls for him to play more will only grow louder. Oubre has been a weapon off of the bench through two games, long may he reign.

    (Something to make note of — Embiid found Oubre in the dunker spot on two key possessions in the fourth quarter, with Embiid making the proper read and finding a big and athletic target who could score at the hoop. If you’re looking at how Oubre might find a way to sneak into closing lineups, you can already see a faint outline of how that would work.)

    — A much better game for Paul Reed in this one, with his brand of chaos-causing energy a good fit against the undersized Raptors. The foul-happy Reed couldn’t stop himself from picking up some cheapies, but I think the trade-off was worth it.

    — I love seeing Patrick Beverley flying around the floor for offensive rebounds at his age and size. He came up with three in the first half alone, and while he isn’t the stopper he once was on defense, you can see that dawg mentality showing up in other ways.

    — It wasn’t an explosive night for Tobias Harris, but I thought he made a lot of important, run-stopping plays to keep the Sixers close in the first half and out in front in the second half. And he has been a (relatively) willing shooter to open the season, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

    The Bad

    — Tyrese Maxey didn’t get a single shot up in the first quarter of this game. He can’t get lost in the shuffle like that.

    — P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton look lost in the shuffle right now, with Melton qualifying as a much bigger surprise. It was fairly clear in the preseason that Tucker was going to be an odd fit in this new-look group, mostly because he doesn’t have James Harden spoonfeeding him looks in the corner. But Melton has arguably been their worst starter to open the year, and that’s not something I would have seen coming.

    Shooting woes have been a big part of the problem, and you would expect a shooter of Melton’s caliber to turn the corner at some point in the near future. I’m less convinced that he’s going to find a suitable role without Harden because of what the group looks like around him. He has historically been at his best when he is playing with a true point guard, and given that he has to play a decent chunk of his minutes with Maxey on the bench, he ends up miscast as a lead guard.

    If the Sixers pick up an actual backup point guard at some point, I think Melton will settle into the perfect role with the starting and backup groups. For now, he’s a bit of a man without a country.

    (As for Tucker, he looks good physically but is just sort of there on offense. Not sure what you do with a guy who has one real offensive skill that is also dependent on the player who is actively warring with the front office.)

    The Ugly

    — The Raptors trying to double-team Maxey around halfcourt, only for him to split the defense and get all the way to the basket for a layup, was a gruesome murder. Love to see that.

    — No Jaden Springer? I am appalled, Nick. If Danny Green and Danuel House Jr. can get on the floor, the young defensive ace certainly should.

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