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Tyrese Maxey returned to the lineup and submitted a scoring masterpiece, dropping 51 points in a 127-124 Sixers win over the Jazz.
Here’s what I saw.
— Philadelphia’s human beacon of sunshine was not going to let the city (and the fanbase) dwell on Joel Embiid’s injury news for long. Hours after being named to his first All-Star team, Tyrese Maxey came out with both guns blazing. Was he feeling rested and refreshed after a few games off? Was he in a great place mentally after he got validation for his season? Did he just catch a heater? I suppose it doesn’t matter.
Threes have been harder for Maxey to come by after a sensational start to the year from deep, but had the Sixers tested it out, I think he might have made one blindfolded in the first half against Utah. Maxey was absolutely deadly on pull-up jumpers, hitting his first on a semi-transition play and never looking back from there. Each successive make felt like it pushed the range for the next make back by half of a foot. Grant Hill and I landed on the same idea with different execution — after I joked this shot came from Provo, Hill looked at another Maxey three and joked that Maxey made it from Park City.
There has been a lot of talk lately about how the Sixers can make Maxey’s life easier on offense, and some discussion about whether it’s worth an asset investment to bring in another real ballhandler. Maxey is such a deadeye shooter off the catch that it feels wrong to only have him taking high-difficulty, pull-up shots and leave him susceptible to low valleys in a slump. And then you watch a game like this and think, well screw that, why would you ever take the ball out of his hands any more than is necessary?
You don’t get to 32 first-half points on threes alone (unless you’re somebody like Klay Thomspon, I guess) and I appreciated Maxey showing off more of the bag even if those results were somewhat mixed. With a neon green light, we saw midrange pull-ups and frequent attacks of the rim, the latter of which put his improved finishing package on display. Maxey will still lean on the runner too much from time to time, but his drives to the hoop are much more purposeful as a general rule, with the small guard setting up his defender before swooping under the rim or tossing a soft layup off of the glass as a rim protector hangs over him.
His deep pull-up three to tie the game at 120 is one of the most absurd makes of his season, which is really saying something:
It is going to take a special version of Maxey to get through the Embiid-less stretch. They got it on Thursday night.
— Tobias Harris talks a lot about rhythm and offensive flow in good times and bad, and you would think this Embiid-less stretch will allow him to settle in easier every night. No knock on the big guy, obviously, but Harris will certainly have more chances to shoot himself into a rhythm.
He didn’t need a whole lot of time from this one. Just days removed from an absolute clunker in his return game against Portland, Harris crushed the Jazz from mid-range, attacking from the mid-post at every possible opportunity. Without Embiid sitting in the middle of the floor waiting for his touches, it was also Harris who got to play quarterback from the middle of the floor against zone looks. The decision-making was pretty straightforward for him there — catch the ball with space, shoot the ball at the rim.
More than anything, Harris’ role as the “gotta have it” shotmaker has been a constant in a lot of big wins this season, and this might have topped them all. The Sixers had little to no separation throughout the second half, and Harris must have hit four or five run-stopping shots when they needed them most. That included an absolute prayer from the baseline late in the fourth, a double-clutch over outstretched arms that made me shake my head in disbelief.
A useful guy to have around for this exact situation, that’s for damn sure.
— Whatever you think about Jaden Springer’s offensive limitations, the kid is tough as nails on the defensive end. And give credit to the officials for this much — they allowed him to play some physical defense on Jordan Clarkson, who wilted in the face of ball pressure from the younger man.
Clarkson, who can tilt a game when he gets hot, was visibly frustrated at how Springer attacked him. On several trips toward the basket for Clarkson, Springer made him reset, fumble the ball, and look toward the officials for a whistle, and the help from a neutral party never came.
— It’s hard to find a neat box to put Kelly Oubre in, as much as he drives me personally insane. Off the bounce and in transition, Oubre is one of the only Sixers players who pose danger on offense, and his ability to pierce through a broken possession is undervalued by some. They’re going to have to live with some head-scratching plays as he scales up without Embiid, but they don’t really have much of a choice.
It’ll help if Oubre can rediscover his form from deep because we all know the volume will be there. Oubre’s shot quality wasn’t markedly different than any other night, but he certainly feels due for a hot stretch. With the Jazz hanging around and battling the Sixers tooth and nail throughout the second half, every made three from Oubre felt required, rather than the extra boost it feels like when Embiid is leading the way.
You can’t expect a minimum contract guy to be a consistent three-point threat, a good driver, and a consistent defensive presence, because that’s essentially a max-level player on the wing. But if they can get 2/3 every night, they’re cooking with gas, even if you have to live with a silly possession here and there.
— Pat Bev, cash from the corner when it mattered. Salute.
— Replacing the NBA’s leading scorer is a difficult task on its own, but I think the Sixers should be able to maintain competence there at the very least. I’m not sure they have a prayer on the other end, where Embiid frequently erased miscues and made up for the weaknesses of other players.
Let’s run through a short list:
- Poor dribble containment — Funneling drivers toward your rim protector is a viable strategy when you have Embiid, but even then, Philly allowed far too much easy penetration and forced him to be a superhero. They got gashed by the Jazz off the dribble with only Paul Reed or Mo Bamba back there to help out, and to put it lightly, those guys aren’t in the same class as point savers near the hoop.
- Off-ball attentiveness and connectivity — There are multiple problems on this front. A lot of their regular rotation guys struggle to stay dialed in consistently, and that issue has been compounded by injuries shaking up the rotation. Guys don’t seem to be on the same page as often as they were to open the year, understandably so. This is the area that feels like it can get better, but it’ll take time and reps
- Screen navigation — Some of these guys get hit with a pick and look like they were hit by a freight train. As a lifelong skinny guy, I can relate, but I also don’t play in the NBA.
- Transition defense — This has been brutal lately, and they can’t afford for it to be when their half-court toughness has taken a massive hit.
The Sixers attempted to throw different looks and matchups at the Jazz, from some basic zone to trapping of specific players. Jaden Springer played some aggressive man defense on Jordan Clarkson, and that was good to see. But I am dubious they’re going to hold up against better competition.
— Not every player is built to be a high-volume guy, a fact that is driven home whenever your high-volume stars have to take a seat on the bench. Embiid’s absence gives players who should have limited impact on the offense the mindset of needing to step up, and that’s not always going to be for the betterment of the team.
The two backup centers are a good enough example. After a hot night shooting in Denver, Paul Reed has gotten a bit too in love with the jumper, which was made clearest at the end of the third quarter. Maxey was absolutely cooking with Kris Dunn sitting on the bench, and there were a couple of possessions that ended with mid-range Js for Reed with minimal (or no!) touches for Maxey on the possession.
In related news, I can live with Mo Bamba as a standstill shooter, poor results or not. A three-in-the-trail spot is in his wheelhouse. When he’s trying to attack off the dribble from the elbow, you’re going to get what we saw on Wednesday, which was Bamba barreling into John Collins for an offensive foul.
— I feel like I think about the officials way too often this year, which is either a sign I’m turning into my father or that the officiating is getting worse. The overturn of the foul committed by John Collins in the final 30 seconds was absolutely criminal.
Even worse — refusing to call four consecutive fouls that would have put Maxey on the line to get his 50-bomb. For shame! He would get there eventually, no thanks to those shenanigans.
— It was a night to forget for both of Philadelphia’s non-Embiid options at center, at least on offense. Reed’s aforementioned jumpers were horrific but he wasn’t much better around the basket, smoking multiple bunnies against the team that signed him to an offer sheet last summer.
Bamba had some good minutes in the fourth, but with their bigs struggling for most of the night, Nick Nurse busted out a healthy amount of small ball in the second half, and the Sixers had to deal with a lot of pain on the glass. Something to monitor.