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The Sixers battled back from a double-digit deficit before melting down in the closing minutes, losing 132-126 to the Pacers in an In-Season Tournament battle.
Here’s what I saw.
— It’s not often that we can say that Tobias Harris carried the team on offense to open the game, but he was just about all they had going in the opening stretch. Tyrese Maxey started slow, clanging a couple of runners off of the back iron, and Embiid was in need of a second guy to get Philly off to a solid start.
His strength in transition was a big weapon for Philadelphia throughout this game —while the Sixers noted after Sunday’s win that you wanted to avoid a Pacers matchup turning into a track meet, Harris didn’t heed that message much. It didn’t really matter who was in front of him, with Harris moving guards like Tyrese Haliburton and bigger forwards like Obi Toppin out of the way with the same extreme prejudice.
And after getting a few transition buckets to go down, it was on from there. The Sixers fed him early, looking for him on mismatches in the mid-post, and Harris built up momentum quickly enough that he took a heat check three in the first quarter, a beautiful sight even if he missed it. Every time it felt like this game could be getting out of reach, it felt like Harris scored a quick two and seized some momentum back, allowing the team to hang around long enough to make their run.
It looked like Harris’ night could be over when he took an ugly fall early in the fourth quarter, hurdled by Bruce Brown as he tried to get a shot off from the mid-post. Harris was forced to go back to the locker room as a result of NBA concussion protocol, but when he emerged from the tunnel ready to check in moments later, he earned a rousing ovation from the home crowd. And then he got the ball in the mid-post and scored on his very first possession, taking the atmosphere in South Philadelphia to another level.
An excellent night for him.
— De’Anthony Melton sure picked a great time to have one of his best games of the young season, stepping forward to provide offense on an off night for Maxey. It was a reminder that yes, this dude is usually a pretty good shooter. Because while he made some of the standard catch-and-shoot jumpers he has been clanging all season, Melton also gave Philly some needed pull-up juice to shake them out of some stagnant offense.
After getting an early catch-and-shoot three to fall, the Sixers had to live with some erratic off-the-dribble play from Melton, No. 8 careening into traffic and flipping shots off of the backboard at breakneck speed. But he would eventually settle down, picking his spots appropriately even when he was asked to captain the bench.
In the final five minutes or so of the third quarter, we got perhaps the best ballhandling Melton stretch of his Sixers tenure, with the Pacers putting him on the foul line over and over and over again as he played off of Joel Embiid in the pick-and-roll. Melton has a somewhat herky jerk style, and Indiana could never quite find their footing with Melton at the controls, slapping down at him repeatedly as he got into the teeth of the defense. By the time the third quarter had ended, Melton had gone 10/10 from the charity stripe and quietly piled up 25 points, bringing the Sixers within a score of the Pacers.
He was forced to watch the action from the sidelines for most of the fourth as a result of some silly reach-in fouls, but it was a hell of an outing otherwise.
— The best thing you could say about Myles Turner in the previous meeting is that Indiana’s starting center managed to stay out of foul trouble, which he has always struggled with against Joel Embiid. No such luck this time around, with Turner picking up his second foul of the game at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter.
Embiid did not let up as the backups came into the game to spell turner, drawing two fouls apiece on Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson before the first quarter had ended. The biggest man on the floor played like it, missing a ton of shots but just plowing through guys and forcing smaller bigs to hang onto his shoulders and pray.
After that opening stretch, though, the Sixers appeared to lose sight of the big man for a while. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this game was how poorly the Sixers handled Indiana’s small look to end the first half. With Myles Turner and Isaiah Jackson in foul trouble and Jalen Smith in the locker room with an injury, the Pacers played a no-big lineup for most of the final five minutes in the second quarter. And the Sixers somehow struggled to get the ball to their seven-foot MVP candidate, which should basically be impossible.
A huge portion of the problem was the pace of play. There were quite a few possessions where Embiid got down the floor and in position to catch a pass, only for his teammates to dawdle on the entry, giving the Pacers an opportunity to set up their help. When Embiid is being guarded by Aaron Nesmith one-on-one by the paint, you should basically be able to throw it anywhere and have it turn into two points or free throws. But when you wait eight seconds to consider throwing the pass, that window shrinks, and an off-ball double becomes increasingly likely.
The Sixers used a subtle shift to help unlock Embiid in the third quarter — they got him some more touches around the elbows, making those off-ball doubles more difficult for Indiana. And they fell back into some of their best plays of the early season, using the empty corner pick-and-roll to great effect before Maxey took his rest at the end of the third quarter. And frankly, Embiid just found the groove in the third quarter. 3/10 at halftime and fighting it a bit, Embiid had a perfect 6/6 quarter to open the second half, hitting a wide variety of shots, from baseline turnarounds to sneaky cuts to bog-standard layups out of pick-and-rolls.
All of that went out the window in the fourth when Embiid completely fell apart on both ends. Whatever you want to say about his dominance of Turner historically, Turner soundly outplayed him in the fourth quarter, putting himself on the free-throw line repeatedly while Embiid was at the center of a string of gruesome Philadelphia possessions. The Sixers looked to have a chance to win this game, down just four points and coming off of a stop with 2:21 to play. And then Embiid got caught between two minds after bringing the ball across halfcourt himself, traveling for a crucial turnover.
The game was basically done there, and then Embiid one-upped himself with a horrific possession a minute later, mostly standing with the ball around halfcourt before being forced to heave a three-point shot at the shot-clock buzzer. He and his teammates drew boos for that clusterfuck, and I would say he/they had earned them.
We’re too far into this guy’s career for him to have so many brain-dead turnovers late in games. Gotta clean it up.
— It’s easy to call any subpar game for Tyrese Maxey game my least favorite of the season, because he has been stupid good in their first 10 games of the year. But I thought the process was as bad as the results in this one, and maybe that ends up helping Maxey when they go back through the tape on this game.
Maxey is not the gunshy guard he was during his rookie season, but there have been moments this season where I’ve wondered what he’s seeing as a catch-and-shoot opportunity comes his way. There was a transition three there to be had early in the third quarter, with no one within 10-15 feet of him when he caught the ball. Rather than just rising and firing on a high-percentage shot, he immediately barreled toward the rim. Though Maxey picked up two free throws, it felt like a rare situation where that was a negative.
There were some moments for Maxey in this game, particularly at the start of the fourth. He hit a gorgeous stepback three after putting Bruce Brown on skates, and when the Pacers blew a coverage with Maxey turning the corner, his uncontested lefty dunk earned the loudest cheers of the night.
But when it was all said and done, he felt like a passenger in this one, rubbed out of too many possessions by physical defense from Brown. The Pacers did a good job of forcing the ball out of his hands with timely traps, but I thought he was his own worst enemy in this one.
— The Sixers simply had no answer for Tyrese Haliburton in this game. And it wasn’t as though they threw their hands up and just prayed a solution would fall from the sky. Nick Nurse tried several different options in scheme and matchup to deal with Haliburton, and they basically all failed.
This was the first game I can remember this season where it felt as though the Sixers didn’t understand what they were trying to accomplish on defense. Tyrese Maxey was visibly perturbed about some poor/mishandled switches and matchups that weren’t set up the way they wanted, with those possessions turning into open shots, if not made shots. And despite the fact that Haliburton finished the first half 6/8 from deep, the Sixers kept giving him space on the perimeter. Haliburton saw Sixers defenders sagging and dropping toward the rim and must have been in total disbelief, though he wasn’t shy about taking the shots the Sixers gave him.
On the subject: I’m all for playing aggressive perimeter defense when you have Embiid lurking behind you, but there does need to be some form of restraint as you chase steals and deflections. De’Anthony Melton and Patrick Beverley combined for four of the worst reach-in fouls you’re ever going to see, and they somehow managed to pack them into a single quarter of basketball. That’s hard to do.
Nick Nurse noted throughout the preseason that playing tough, physical defense can’t mean playing out of control or picking up fouls in dumb spots, and I would imagine the team will get a refresher on that idea before the Celtics game on Wednesday.
— The Sixers were able to cope without Kelly Oubre in the previous meeting against Indiana, but having to battle this group without Oubre and Nic Batum really exposed the limitations of the guys who are left to fill in on the wing. Robert Covington only ended up playing around 16 minutes of action on Tuesday, with Nurse opting to use Danuel House Jr. to chase Tyrese Haliburton around for a bit.
As skeptical as I was about Oubre coming into his time here, he at least has the ability to get his own shot if he needs to, which has been a godsend on quite a few occasions already this season. Batum is not as dynamic as Oubre, but he makes for what he lacks in individual scoring ability with connective passing and a great feel for the game. Going from choosing between those two to guys who are really pure three-and-D players is a big drop-off, and with Oubre on the mend, the hope has to be that Batum is back from his personal affairs sooner rather than later.
— Tobias Harris, please do not revert to the guy who steps out of semi-open threes in favor of terrible shots from midrange. Let’s not do this again.
— Please, I am begging Daryl Morey, go and get a guy who can run the bench units on offense. The Maxey-less minutes are an absolute disaster when it comes to offensive flow, and though Joel Embiid can buoy the group with some post-ups and fouls drawn, the current setup puts the burden of all creation on the big guy who tends to turn the ball over a lot. Seems like a recipe for failure.
— Marcus Morris:
I get that they were down a couple of wings, but I would have preferred small lineups and Jaden Springer over watching Morris get cardio. If I have to see him airball another baseline fadeaway, I may reconsider my line of work.