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    Joel Embiid's return sparks Sixers road win over Thunder

    Kyle Neubeck Avatar
    November 25, 2023
    Joel Embiid shooting a layup vs. the Thunder.

    The Sixers rode Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, pulling away from the upstart Thunder for a 127-123 win on Saturday evening.

    Here’s what I saw.

    The Good

    — Tyrese Maxey, I am almost to the point of begging you to attack in the first quarter. We all have seen that you can playmake for others and get the team going in the early stages of games. Your team doesn’t view you as a selfish guy. If you have shots to pull early, get to work, young man.

    I have to start there because Maxey’s attacking prowess was on display basically as soon as the second quarter started when he was the quarterback of the bench units that have crushed teams for a lot of this season. The second Joel Embiid is off of the floor, his aggressiveness goes through the roof, and Embiid would tell him (and has told him!) that he has to shoot more often than he does. It’s such a stark difference watching Maxey in scoring mode vs. playmaking mode — against OKC, he took and made a three in the second quarter where he was fading away from the basket as he took it, converting a baseline out-of-bounds play while hardly keeping himself square.

    He’s basically a one-man scoring run the second he steps on the floor, and frankly, I’m shocked he’s ever able to show restraint. But to be fair to him, his ability to shift in and out of styles is a big reason for Philadelphia’s offensive success. He hit Embiid with those pocket passes at the free-throw line over and over again, he found off-ball pockets for catch-and-shoot threes, and he scared the hell out of OKC for the entirety of this game. The Thunder tried trapping him out to halfcourt in the early stages of the fourth quarter, looking to force the ball into someone else’s hands, and he still managed to score on one of those possessions, relocating to get the ball and find his spot from midrange.

    It feels like it has been a bit since we got a dominant stretch from Maxey to open a fourth quarter, but with Nurse leaving him to run the backup group by himself to open the fourth, he hardly put a foot wrong. He hit some difficult shots over a very good defender in Lu Dort, dealt with ball pressure well by swinging it to Pat Beverley, and kept the team humming on offense without much creative help to speak of.

    Outside of the foul trouble he dealt with throughout the game, I loved most of what he did from the start of the second quarter onward.

    — Joel Embiid vs. Chet Holmgren was an ultra-fascinating matchup on paper. Could the younger, thinner man draw the bigger, stronger guy out to the perimeter and neutralize his advantages? Or would the post-up bully leverage his strengths on the other end to overwhelm the rookie?

    Holmgren was no slouch in this game, but it was clear in the opening minutes that he had little chance of slowing down Embiid if Embiid was determined to get the ball near the basket. Embiid got into Holmgren in dedicated halfcourt sets, but also ran the floor hard, sealing the thinner man off and forcing him to take a cheap foul in transition after getting beat.

    If the Sixers had confident and capable entry passers outside of Nic Batum, I think Embiid could have scored 40 while hardly breaking a sweat in this game. But what ended up happening was almost better — he picked up a bunch of his points on second-chance opportunities, created by walling off smaller guys on offensive rebounds. It was a balanced effort, equal parts strength and skill, with Embiid hitting enough midrange jumpers to complement his bruising play around the basket.

    Perhaps more importantly, Embiid made excellent reads as the Thunder adjusted their coverage against him. After trying to play solo Holmgren coverage against him early, the Thunder used a lot of Jaylin Williams and started him to open the second half, using Williams as the primary defender and sending a lot of help his way. Embiid turned the ball over a bit too much, but mostly because of charges/offensive fouls, and his reads against pressure led to a gaggle of open threes for the rest of the group.

    (That said, he threw one of the most absurd passes of his season to date in the fourth quarter with the Sixers up by double-digits. Feeling himself a bit too much. So it goes.)

    Effortless dominance in the middle of the floor is the requirement for this guy, especially against a team like the Thunder that isn’t equipped to stop him. And he cooly sank free throw after free throw to end it, ensuring I didn’t have to sit through OT. #ThankYouJo

    — I think Nick Nurse might have found the lineup combinations they can/should stick with in this game. Moving Tobias Harris into the Maxey-less minutes feels like it helped Embiid out quite a bit, with Harris offering enough secondary creation skills to offset what they lack from the Pat Bev/De’Anthony Melton combo. And with Maxey proving capable of leading units by himself, you just need to have enough shooting around him to give him space to operate, I think.

    And it should be noted, as we have so many times in this space this season, that Tobias Harris had another solid game as the third banana for Philly. Despite a poor shooting night from deep, Harris was able to bully the Thunder in the mid-post during an effective first half. The stars took over from there.

    — After a week of relative struggles for Nic Batum, this is more like the guy everyone thought they were getting. When he is on the floor, extra avenues to offense just seem to open up for Philadelphia. He can shoot, he moves when he ought to, and hot damn, he can throw a freaking entry pass. What a concept.

    It seems crazy to say, but few guys have played with Embiid and shown the proper urgency and the mechanical ability to get him the ball when and where he wants/needs it. Anecdotally, Batum has been a godsend for any Embiid lineups because of that ability, playing well off of the big man in their short time together.

    — How about Patrick Beverley getting more than one shot to fall? He stepped out of some threes where no one was within 10 feet of him, granted, but he also punished the Thunder for one possession where they sagged off of him, and I thought he made good floor reads when he left the three-point line to probe and hunt for a different look.

    The Bad

    — At some point, Philadelphia’s defensive falloff is going to be a bigger deal. They were able to mostly shrug it off in this game because the Thunder are hardly equipped to guard Embiid, and the Sixers have certainly proven they can win some high-octane games under Nick Nurse. But that’s not always going to be able to get it done, obviously.

    Tip your cap to Shai-Gilgeous Alexander for an absolutely incredible first half in this one, as he tortured the Sixers from midrange for most of the first 24 minutes. I sympathize with their plight there — no matter what you try to do, he’s got the footwork and touch to unsettle you, opening opportunities out of thin air. So whether it was Nic Batum, De’Anthony Melton, or Tobias Harris trying to check him, SGA gave the Sixers problems.

    Elsewhere, though, there were some weird quirks that sprung out of the matchup. Josh Giddey isn’t anyone’s idea of an isolation scorer, but he was able to leverage his size against Tyrese Maxey for some easy baskets of his own, and failing that, Giddey drew help in before spraying passes around the floor to open players. The Thunders were able to get the Sixers in rotation a bit more than you’d like, and that hurt when their weaker defenders (e.g. Marcus Morris) didn’t stay engaged for the totality of a play.

    They had a better second half, or at least a better third quarter, which allowed them to get out of OKC with a win. But I want the Sixers back who played punishing defense for four quarters to start the year.

    — The Sixers only have one player who can actually dribble, which allows teams to hang around longer than they should in end-of-game situations. Seems like a problem.

    The Ugly

    — Marcus Morris checked into the game for the first time at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. The Sixers were up 26-18 and playing pretty damn well at that point.

    The Sixers scored one basket and a single free throw the rest of the quarter and entered the second period down by two points.

    I am not sitting here telling you that is all his fault, certainly, but the Sixers have bled points during his time on the floor this year, so, at some point, there’s a common denominator to take into consideration.

    — Everyone loves to bring up the mistake of trading Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and draft capital when the Sixers’ bigger mistake was not drafting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander when they had the chance. That dude is an absolute killer and is basically the perfect franchise building block at guard.

    Between SGA and Holmgren, the Thunder are going to be good for a long, long time and they have the ammunition to go out and get a legit star with all the draft capital they’ve collected in recent years.

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