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Midway through the first quarter of Monday night’s game against the Wizards, the Sixers were stuck in a tighter game than anticipated. Joel Embiid was trailing Daniel Gafford in the points department, Tyrese Maxey was relatively uninvolved in the offense, and Washington was hanging around.
“They came in and kind of pissed me off. Obviously, they were playing hard and made a lot of shots, so we just got to make sure we’re more focused as far as getting stops,” Embiid said after the game.
In seasons past, it’s the exact sort of game you could see the Sixers losing — playing a one-win opponent, complacency sinks in and the team finds itself in a dogfight with a team that has no business keeping up with them. It is part of why the Sixers have hung around in that good-not-great tier of the NBA during Joel Embiid’s tenure, forced to play elite opponents in round two due to their seeding.
And then the Sixers stumbled into something. They’ve been a more egalitarian offense this season, sharing the ball and the wealth to great effect. On Monday, however, they decided there was a two-man action worth spamming until the Wizards could figure out how to stop it.
That play was a variation of something we’ve seen before, a pick-and-roll with an empty corner on the strong side. It looked a little different with James Harden at the controls, mostly because Harden (a lefty) used the cleared-out space while Embiid stayed more central. With Maxey at the controls and looking to drive right, it puts the big man in open space, which he noticed even when he missed a shot out of it in the second quarter.
“I just saw how open it was,” Embiid said. “Then I just told coach, don’t even call nothing, just keep running it.”
At halftime, Embiid was less than halfway to his eventual points total of 48, cooking to end the first half but “only” at 19 after a rough start. And when the Sixers came out of the tunnel, you could have been convinced that Embiid’s plea to Nurse was the only thing they discussed during the break.
Philadelphia would not stop running that action to open the third quarter. The Wizards showed appropriate fear of Maxey turning the corner and scoring at the basket, but never figured out the balance between slowing down Maxey and keeping track of the reigning MVP. With Gafford drifting into the middle of the lane over and over again, Embiid got clean look after clean look thanks to precise passing from his younger teammate.
“It just seemed like that was a go-to thing we saw was open. Until they made an adjustment on it, we were just going to keep hammering it,” Nick Nurse told reporters on Monday.
To Nurse’s point, the Wizards did try to change how they defended the action as the game wore on.
Rather than let Maxey get to his dominant hand, the Wizards attempted to steer Maxey toward the sideline and baseline — I hesitate to call it ICE coverage only because Embiid doesn’t get over to screen here. In any case, with Washington overplaying the middle, Maxey was able to get left and score at the rim with Gafford too fearful of Embiid to stick with Maxey all the way.
It would be sour grapes to downplay the success Embiid had with James Harden in pick-and-rolls last season, but the manner in which they succeeded often looked much different than this due to Harden’s fading ability to get to the rim. Whereas young Harden put pressure on defenses and officials by getting to the rim with speed, the Harden we saw last season was relegated to a lot of stepback shooting, or even midrange pull-ups he eschewed entirely for the rest of his career.
Maxey has a ways to go to match (or come close to) peak Harden on offense, but he presents a different challenge for defenses as a result of his speed off-the-dribble and his ability to get all the way to the rim. The righty-righty combination also works well for both players — Embiid has historically preferred to attack from the left block, so you can put him in his favorite spot on the floor while giving Maxey the middle and the benefit of having his dominant hand to shoot or pass.
“Once I pushed the pace and see I don’t have anything, I know he’s trailing. He’s coming right into the ball screen whether it’s right side or left side,” Maxey said. “And then me going to the right, I mean, it’s hard going downhill because now I can pass, I can shoot, you have shooters. In that high quad, it makes it difficult, you have to play it two-on-two, and once they commit to my layup or floater, I’m just dropping it off to Joel and he gets a layup and whatever he does.”
The Wizards flailed in desperation as they tried to find a way to stop it, playing heavy zone to close out the third quarter and neutering Philadelphia’s ability to play out of this action. But by that point, the damage had been done, and between a combination of shooting, passing, and Embiid maturation, the Sixers basically shot Washington out of that, too.
No one is throwing a parade for the Sixers beating down one of the worst teams in the league. Tougher tests are on the horizon, none stiffer than Wednesday’s meeting with the Boston Celtics. The strength of this two-man partnership will be on display for all to see, and Maxey’s historic struggles against Boston may only get worse with Jrue Holiday in the mix.
But it’s hard to ignore the synergy between the team’s two best and most important players coming off of an offseason where Maxey’s fitness as the lead guard was questioned. Nurse and other power players in the organization expressed a willingness to live through Maxey growing pains this season, only for the young guard to make a significant leap off the jump and settle in beautifully as a playmaker. He’s inside the NBA’s top 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio, with 44 assists against just seven giveaways through six games. In other words, he has more than doubled last year’s playmaking numbers while actually improving his ball security.
It is a gift to play with an MVP-level player like Embiid, and Maxey’s early signs of growth are a window into how seriously he takes that opportunity. Early days, yes, but if this is how good it can be in early November, it’s scary to think what the Maxey-Embiid combo will look like in April, May, or June.