Sixers silence Durant, Suns in fourth quarter for 4th straight win: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (3-1) hosted the Phoenix Suns (2-3) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to improve to 4-1 on the season and 3-0 at home. Phoenix wanted to improve to .500 on the season. The Sixers nearly got at least 20 points from each of four starters in a 112-100 win over the Suns.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Suns were without the services of Devin Booker, who has a sprained left ankle.
Bradley Beal missed the game due to low back spasms.
Damion Lee is recovering from surgery on his right meniscus and was unavailable.
Frank Vogel started Eric Gordon, Grayson Allen, Keita Bates-Diop, Kevin Durant, and Jusuf Nurkic.
The Sixers were without the services of Nicolas Batum, who is away from the team due to personal reasons.
Terquavion Smtih, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV are on two-way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Offense was its own Saw trap in the first half on Saturday, neither team capable of dribbling for an extended sequence or holding onto the ball as they moved through space. As painfully real as the struggle was on both sides, that's the type of environment in which the game can sometimes be condensed to a pure battle of the stars.
Embiid was not immune to the struggle, needing nine shots and four free throws to amass 11 points, to go along with four turnovers, in the first half. You would think that would be a recipe for disaster. But, the Sixers actually controlled the game at halftime, partly because of the efforts of Oubre Jr. and Harris and partly because of the defensive work Philadelphia did against Durant.
He still led Phoenix in scoring at halftime. And much of his frustration stemmed from his own teammates, like Nurkic hitting him in the face with a shoulder as he screened for the lanky star and Josh Okogie missing the two-time champion when he had positioning in the post.
But, Philadelphia also planned for Durant quite well. First and foremost, they did not let him go against the same defender for too long. They changed up his assignment often in the first half, making Durant see different looks and coverages before he could get too settled. The Sixers also compounded the frustrations he had with his own teammates, sticking career agitator Patrick Beverley on Durant to make it difficult for him to shake loose both on and off the ball.
Philadelphia's smart game plan extended beyond just refusing to let Durant get comfortable. With Nurkic - a notorious sub-standard finisher at the rim - starting and now a more willing shooter from the perimeter, the Sixers treated the Suns as if they were playing four-on-five. Philadelphia was more than happy to let Nurkic fire from deep if it meant protecting against a more dangerous offensive player elsewhere on the court.
That bet not only made it difficult for Durant to find rhythm early in the game, but it also dried the well for Phoenix all over the court. Because no one else was able to get a good look with an extra blue jersey roaming around the court, the only good shots they found were Nurkic jumpers. And Nurkic, himself, was perhaps the only person in the building who had faith in those shots hitting the mark.
Lord knows where this team would be without Oubre, who is channeling the disrespect that is a market value at the league minimum into the best basketball of his career. The only real blemishes are the occasional ugly missed three in transition or a blown layup. But, Oubre is shooting 45.5 percent from deep, a Grand Canyon sized improvement over where he's floated as a perimeter shooter for most of his career. It's not a volume that is suspicious of statistical noise, either. He's letting fly 5.5 times per game.
The three-point shooting was especially helpful on Saturday, Oubre lacing some timely looks to break up a couple dry spells for Philadelphia and answer some Phoenix momentum. But, the true breath of fresh air for the Sixers has been Oubre's reads as a cutter. He knows when to dash for the restricted area, making himself available inside for a teammate facing heightened pressure. If he sees an open lane and a teammate approaching a dead end as the defense converges, he's cutting through the paint in preparation for a dunk.
The Sixers also trust him navigating screens in quick spurts. There was a play in the second half of this game in which Philadelphia called his number at a moment when the Suns were on a run, finding Oubre in stride as he curled into the middle of the paint so that he could take it all the way in for a dunk.
His rebounding and general instincts as a help defender have been tremendous, as well. While not quite prolific as a rebounder, he fights to end possessions for the opposition when the Sixers are building momentum. And if the defense leaves the back side open as a teammate gets ready to shoot, Oubre dives in search of a thunderous dunk to execute a second opportunity for the Sixers.
Oubre has often found himself making rotations to the low side when the opposition gets the ball below the restricted area. Rather than getting too excited and clobbering the man with the ball, he flies in at the right time and spikes the ball out of bounds in an effort to protect the basket. And if he finds himself more involved in the play, he's exhibited the concentration to slap down on the ball as the handler goes up instead of hitting the hand and getting himself in foul trouble. When he's not stripping the ball on a slap-down, he's using his length to jar it loose in congested spaces, sending the Sixers out in transition.
Not only has it easily been the best offensive basketball of his career, but it's some of the most poised defense he's played, too. We've got a long way to go still, but he's shaking the reputation that led him to a minimum deal this past summer.
With this game hanging in the balance in the early stages of the fourth quarter as Durant checked in and Embiid rested, Harris joined Oubre in stepping up to secure the win. Nurse wants Harris executing on physical mismatches as much as possible - not just in height, but in bulk, too. As such, Harris took it right to Yuta Watanabe and Durant. They each had chances to body him up in the post, and Harris just had his way. He got deep into the paint before pivoting into fading jumpers, expanding Philadelphia's lead and keeping Embiid off his feet.
I don't know whether it's an adjustment in technique or something in the way of coaching, but Harris is not getting called for as many offensive fouls as he drives into traffic or knocks defenders out of the way in the post this season.
Of all the productions the Sixers game-day staff has put together in my years on the beat, the best might've been the one to match this season's City Edition court and uniform. The pregame hype video was excellent and the accompanying fire torches were a strong compliment, the music mash-up was tremendous, the usage of bright lights was well-timed.
Maxey came to life in the fourth quarter and finished with 22 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds. But, it was not a great first three quarters for the birthday boy otherwise. As defenses have dialed up their attention towards him, Maxey has struggled with moments of indecision and passivity. He's not taking advantage every time he can, turning down shots in favor of making a pass to a teammate.
You could sense some breakdowns in decision-making throughout the game, like Maxey having a mismatch that he should've taken advantage of and instead resetting the play and wasting seconds on the shot clock. He's also been a bit timid with his three-point shot, overthinking it when he has space a few steps beyond the arc. The only shot I would argue is bad for him is a long two early in the clock. Otherwise, let fly on any shot you practice. There is no excuse for him not to be bashful. Calling his own number is part of his new job. That doesn't change just because he's the point guard now.
The Sixers (4-1) will host the Washington Wizards (1-4) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Austin is the Sixers insider for 97.3 ESPN. You can follow him on X @NBAKrell.
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