Tyrese Maxey dominates fourth quarter, Sixers beat Celtics: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (5-1) hosted the Boston Celtics (5-1) on Wednesday. A win would put either team at the top of the East in this early stage of the season. Tyrese Maxey dominated in the fourth quarter to power the Sixers to victory, 106-103.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Celtics were without Jordan Walsh, who is on assignment with Boston's G-League affiliate.
Neemias Queta is managing a right foot injury and was out. Nathan Knight and JD Davison are on two-way assignments with the Celtics' G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Joe Mazzulla started Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kristaps Porzingis.
The Sixers were without Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV, who are on two-way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Nick Nurse started Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
- For me, this game started and ended with Maxey, who got off to a slow start and rebounded for a masterful second half. He's struggled with finding his aggressive side and sticking with it as he navigates the ups and downs of being the lead ball-handler. Faced with the respective lengths of White, Holiday, Tatum, and Brown, and the daunting interior challenges posed by Porzingis and Horford on the back line, it would've been easy for Maxey to take a beating and play it off as part of growth.
It wasn't the prettiest game for Maxey. It was quite an ugly game for both teams. But, as the Sixers battled back from a double-digit deficit early in the second quarter and seized control of the game in the third quarter, you could see Maxey growing as the floor general. His teammates actively instill confidence in him, looking for Maxey to come get the ball almost every time they take possession of the ball.
The Sixers follow his lead, for better and for worse. There are times in which he pulls back in transition, resetting the offense on the left wing instead of putting pressure on Boston's defense. But, when it came time to put the Celtics on the ropes, Maxey made the right decisions - he called his own number.
The shots didn't always fall - he missed 16 times in this game. But, he recognized that he was the lead creator, and so he manufactured offense. Maxey got to his floater over and over again in the fourth quarter, breaking a number of Celtics down off the dribble and cracking the interior with the newfound space. And when the back line lifted, he lofted a soft ball over outstretched arms to put points on the board just before getting pinned at the rim.
There were still moments when he picked up his dribble or backed himself too far away from the basket. But, he didn't panic. Maxey knew he was drawing out a perimeter defender, which meant another white jersey had to change his help positioning. And when that alignment shifted, Maxey found the open man cutting or spacing for a shot.
He still has a ways to go, but Maxey put on a clinic in point guard play when the Sixers needed it most.
- I think the new-look Sixers are making a case that the return on the James Harden trade was more in line with what they need than having Harden's star power was. To be clear, only Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum are in the playing rotation. So, they're not even using two of the four players they got back in the deal. But, they suddenly have a bevy of wing depth. No, neither Covington nor Batum is a brick wall on defense. But, the Sixers now have real length on the wings. And it was really valuable against Boston.
Over a larger sample of isolation plays, I like Tatum and Brown's respective chances of winning. But, on a possession-to-possession basis, the Sixers now have the bodies to bother Boston's star wings. Who knows if it will matter in a playoff series. We're talking about regular-season games in early November right now. But, the wingspans of Covington and Batum challenged Tatum, Brown, and White in ways they haven't historically been challenged by the Sixers. That's not something they're used to in this matchup. It made all the difference between victory and defeat.
- It was a tale of contrasting styles before the game's first timeout. Save for the jump-ball possession in which Oubre beat White to the loose rock and threw down what effectively mounted to a transition dunk, Philadelphia saw pretty much all of its success in the halfcourt. That's a much easier world to live in when Robert Williams III isn't lurking as a weak-side rim-protector. Boston, on the other hand, couldn't score in the halfcourt. But, as much as Boston gave the Sixers a chance to apply some early pressure by matching each brick with their own score, Philadelphia couldn't quite capitalize on the opportunities.
Whether it be a turnover or a missed shot, the Sixers were several steps too slow to get back on defense. They allowed three straight baskets at the rim in transition because Boston found the guy leaking out and made the hit-ahead pass as Philadelphia reeled. Those mistakes won't fly against this team. If you're not going to be fully engaged on defense, you need to be air-tight on offense. The Sixers were neither early on. You can live with three straight scores. The talent at this level makes that inevitable. It is unacceptable that all three were basically freebies because Philadelphia didn't get back.
- While Boston allowing Holiday to defend Embiid in the post is probably a head-scratcher on the surface to many, I think the Celtics were spoon-feeding Embiid a mismatch to try to get him to force things. Embiid is often at his worst when he's trying to force things on either end, steering himself into foul trouble by hunting home run plays on defense or leaving Philadelphia feeling empty-handed after barfing up a rushed jumper or committing a sloppy turnover.
There were moments early on in which Embiid executed the mismatch, manipulating a leaning Holiday by spinning quickly in search of a clear runway to the basket. But, there were also a handful of possessions in which Embiid tried to make things happen in a crowd as helpers converged. And that's when Boston preyed on his dribble, passing, or tunnel vision.
Perhaps one of the final evolutions for Embiid's offensive repertoire is understanding that slowing down when he has those planned mismatches instead of speeding up can sometimes be the best course of action.
Holiday is one of a very select few guards who can reasonably feel like he has any shot checking Embiid man to man. So, you can at least understand why Embiid feels compelled to speed up and force the issue. However, that is no excuse.
He should be able to play Boston right out of that scheme. You do so by feeling out when the defender is committing to a stance or leaning a certain way and then leveraging that against them by calling your own number. And when you don't feel like you have them trapped, you leverage the help - which should always be there - against the coverage. But, trying to pound Holiday into the ground is what Boston likely wants there. Embiid fell for it a few times.
- With the memory of the fateful Game 6 seared into everyone in Philadelphia's heads, Melton's night elicited some PTSD. Embiid and other teammates found Melton wide open on the perimeter a number of times, and he couldn't take advantage. Beyond that, his late-game execution was horrendous.
Melton simply cannot be trusted to handle the ball in high-leverage situations. And with Patrick Beverley serving as the only credible ball-handler off the bench, it's pretty obvious the Sixers need some secondary ball-handling. Melton nearly played the Sixers into a disturbing loss, turning the ball over as Boston pressed in the game's final minutes. He simply cannot dribble against pressure. That shouldn't serve to absolve the Sixers, by the way. They know what his limits are as an offensive player. Putting him in positions where he has to dribble against rangy wings for extended sequences is poor management.
The Sixers (6-1) will visit the Detroit Pistons (2-7) on Friday. It will be their first In-Season Tournament game. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.