Instant Observations: Sixers Survive Harden Ejection, Win Game 3 Behind Huge Maxey Night

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) celebrates during game three of the 2023 NBA playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers survived a basketball game that at times resembled more of a wrestling match. They defeated the Brooklyn Nets 102-97 on Thursday night in Game 3 to take a 3-0 lead in the series.

Tyrese Maxey led the way, scoring 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting. James Harden, before getting ejected, finished with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists. Joel Embiid added 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. Danuel House Jr. was a late scratch due to a non-COVID illness.

Mikal Bridges led the Nets were led by 26 points, six rebounds and five assists. Spencer Dinwiddie added in 20 points, seven assists and two steals.

Game 4 of this first-round series is on Saturday at 1 p.m. Here are some instant observations from the win:

– For the second consecutive game, Maxey was the Sixers’ best scorer on the floor. He opened up the game on fire whether it was on drives to the basket or shots from beyond the arc. The improvement he made in his outside shooting is incredible, especially considering he was at best an average shooter coming out of the draft.

After Maxey scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the first half, he disappeared for large portions of the second half. The Sixers inexplicably failed to get him consistently involved and that played a large role in their offensive struggles. They scored just 18 points in a third quarter that included a ton of brutal offense. This team has far too many moments where they lack focus and play down to the competition. Their ugly third quarter performance nearly cost them the win, and it is something they need to avoid going forward in the postseason.

With Embiid struggling and Harden ejected (more on both of those below), Maxey stepped up in the guts of the game. He scored 10 of the team’s final 13 points of the game. His biggest shot of the night was the game-winner, a big time step-back 3-pointer over Dinwiddie with 44.7 seconds remaining.

The Nets have not yet figured out how to defend Maxey. He has a combination of speed, driving ability and good outside shooting that is difficult to stop. His huge performance in the clutch played a decisive role in helping the Sixers skate away with a win in this one.

– This game had a different feel right from the opening few minutes. The Nets came into the game looking to muck things up and get in Embiid’s head. It nearly resulted in the big fella getting ejected early on. Nic Claxton caught an alley-oop and stepped over Embiid, who then reacted poorly by kicking Claxton in the leg/groin. Embiid was fortunate to only receive a flagrant one foul and not an ejection. Later on in the first quarter, he got into a small tussle with Day’Ron Sharpe. The two were quickly separated with no fouls being called. Regardless, Embiid poorly handled the situation, especially with so much on the line for the Sixers this postseason.

Now enough with the head games and back to the actual play on the court. The Nets continued throwing a ton of double teams at Embiid, although they did a better job of mixing up both when and where the doubles were coming from. Whereas Embiid mostly did a solid job making the right play against the double earlier in the series, it finally wore him down in this contest. He was completely taken out of the game as a scorer. It did not help to have him often set up shop above the free-throw line. Claxton got ejected from the game after receiving a second technical foul for taunting. Brooklyn played with a small-ball lineup from that point on. Somehow the Sixers elected not to punish them by putting Embiid in the low post every possession.

Despite Embiid having one of his worst offensive games of the season, he still managed to impact the game as a defender. On multiple occasions, his presence on the floor was enough to change what the Nets were doing offensively. His biggest play of the night on either end came with just a few seconds remaining on the clock. With the Sixers up by two points, he sealed the game with a devastating block on a Dinwiddie layup attempt.

All told, this was a subpar performance from the big fella. He was nearly ejected at the beginning of the game, and provided very little on offense. The Sixers are very fortunate to have survived his poor showing.

– There was a lot of concern coming into Game 3 about Harden’s finishing ability. He put up a lot of ugly shots from around the rim in the first two games of this series. However, he quieted some of those concerns with a solid showing. He revived his ability to score in isolation, knocking down a pair of mid-range jumpers to get himself into rhythm in the first half. In the second half, he followed it up with a few successful drives. On one play, he drove by Dorian Finney-Smith, a talented perimeter defender, before finishing over Claxton.

Harden was in the midst of a good performance, but his night ended a little bit early. He was ejected late in the third quarter after hitting Royce O’Neal in the midsection. At first glance, a flagrant one foul call seemed like a fair punishment. However, it was deemed a flagrant two foul and he was forced out of the game. An ejection did not seem warranted for the foul Harden committed. Perhaps it was a makeup call for Embiid being given just a flagrant one earlier in the game.

P.J. Tucker has to be giving the Nets nightmares at this point. He has come down with so many offensive rebounds so far in the series. His hustle on the boards continued in Game 3. Surrounded by four Nets players, he somehow came down with an offensive board in the first half. He drew a loose-ball foul on one play after sprinting from the corner to the middle of the floor while going after an offensive rebound. For everyone who has been harping on Tucker’s play this season, let this serve as a reminder of why the team signed him last offseason. He finished with three points, eight rebounds (three offensive) and four assists.

– It is refreshing to see the Sixers actually have a capable second unit. De’Anthony Melton stepped up in the fourth quarter after Harden was ejected. He had a well-rounded night offensively, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and having two emphatic dunks. His defense, specifically his closeout ability on the perimeter, was big in the fourth quarter.

The rest of the second unit also had a solid night. The Sixers should use more lineups with the trio of Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed on the floor together. That trio is capable of slowing opposing offenses. Each of them has the ability to successfully operate a switch-heavy defense. With Harden leading this unit, they should be able to do enough offensively to be productive.