3 Observations: Sixers Overcome Poor Defense, Nets in Intense Slugfest

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This game was a wild one that had a bit of everything from technical fouls to insane offense to a ton of trash talk and intensity. In the end, the Philadelphia 76ers sent the packed Wells Fargo Center crowd home happy. They moved to 31-16 on the season with a 137-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.

Tyrese Maxey, once again coming off the bench, led the Sixers with 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field. Joel Embiid, questionable coming in with left foot soreness, had a down performance for his standards, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. James Harden added in 23 points, three rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block. The Sixers shot 51.2% from the field and 47.4% from beyond the arc.

The Nets, without Kevin Durant (right knee MCL sprain), shot the lights out. They shot 64.5% from the field and 53.8% from 3-point range. Kyrie Irving scored 30 points and dished out 10 assists. Seth Curry led the Nets with 32 points on 11-of-20 shooting.

The Sixers next take on Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday afternoon. Here are three observations from the win:

Extra juice and intensity in the opening quarter

It was clear from the opening minute this game was going to have a ton of extra juice. This was the first time Ben Simmons faced off against Embiid and Harden since the trade went down last season. It took just over one minute of action for Embiid to get his first post-up against Simmons. Embiid missed a turnaround shot as the Nets effectively sent over a late double-team to affect the attempt. Despite the miss, the Philly crowd took a lot of pleasure in the matchup. Embiid was clearly looking throughout the game to go up against Simmons and make his will known. The crowd was intense, with a lot of chants being exchanged between the home crowd and the contingent of Nets fans who made the trip down I-95.

There was an increased level of physicality between the two teams. The Sixers took advantage, getting into the bonus with 7:59 remaining in the opening quarter. The referees had an incredibly quick whistle, perhaps in an attempt to control the chippy environment. Brooklyn’s head coach Jacque Vaughn was first to receive a technical foul after arguing a call. Harden was given a technical foul a few minutes later after tossing the ball against the stanchion following a Brooklyn made free throw.

Nic Claxton blocked an Embiid dunk attempt with 3:43 remaining in the first quarter. The intensity was only ratcheted up from there. The two got into a confrontation about 30 seconds later that resulted in both of them getting called for a technical foul. There were four technical fouls called in the opening quarter and six (not including a defensive three-second violation) overall.

Embiid struggled to get things going offensively for much of the night. Claxton, despite a major weight disadvantage, stood his ground and made multiple good defensive plays against Embiid throughout the night. The Nets did a good job throwing a ton of switches and double teams to fluster Embiid and really the entirety of the Sixers’ offense. In the end, the big fella was still able to put his imprint on the game, but his shooting efficiency was down drastically.

Maxey, Melton have strong nights

Both teams played relatively little defense early on. The game turned into a track meet, especially as neither team could miss from beyond the arc. De’Anthony Melton was at the center of it all. He could not miss in the opening quarter, beginning by knocking down a 3-pointer to open up the scoring. He would go on to score 11 points while connecting on all three of his attempts from long range. The Sixers shot 6-of-9 from deep compared to the Nets 6-of-8 from deep in the opening quarter. The lead swung back and forth, but the game was ultimately tied at 41 at the end of the first quarter.

Melton also did an admirable job attempting to defend Irving throughout the night. He made life somewhat difficult for Irving, although in the end it was not enough to prevent him from having a strong night. Melton’s defensive effort, including recording a steal and three blocks, was one of the lone positive performances on that end of the floor. He finished with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists.

In addition to Melton’s solid defensive performance, Matisse Thybulle also had one of his better two-way performances on the season. In just 12 minutes of action, he wracked up 10 points, two rebounds, an assist and three steals. He even knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, something not often seen out of Thybulle. This is the kind of performance the Sixers hope to expect from him on a more consistent basis.

Maxey also continued to put together big performances. He showcased his ability to score in bunches, putting up a quick seven points after stepping into the game with 5:20 remaining in the first quarter. The Sixers went with an all-bench lineup to open up the second quarter. Maxey and Shake Milton, as has become routine over the last several games, did a solid job anchoring this unit. Maxey got into rhythm, drilling a trio of step-back 3-pointers to help the Sixers begin to pull away. His ability to create space for his step-back jumper is awesome to watch, especially considering he was not an efficient outside shooter when he first entered the league.

In the second half, Maxey quietly continued to impact the game. He continued his hot 3-point shooting from the first half, sprinkling in some made jumpers throughout the second half. In an example of the Sixers’ lineup versatility, head coach Doc Rivers ended the game with a three-guard lineup (Harden, Melton and Maxey) out on the floor. It paid dividends when Melton was able to grab a big offensive rebound and dish out a pass to Maxey for a 3-pointer. The play increased the team’s lead to 131-124 with 1:40 remaining. With Embiid struggling, Maxey and Melton’s performances played huge roles in helping the Sixers get the win.

Harden’s clutch buckets enough to help Sixers fight through defensive struggles

The Sixers spent much of the game playing little to no defense. Despite that, they were still able to build up a 94-77 lead midway through the third quarter. They were putting together an excellent offensive performance, although cracks were beginning to show. The Nets mixed in some zone defense and the shots stopped falling for the Sixers. Brooklyn went on a 21-13 run in the final 6:01 of the third quarter to cut the Sixers’ 17-point lead down to nine.

In a prime example of their defensive struggles, Simmons galloped down the court virtually uncontested in the final seconds of the quarter before making a floater while getting fouled. Simmons exploded in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 12 points in that frame.

Defending basically anywhere on the court was an issue for the Sixers. Claxton had a career night, scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Irving had his way in the paint, whether it was drawing fouls or making excellent, crafty finishes around the rim.

However, Curry’s outside shooting was what really killed the Sixers. He scored 10 points in the span of four minutes in the fourth quarter, playing a large role in keeping the game close. He knocked down a mid-range jumper and followed it up with a pull-up 3-pointer to tie the game at 120 with 4:06 remaining. Sixers fans were very much reminded of why Curry was a beloved player during his brief tenure in Philadelphia.

Despite the poor defense, the Sixers managed to power through on the other end of the floor. Harden carried the team’s late-game offense. After Curry tied the game at 120, Harden took over by drilling step-back 3-point bombs on consecutive possessions. He followed that up by stealing an Irving pass. Then with the Sixers having a two-point lead inside the final minute, he drove by Royce O’Neale for a layup that provided critical insurance.

It is not often the Sixers will be able to pull out a win while playing horrendous defense for much of the night. Harden’s clutch buckets proved to be just enough to help the Sixers overcome one of their worst defensive games of the season.

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