Basketball returns to Philadelphia! In their home opener at South Philly, the Sixers fell to the Bucks 90-88 and fell to 0-2 to kick off the 2022-23 campaign. The team’s two stars had divergent performances, with Joel Embiid’s offensive play becoming increasingly stagnant while James Harden looked like his 2018 MVP.
To kick off the season, I’m on immediate observation duty with our excellent Sixers beat writer Kyle Neubeck on his honeymoon (congratulations!), so here’s my footage from the night that took place at the Wells Fargo Center…
• Tyrese Maxey is so lightning fast. It’s an extremely low bar to clear, but the Sixers have never had a player this fast and so good at basketball (sorry, Ish Smith) since Allen Iverson himself. Seeing Harden head over to first-quarter sales, a pass to a streaking Maxey loft, and then letting the 21-year-old go forward for a dunk had this Wells Fargo Center crowd rocking.
Unsurprisingly, Maxey can shoot the former Sixer and current Buck George Hill off the dribble. In the 2021 second-round loss to the Bucks, Hill played 110 minutes. Maxey only played 77. Maxey had yet to become the player we know him today, but it’s a decision that’s increasingly bizarre in retrospect given how lost Hill looked as a Sixer.
• It’s another equally low bar to clear, but James Harden is the best passer I’ve ever seen in a Sixers uniform. Yes, that was one facet of Ben Simmons’ game that was great without a doubt, but the praise for the game and the “passing gene” applied to Simmons is even more so for Harden.
It’s Harden’s offensive versatility that makes him even more deadly. He looks fresh as he rides for the cup compared to the player Sixers fans saw at the end of the 2022 season. He lost five threes to the Celtics on Tuesday. His mid-range jumper was fatal on Thursday. A defense that has to take all those elements into account is already on ice when Harden hits Maxey for an easy basket. He was the whole offense as they fought back from swinging in the second half to take a late lead.
For two games, Harden was his Rockets-era self. Its long-term durability remains to be seen and we’re only going to play two games here, but Sixers fans should be rightly excited about the Harden they’ve been given this week.
• After a sloppy third quarter, with the team looking completely depressed, the Sixers got some real juice from a lineup of Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., PJ Tucker and Montrezl Harrell early in the fourth. That’s a Daryl Morey fever dream of players associated with the Rockets (although Melton was never a fit for Houston). They were all over D, walking a Harden-led break with ease. Heading into fourth I saw a team ready to roll and this five-man unit brought life to the arena. That’s an “instant energy” lineup that Rivers should be willing to use when the momentum seems to be slipping.
With things tied at 80-80 and less than seven minutes to go, Doc Rivers went full Moreyball and had Tobias Harris fill in for Harrell and play Tucker for a short burst in the small ball center. I am shocked that Rivers was willing to do this so early in the season.
That run made this a legit basketball game for the last few minutes. A playoff-like atmosphere took over the WFC. Harden turned back the clock. She only couldn’t get it. In the most Sixers way possible, they lost a game they couldn’t win all the way, until they were actually in the lead late and came up short.
• Embiid’s third quarter was one of the worst I’ve seen from him in years, if not ever. He scored zero points in the entire second half. Oddly enough, Rivers didn’t give him a breather until less than a minute was left in the third. Take him off the field when things clearly don’t look right, instead of doubling him up “playing through it” against a team with different defenders from all over the league.
As I wrote on Tuesday, I rate Embiid on the scale of an MVP, not just a regular old guy from the couch or even an All-Star. His counting stats were good against the Celtics, but something just feels from with him. I can’t locate it. The offense looked messy. The totally earth-shattering Embiid of the past two years has yet to appear in this fledgling NBA season. No, of course I’m not predicting a real step back from his All-NBA form, but the Sixers matched their two biggest threats to an NBA Finals berth this week and Embiid was the superior superstar in none of those games.
When the Sixers were one down with less than 24 seconds to go, Embiid found himself in an ISO situation with the ball. There was a weird murmur throughout the arena as everyone, including the press, was confused as to why they were running things through a version of Embiid that was as cold as ever, rather than a version of Harden that was hotter than he ever was. if Sixer has been. He promptly threw a ball out of bounds on a pass to Maxey. The Sixers maintained possession, but a subsequent drive to Harden’s basket yielded no game winner.
Overreacting to a sample size of two games is a fruitless endeavor, but I’m at the Wells Fargo Center writing about what this squad looks like and what that means for when the Real season starts in spring. The early returns are not great for their MVP caliber big man.
A Saturday match-up with the humble Spurs may be just what the Sixers need to fine-tune things and put the ship on the road to another 50-win season.
• After Harrell was the first off the bench on Tuesday, Rivers went to see Paul Reed early Thursday night.
In the second quarter, Harden tried to pick and roll with Reed. I’m not sure if Reed got the memo because Harden just had to yell, “Roll! Roll! Roll!” a forest. It looked like Reed was trying to put on a guitar pick. I love Reed’s energy out there, but I can never in good conscience recommend picking Reed and popping it in the second quarter of a nationally broadcast home opener.
Shortly after, Reed was tasked with defeating multiple MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not an ideal matchup, but Reed held up relatively until Antetokounmpo drove and Reed made a mistake on him. The public didn’t like that at all. Hey, people love the B-Ball Paul experience.
the ugly one
• The whistleblower for the season opener of a team that thinks it has championship aspirations? Former owner Michael Rubin. He wouldn’t have been my first thought. Grabbing Bryce Harper or any other Phillie felt like a no-brainer with their playoff run. The Eagles are undefeated and have their farewell week! AJ Brown, Haason Reddick, Avonte Maddox and Miles Sanders were all literally at the game. That was… a decision of the Sixers. Nothing gets the Philly faithful as excited as Michael Rubin!
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