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Tyrese Maxey and James Harden make the Sixers’ offense a potent playoff outfit

James Harden and Tyrese Maxey are adding skills that the Sixers have sorely lacked in past postseasons.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game One Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

After stumbling into the 2022 playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers made a statement by grabbing a quick 3-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors. A series that many thought would go the distance is on the brink of a sweep after two blowouts at home and a Joel Embiid masterclass in the second half of Game 3.

Pessimism had understandably seeped into the minds of Sixers fans over the last few weeks of the season, but these three games have renewed hope that a playoff run is brewing.

At the forefront of the good feelings is a dynamic backcourt duo that has been a welcome sight for many who have watched this team in April and May over the last four years. Tyrese Maxey and James Harden have steadied the team’s half-court offense thanks to pull-up shooting and pick-and-roll expertise, skills that have been conspicuously missing from the Sixers’ guard positions in recent memory.

As both Brett Brown and Doc Rivers learned, having reliable ball-handlers who can stretch the defense with shooting and passing is crucial to success in the playoffs, where half-court production reigns supreme. The former was even forced to make T.J. McConnell a starter in the 2018 postseason. Thus was the state of the Sixers’ guard rotation.

The Sixers and Raptors have played at the slowest pace of any of the first-round matchups in 2022. Their pace of 87.0 over those three games comes in stark comparison to the rate of 102 possessions they played at in the first round of last season’s playoffs and the 99.5 number they managed in the 2020-2021 regular season.

The Sixers’ half-court offense has been humming along in the slowed-down environment, scoring just over 105 points per 100 possessions in the half-court, per Cleaning the Glass. That number would’ve ranked first by quite a bit in the regular season (it is fifth in the playoffs currently) and is even more impressive when considering it has come against a stout Raptors defense.

The Sixers’ percentage of plays in the halfcourt is up nearly five percent from last season’s playoffs as well. The team looks considerably more comfortable against set defenses than they ever have in the Joel Embiid era.

While Embiid has improved dramatically in many facets of his game, it is still a lot to ask of a 7-foot center to control the offense. The big man’s usage is down to 29 percent in these playoffs, compared to nearly 35 percent last season. The decreased workload allows Embiid to exert even more energy defensively, as he dominated on that end in Game 3.

While the pick-and-roll game has gotten a lot of the credit, the Sixers haven’t been going to that action as much as expected in the first round. This is mainly due to Toronto’s switching, which the Sixers have taken advantage of in isolation.

The Sixers have the No. 1 frequency of isolation plays in the playoffs so far at just over 20 percent, per NBA.com. They are scoring 1.02 points per possession out of those plays, a number that is up from 0.75 points per possession last season in the playoffs. That 1.02 number would have also ranked second in the entire NBA during the regular season.

The over-arching theme of these new-look Sixers is that they are no longer a one-dimensional offensive unit. As the playoffs move along, some of the league’s best defenses will throw a variety of schemes and matchups at the Sixers’ stars. Schemes that in the past would have flummoxed Embiid and his rotating cast of perimeter players.

So far in these playoffs, the early returns have indicated that this group can handle what other teams throw at them. If that continues, the post-Process Sixers could find themselves reaching a different plane than ever before.