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Now healthier, Sixers can unleash vicious three-guard attacks

Could the Sixers afford to buy P.J. Tucker some much needed load management to heal, while simultaneously pushing the tempo on opponents with guard-heavy looks?

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards Photo by Keshawn Ennis/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Sixers get a bit healthier with the reintroduction of their electric, 6-foot-2 scoring guard Tyrese Maxey, head coach Doc Rivers has a few extra tools in his toolkit once again. After getting torched by the New Orleans Pelicans 127-116 last week, it was a whole new ballgame when the two teams met on South Broad St.

Joel Embiid came into the evening questionable with a sore back, but he led the way for the red, white and blue with 42 points, 11 boards, five dimes, a block, and a steal, while draining all ten of his freebies, and 2 of 3 long balls. I’m not sure anyone in the NBA is playing better than The Process right now, our NBA Player of the Month. If you trusted back in 2014, holy mackerel, were you always right. Embiid is simply spectacular. A historical two-end talent.

Former Rocket Mario Elie, who played alongside Hakeem Olajuwon gets it:

But one wrinkle that the team deployed in the last victory was the type of three-guard look some fans have clamored for in anticipation of Maxey’s return from his left foot fracture. The team ranks just 24th in pace on the season. But boy is he bringing some burst back.

Three-guard lineup yearners got what they wanted on Monday and it was fun to watch.

After the big win, helping the team improve to 22-14 overall, fifth place in the East, and 15-5 at home (only the Bucks and Cavaliers have defended their fort better) Rivers was asked about his three-guard lineup wrinkle.

“Well, I just thought we needed some speed in the game,” Rivers told reporters after the 120-111 victory over Zion Williamson’s Pelicans. “They’re so long, and they load to the ball a lot. So when they do, the ball swings, and the attacks, getting into the paint and kicking it back out. I thought it would be good for us. At that point it was basically Zion and [CJ] McCollum [leading the way for them] so we didn’t think that even though they were longer that it would hurt us. And it didn’t. So it was a good thing for us.”

At different points in the contest Doc let James Harden, Tyrese Maxey (still coming off the bench as he adjusts to game action again) and De’Anthony Melton share the floor, giving a much-needed rest to this banged up version of their lone ring-possessing player in P.J. Tucker.

Tuckwagon actually got a night off along with The Beard when the team faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year’s Eve, but he was back Monday.

Against New Orleans, the Harden, Melton and Maxey trio was a +4 in eight. Harden, Matisse Thybulle and Maxey were a +5 in five minutes.

Remembering back to last season, we knew that three-guard lineups can smash during the regular season. The team went 14-6 with Thybulle starting and they mostly smoked teams that way. With Thybulle, Maxey and Harden the three-guard unit was a +7 in three minutes. And that even included Montrezl Harrell spelling Embiid and a scorching hot Georges Niang swapped in for Harris.

And now, by sliding in a better shooter and ball handler like Melton for Matisse, they have even more two-way turbo power.

Rivers talked more about how sliding Melton in for Tucker kept the Pelicans’ defense out of sorts.

“Well, it’s a lineup that we can go to because we think we can increase some pace into the game. We like it when Joel’s out on the floor more because now you got three guards that can come off of pick-and-roll with Jo and if they help at all you got two guards with speed that can catch it and play, so we like that.”

To that end, a lineup with Maxey, Melton, Harden with Harris and Embiid was a +3 in seven minutes. And they used that winning combination to bury the Pellies in crunch time.

See for yourself below:

In these three-guard looks you’ll notice all of the pace and space they create, plus:

  • Melton displaying some elite off-ball defensive chops, helping to protect the rim with a savage block on the high-flier Jaxson Hayes.
  • Matisse Thybulle creating all kinds of offense (yes, offense) by sticky-tacking himself to McCollum, forcing misses, steals and live ball turnovers to help get his friends easy transition looks.
  • You can see when Joel helps the team gets a stop and board, they now have the horses to push the pace, and with both Maxey and Melton sprinting to corners on the opposite end and occupying defenders, Harden gets one man to beat which he’s able to do with a running start.
  • You can see Embid make the right pass out of a double, and watch some very pretty ball movement work around the horn to Bang Bang Mr. Minivan Niang for a few bombs. Terrific spacing and passing in these three-guard sets. (For years, I’ve been jealous of teams that get lots of swing-swing open corner threes, now the Sixers boast the fifth-best frequency of an attempted corner three per
  • You can see Joel feeling himself as a passer more lately too, a potentially title-ceiling altering development if it sticks.
  • And for you eye-test, vibe tracking, narrative lovers out there... Embiid and Harden looked like they had a ton of fun in this game, both getting numerous opportunities to attack a suddenly well-spaced floor, getting buckets within the flow.
  • You can see a dude like Jaxson Hayes find himself in no-man’s-land, stuck between doubling Embiid on the roll from Harden, or sticking to Maxey in the strong-side corner. He can’t make up his mind in time and next thing you know, Embiid is breakdancing like a happy 10-year-old after a crunch time and-one.
  • You can see Tobias sneak into the dunker spot and lead to a swing where Maxey attacks a closeout, Harris tips the miss and it finds a wide-open D-Melt who takes and makes without hesitation for a backbreaking, cue that song up Mr. DJ, long ball.
  • And you can see the Pelicans willing to fall on the sword of allowing Beard, the third-most prolific three-point shooter in history, to take a wide-open catch-and-shoot bomb to ice the game.

The Pelicans were missing the lengthy, rangy budding superstar Brandon Ingram. But (should have drafted him over Jaden Springer) Herb Jones was out there this time. And the Pelicans boast the sixth-best defensive rating. The 76ers three-guard looks left them simply overmatched at times. I don’t want to overstate anything but they really seemed to tap into something here.

None of this is meant to be a slight on P.J. Tucker. I may be on a lonely island of folks who expect big things from Tuck come playoff time if the team ever decides to scale him back a bit and let him get right. It’s just to say, with Maxey back, the Sixers can toggle in Melton or Thybulle for Tuck and still bank on getting stops, while injecting more pace than we’ve seen since before Tyrese’s injury.

Let’s be honest, Maxey is so fast he makes the entire team play faster and we saw that Monday. Everything is more fun with him in the fold.

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