As the regular season starts winding down, the Sixers are in the midst of a tough, tiring stretch of their schedule. Not just their current stint away from Philadelphia, but March overall. And after Wednesday’s impressive 119-96 win in a rematch against the Heat, which started a five-game road trip, the Sixers still have four more road games in just the next six days.
Thankfully for the Sixers they were able to elevate their play in Joel Embiid’s absence on Wednesday, as he sat out against Miami with left foot soreness. Philly embraced more switchy, energetic defense, and smaller lineups with P.J. Tucker starting at center. Tyrese Maxey led the way offensively, and Paul Reed stepped in with a great performance off the bench, adding 16 points, 14 rebounds (five offensive), and two blocks in 28 minutes.
In other words, the Sixers collectively did exactly what they needed to after a couple of challenging losses.
Paul Reed with some sauce on this fake and finish pic.twitter.com/9OxshxpVdT— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 2, 2023
Now, before another marquee matchup against the first-place Bucks, the Sixers are off to Dallas to face the new-look Mavericks, who sit at 32-31 and seventh place in the West.
This isn’t an easy game at all, especially on the second night of a back-to-back. The Mavs haven’t exactly lit up the league after acquiring Irving, only going 3-4 in the games he’s played as they start figuring out their new team, but their offense is still deadly. They rank sixth in offensive rating for the season, and third since Irving’s debut.
Irving’s arrival adds a whole new dynamic to the Mavs’ offense. To accompany Luka Doncic’s more methodical nature and savant-level passing, Irving gives them a second creator to attack scrambled defenses alongside Luka, keep the offense ticking when Doncic is off the floor, and simply provide more dangerous, unpredictable creation off the dribble from all three levels. Irving has been hyper efficient through his first seven games with the Mavs as well (even though he’s coming off a cool 7-of-18 shooting night against the Pacers). Overall, he’s averaging 24.7 points and 6.9 assists per game with 49.2/37.7/96.4 shooting splits.
If this game is going to turn into more of an offensive shootout against the Mavs’ stars and complementary shooters like Reggie Bullock and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Sixers could certainly use another strong performance from Tyrese Maxey to help them keep up.
Maxey’s not been at his best in recent weeks as he’s continued in his reserve role. It’s clear he’s best suited to attacking more off the catch and thriving alongside James Harden and Joel Embiid, but the young guard has heated up the last two games. He had one of his better recent performances against the Heat on Monday when he provided a late spark with 23 points and four made triples. Then Maxey was back at it again on Wednesday, going off for 27 points and seven assists on 10-of-17 shooting, including another four made three-pointers. Hopefully for the Sixers, Maxey is starting to turn a corner.
MIAMI MAXEY = pic.twitter.com/L107CqJxuJ— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 2, 2023
Harden already seems to have snapped back into form after a couple of off shooting nights against Boston and Miami (he had 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists with 4-of-9 shooting from deep in Wednesday's rematch against the Heat). Embiid (if he returns) shouldn’t have too much trouble against slightly smaller, more slender bigs such as Dwight Powell, Christian Wood and Maxi Kleber. After having Wednesday off for the first night of this back-to-back, Embiid will probably return against Dallas. But if he does continue resting his foot for tonight’s game, it looks like Doc Rivers is now happy favoring going small with Tucker and increasing Reed’s minutes — which is the right way to go, rather than forcing Montrezl Harrell and his poor defense into the mix. Even with Embiid sidelined on Wednesday, Harrell didn’t play a second.
The Mavs’ defense has been their main issue this season, ranking just 23rd in defensive rating. Their cohesion and performance at that end of the floor has slipped even more since Irving arrived — it’s a very small sample of course, but their defensive rating over the last eight games is a woeful 118.1, even worse than their mark of 115.3 for the season.
Meanwhile, it’s defense where the Sixers really can’t afford to fall asleep in this one. While Tucker and Tobias Harris will likely handle the bulk of the Doncic assignment, De’Anthony Melton will have his hands full with Irving. As Luka generally looks to pick apart teams in the half court, the Mavs rank just 29th in pace and fast-break scoring this season, which is helpful given Philly’s tendency for lulls defending in transition.
Against Doncic and Irving attacking downhill and shifting around ball screens, though, the Sixers obviously have to be sharp. Embiid needs to be in the kind of powerful defensive form he was in against Boston, on ball defense needs to be energetic against Dallas’s star duo, and rotations out to shooters need to be on time — the Mavs launch the third-most three-pointers per game in the NBA, and maintain the 10th-best efficiency by making 36.7 percent, too. Perhaps Tucker, who’s turned in some of his best play with the Sixers recently (like his seven-point, 16-rebound, feisty defensive game against the Celtics), can keep it going to at least make Luka work a bit harder.
This current road trip will get easier with games against the Pacers and Timberwolves to bring it to a close. But the Sixers could still really use some wins against these tricky opponents to ramp up into form for the playoffs and ultimately help solidify their spot in the standings — there isn’t much time left to do so.
Wednesday’s game in Miami was an impressive team win all around. Now let’s see if the Sixers can maintain that energy against Luka and Kyrie.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Dallas Mavericks
When: 7:30 pm EST, Thursday, Mar. 2
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic