In a game that seemingly had everything besides top-notch defense, the Sixers fell short Thursday night in Dallas.
The Mavs' star guards were each brilliant in a 133-126 win at American Airlines Arena.
Luka Doncic had 42 points on 13-for-22 shooting and 12 assists. Kyrie Irving recorded 40 points on 15-for-22 shooting and six assists.
Despite making 57.7 percent of their field goals and 44.4 percent of their three-pointers, the Sixers dropped to 40-22 this season. Joel Embiid scored a team-high 35 points and shot 13 for 21 from the floor. Tyrese Maxey had 29 points, James Harden 27.
Dewayne Dedmon (left hip soreness) and Davis Bertans (left calf strain) were sidelined.
The Sixers’ next game is Saturday night in Milwaukee, where they’ll try to end the Bucks’ 16-game winning streak.
Here are observations on their loss to the Mavs:
Maxey starts, offenses dominate
Maxey started consecutive games for the first time since mid-January. De’Anthony Melton returned to the bench.
As we'd touched on Wednesday, the argument for restoring Maxey to the starting lineup was quite strong. Given Melton has ample experience coming off the bench and is a versatile, instinctive, naturally adaptable player, there didn’t appear to be much risk in again having Maxey start. Also, Thursday’s starters came into the game with a plus-22.4 net rating this season, per Cleaning the Glass, so it’s not as if the Sixers have to cross their fingers and hope things will work out here with no evidence. Yes, Maxey and Harden are not the Sixers’ top two defensive guards, but it’s a talented lineup and a logical one to start games.
Offense ruled the night early in Dallas; the Mavs opened 8 for 11 from the field and the Sixers began 7 for 11. Harden racked up five assists in the first six minutes, and he also knocked down a three-pointer and a pair of free throws. (The Sixers, who entered the game first in the NBA with an 83.2 free throw percentage, eventually had a team streak of makes end at 31). Maxey brought the ball up on the game’s first play and Harden attacked downhill off of “Chicago action,” feeding Embiid for a pick-and-roll layup. Maxey scored on a nice leaner off the backboard, Tobias Harris looked sharp, and the Sixers’ offense flowed.
The team couldn’t manage many stops, though. PJ Tucker started on Doncic, who posted 25 first-half points. Maxey drew Irving, who scored 10 of the Mavs’ first 20. The eight-time All-Star got a wide-open three when Maxey had to tag the rolling Dwight Powell and Doncic kicked the ball out to the corner. Irving later hit a pull-up three with Embiiid in drop coverage after Maxey was unable to navigate over the screen or recover in time to contest his shot.
The Sixers wound up conceding 38 first-quarter points for the second straight night. Fourteen seconds after Christian Wood checked into the game, he drained a three against the Sixers’ zone.
Red-hot duo looks unstoppable
Harden and Doncic had an entertaining mini-shootout late in the first quarter.
After a “good defense, great offense” step-back three by Doncic over Jalen McDaniels, Harden answered — and a bit more. He hit a long-range jumper over Wood through contact and converted the four-point play. In an “immaculate” first quarter, Harden recorded 16 points on four field-goal attempts and seven assists.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers reinserted Georges Niang into his rotation and the 29-year-old drew the second foul on Doncic by stepping in to take a charge. His jumpers still didn’t drop, though. Niang went 0 for 2 from three-point range and is now 4 for his last 23.
The Sixers played 11 men before 12 minutes had elapsed. Paul Reed fell back to earth following a fantastic performance Wednesday against the Heat, committing three fouls in five minutes. He fouled Wood on a three-point attempt and allowed him to score a driving, and-one layup. Montrezl Harrell replaced Reed.
Melton couldn’t neutralize Irving, who showcased how dangerous he can be both on and off the ball. On a positive note, Melton did contribute a dozen second-quarter points. That helped the Sixers prevent the Mavs from breaking open a big lead, although keeping pace with Dallas was very difficult. The Mavs went ahead 71-67 on their final possession of the second quarter when Doncic drove baseline on Tucker and created space for a short jumper with a subtle hesitation move.
It’s easy to say the Sixers should’ve been more aggressive earlier on Doncic and had greater defensive variety. For instance, Embiid hedged a pick-and-roll hard late in the second quarter and Dallas’ possession ended with a missed Reggie Bullock three. However, Doncic and Irving possess so many tools to counter whatever an opponent throws at them; both are accustomed to picking apart defenses that blitz, apply heavy pressure, and get desperate.
The Sixers did eventually mix up their schemes frequently, but no real solution materialized. Bullock sunk two threes early in the third quarter and the Mavs’ lead swelled to 20 points when Irving split Harden and Embiid on the perimeter before making a tough, hanging hoop against Maxey at the rim. About a minute and a half later, the Sixers switched Embiid on to Doncic and he drilled a step-back three over him.
Before Thursday, the most three-pointers the Sixers had given up in a game this season was 20. Dallas exceeded that number in the third quarter and finished an incredible 25 for 48 from long distance. While this was clearly a subpar defensive showing by the Sixers, much of that is simply two great guards on their A-games facing a team on the second night of a back-to-back.
Sixers make Mavs sweat
Another Doncic step-back jumper put Dallas up 25 points late in the third.
Even for a team scoring so freely, that was not a comfortable lead. The Sixers made a massive comeback push to begin the fourth quarter, posting the first 15 points of the period. Maxey had 10 of those points and unsettled the Mavs with his energy and shotmaking as the leader of a lineup with four bench players. Shake Milton, the seventh player off the Sixers' bench, added a leaner, and McDaniels made an and-one, fast-break layup following a Maxey steal. A Maxey runner cut Dallas' lead down to 110-106.
Reed also had a positive stint, embracing a high-tempo style and notching a block and a steal, but everything for the Sixers revolved around Maxey. His teammates were focused on feeding the hot hand, and that worked well because of Maxey's knack for scoring spurts that still seem to catch opponents off guard.
At that stage, a Sixers win didn't appear at all impossible. The Mavs had lost five of their previous six games, including a home defeat to the Lakers on Sunday in which they blew a 27-point lead.
On Thursday, they had sufficient composure (and jump shooting) to avoid a complete collapse. Threes from Irving, Doncic and Bullock extended Dallas' advantage to 122-108.
The Mavs were rather casual in the final few minutes, though, and the Sixers pulled back within five points on an Embiid put-back layup with 31 seconds remaining.
Ultimately, as is the case for almost every team in a 25-point second-half hole, the Sixers did not have enough magic left. The Mavs got through to the final buzzer and the Sixers dropped to 1-1 on their five-game road trip.