Dan Burke has one good win under his belt as acting head coach for the Sixers.
With Burke in the head coach’s chair and Doc Rivers in COVID-19 protocols, the Sixers won their third straight game on Thursday night at Barclays Center, a 110-102 decision over the Nets.
Joel Embiid recorded 34 points and Tyrese Maxey had 25.
Nets stars James Harden and Kevin Durant each scored 33 points. Harden had a triple-double with 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
The Sixers were down Danny Green, Tyler Johnson, Myles Powell (health and safety protocols), Aaron Henry (non-COVID illness) and Ben Simmons (personal reasons).
Kyrie Irving (ineligible to play), Joe Harris (left ankle surgery), Kessler Edwards (health and safety protocols) and Day’Ron Sharpe (return to competition reconditioning) were out for Brooklyn.
The 19-16 Sixers’ next game is Monday in Philadelphia against the Rockets. Here are observations on their win over the Nets:
Embiid the tone-setter
Embiid scored 16 of the Sixers’ 39 first-quarter points.
He made his first three field goals against LaMarcus Aldridge, including a pick-and-pop three-pointer, and continued his success when Blake Griffin checked into the game. It’s surprising at this point that opponents don’t always show Embiid double teams from the opening tip. Despite not having the personnel to handle Embiid, Brooklyn began the game either playing single coverage or sending help on the dribble, often far too late.
Sensing the Nets’ early lack of attentiveness in transition defense, Embiid took a defensive rebound, went coast to coast and stepped around Durant before converting an and-one layup. Durant wasn’t the only very tall player on the court with exceptional skill and fluidity.
Brooklyn finally ramped up its aggression on Embiid late in the second quarter. The perceived risk in that approach must have decreased during the game as Embiid’s teammates struggled to hit open shots. The Sixers led by a point at halftime because Brooklyn had 11 more turnovers (14-3), a statistic that shows the Nets’ sloppiness and that the Sixers valued the ball well even with their head coach absent.
Embiid had an injury scare with 2:41 left in the third quarter when he became entangled with Griffin off the ball. He appeared to be in pain, grabbing his left leg, but stayed in. The Sixers kept Embiid on the bench until five minutes and 26 seconds remained, subbing him in with the score 91-all.
The team was far superior to Brooklyn in the final minutes and Embiid sealed the outcome by taking an offensive rebound and scoring an and-one layup with 15.3 seconds to go. He let out an emphatic, satisfied celebration, which Durant appeared to think was too exuberant. We'll have to wait until March 10 for the regular-season series finale.
Andre Drummond and Shake Milton cleared health and safety protocols and played for the first time in two weeks.
Drummond couldn’t have looked any more comfortable as soon as he entered; by the second quarter, he was even throwing behind-the-back passes.
He was determined to make the most of his muscle advantage against the Nets’ big men. Drummond had 10 points and four rebounds in his first stint. Highlights included alley-oops off of feeds from Milton and Tobias Harris, a put-back layup, and a lefty bucket on Griffin after a fake dribble handoff.
Milton missed all six of his field goals and the Sixers went cold as a team in the second period. Harris had a second straight rough shooting game, failing to knock down several open looks. He posted nine points on 4-for-14 shooting, six rebounds and six assists.
Georges Niang was the only Sixer besides Drummond to record any points off the bench. He made three second-half triples. Furkan Korkmaz, meanwhile, played 18 scoreless minutes.
Maxey seizes his opportunities
Matisse Thybulle again started in Green’s spot and was one reason why the Sixers started much better than the last time they played in Brooklyn.
Thybulle deflected a casual Durant pass, chased down the loose ball and threw down an easy dunk to put the Sixers ahead 10-2.
Against high-powered offenses like Brooklyn’s, the Sixers’ defensive limitations without Simmons are evident. The team asked Thybulle to guard Durant and stuck him on Harden when the two-time champion sat.
While it makes sense to use Thybulle on stars of all positions, the Sixers don’t have many viable options besides the 24-year-old, especially with Green sidelined. Maxey’s effort was good as always, but he had trouble at times navigating around screens and allowed Harden to take 18 free throws. He also lost track of Harden on a crucial play late in the fourth, letting him convert a put-back layup that tied the game at 97 apiece.
On the bright side with Maxey, he was obviously unbothered by his 2-for-11 performance Tuesday against the Raptors. He made his first four field goals, including a pull-up three-pointer.
The Sixers are an exciting team to watch when he’s playing at a brisk pace, getting regular half-court chances and shooting jumpers with confidence. Back-to-back Maxey threes late in the third gave the Sixers a 84-82 advantage. He then missed a heat check on the Sixers’ next trip. Fair enough.
Maxey nailed two big corner threes in the fourth, too. The first was a go-ahead jumper and the second extended the Sixers' edge to 103-99. He later turned down a three and stepped into a pull-up two to make it 108-100.
There have been many long stretches since Embiid’s return from COVID-19 when the Sixers have given the ball to Harris or Seth Curry and Maxey has watched from the outskirts of the play. He’s deserving of more opportunities to handle the ball, run pick-and-rolls with Embiid and be a featured piece of the Sixers' offense.