3 things we learned from the Sixers this weekend.

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Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots against Los Angeles Lakers center Thomas Bryant (31) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The Philadelphia 76ers began a five-game Western Conference road trip this weekend facing both the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers. During which, the Sixers went 2-0 and along the way, there were three things that we learned.

1) The Harden/Embiid combo is getting downright nasty

At the NBA trade deadline last season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that James Harden would be a Sixer and the team would end the Ben Simmons experiment. Then it happened, and people were still shocked. But, as we approach a calendar year later, has Harden helped?

The Sixers lost to the Miami Heat in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, and this year started poorly. For Harden, he’s battled some injuries over the past couple of years that may have cost him some spring or quickness, and then this year, he’s missed time again with an injury.

For Embiid, having someone that has Hardens basketball IQ and the willingness to play hard is a dream come true but would the two be able to coincide as this is clearly Embiid’s team, and Harden has always been “the guy”?

While it’s had its ups and downs to start, the past weekend has shown that it’s been going up the past month, and there doesn’t really seem to be a ceiling for these two. In wins over the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, the Sixers’ duo keeps getting better as they grow together. If they can remain healthy for the second half of the season, this looks like it’s going to be a problem for anyone they face.

For the weekend, Embiid averaged 32.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists while playing 36 minutes per game. Harden averaged 27.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 12 assists in 37 minutes per game. The part that sticks out, other than the ridiculous numbers that the two are putting up, is that they appear to get a little more in sync with each passing game. There are going to be some times that it won’t always be perfect, but if the past weekend and the past few weeks are any indications, this duo is going to be very hard to stop.

2) What to make of the Sixers’ bench

The Sixers made some off-season moves that were supposed to expand and improve their bench. Daniel House Jr, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, and Montrezl Harrell were all brought in. Melton was enjoying a nice season until Harden, and Tyrese Maxey went down for extended periods of time in November. Then he seemed to just explode.

Since the return of the two, as this past weekend has shown, there’s something missing with Melton. He only had six total points in 52 minutes of play over the weekend. Players like Georges Niang (8), Matisse Thybulle (4), and Shake Milton (25) have all been hot or cold, with Thybulle mainly just being cold. Milton has had his ups and downs. Niang is hard to gauge. PJ Tucker, who’s brought in for toughness as well as his corner-three shooting and defense, has been just flat-out bad for the past few months. He has 8 points over the whole weekend.

You can’t be upset at Tucker for his lack of production since, at 38 years old, he’s playing almost 30 minutes per game, doesn’t miss games, and plays through pain. But, when you’re trying to get to the NBA Finals, and he was brought in as an integral piece of the puzzle, at some point, as a coach, you have to sit him.

He’s already had a reported knee “procedure” in November and has been battling an issue with his shooting hand since the start of December. If a guy who can shoot and defend suddenly is having problems doing both, maybe it’s time for the Sixers to give him some rest and allow him to get healthy for the playoffs when you really need him.

The bench, which was supposed to have become a strength over the off-season, remains just as big of a question as it has been in the past few years. You’re never able to guess which players will show up, which will be successful on any given night, who’s going to score, who’s going to be flat, etc. This should all be something that the coach gets under control and the time to do that is now.

3) Tyrese Maxey is still getting his legs back

While Sixers’ guard Tyrese Maxey has shown some flashes of how he played prior to suffering an injury earlier in the season, this weekend was a good sign of him improving but also showing that he is still a ways away from the player we saw emerge at the end of last season.

For the weekend, Maxey had 21 points against the Jazz, then 16 points against the Lakers. Maxey, who is used to starting, was brought off the bench against the Lakers. After playing 38 minutes against the Jazz and recently missing extended time with a foot injury, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Sixers started De’Anthony Melton, who, while not on Maxey’s level as a scorer, is one of the Sixers’ better defenders and helps offset any shortcomings that Harden may have against guards. Maxey was still able to see 33 minutes against the Lakers, and his 16 points were much more efficient.

Against the Jazz, Maxey needed 20 shots, including 11 three-pointers, to get his 20 points. Against the Lakers, he shot 6-13 on the evening, getting himself his 16 points. While he was only 1-5 on three-point attempts, his overall shooting was much better, with noticeably less gunning. As the season goes on, you can expect that Maxey will get his legs back under him and get his timing down, and there’s no reason to expect a fall-off from the player we saw at the end of last season and the start of this one.

The Sixers, if there’s going to have any sort of extended run in the playoffs, will need all that they can get out of Maxey. When he’s on, the rest of the team settles into their roles much easier. Melton can focus on defense and outside shooting. Tobias Harris can assume the role he’s picked up this year and quietly keep dropping 17 points. Shake Milton can relax and just give the Sixers some instant offense. Georges Niang can use his minutes to shoot from the outside. Harden and Embiid can focus on running their pick-and-roll game to perfection when they know they have Maxey out there just waiting to attack.

On a Sixers team that features Harden, Embiid, and to an extent, Harris, Maxey is the key to the team having a long and successful run in the playoffs. After this weekend, it looks like he’s getting closer to being back to normal.