A rampant 4-1 Sixers road trip was exactly what the team needed

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Sixers, PJ Tucker, James Harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) advances the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Sixers are returning home largely victorious from their five-game stretch on the road this past week. Ending at 4-1, this road trip was a crucial test of the team’s durability and rotation strength – and to fans’ relief, they passed with flying colors.

The Sixers are holding their own against the best the East has to offer

All five of the teams they faced on the road have the potential to be in the playoffs, with the Bucks and Mavericks all but a lock, the Heat and Timberwolves likely to be in, and the Pacers fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament. Coming off of two heartbreaking tough losses at home to the Celtics and the Heat, the ability to pick up momentum on the road was desperately needed. And as the playoffs inch closer, the Sixers proved that they had both the star power and the rotation depth they’ll need to do well in the long postseason quest for a championship.

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The trip started in Miami on Wednesday, after Jimmy Butler put on an absolute clinic in Philadelphia last Monday. But even with Joel Embiid being out for the game, the Sixers made excellent adjustments allowing them to pick up the win. In particular, head coach Doc Rivers leaned on Danuel House Jr. more than he has at almost any point this season.

With his combination of size, speed, and athleticism, House provided a much-needed defensive response to Jimmy Butler, holding him to just 16 points. The addition of Tyrese Maxey back into the starting rotation made many of us question why he was ever taken out – the young guard put up 27 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists, leading the team to a 119-96 point win. 

A close call in Dallas

While the next night against the Dallas Mavericks didn’t end in a win, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of scoring. James Harden and Tyrese Maxey put up 27 and 29 points respectively, while Joel Embiid returned to the court with a whopping 35 points. But the lethal combination of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving was just a bit too much, as the two guards scored a combined 82 points.

While their defense was still decent – they nabbed nine steals – they struggled with turnovers, fouls, and most of all, three-point shooting. For context, the Sixers took 27 three-point shots (they sunk 12 of them), while the Mavericks made 25 threes – and that was only half of the ones they took. Overall, the game was largely a shootout, and when your opponent is Luka Doncic, those are tough to win. The Sixers lost 133-126, their only one of the road trip.

Bucking the Bucks

But they came back with a vengeance, and Saturday’s win against the first-place Milwaukee Bucks was one of the most necessary wins of the season. After a super close first half, a third-quarter run by Grayson Allen separated the Bucks’ lead by 15 points. Yet the team stayed close behind defensively, committing just five turnovers to Milwaukee’s 13 the whole game. And a massive fourth quarter by James Harden allowed the Sixers to eek out a late-game win, with the star guard putting up a season-high 38 points while sinking 5 of 9 from beyond the arc. Embiid and Maxey continued their streak of 25+ point games, while Georges Niang had a mighty showing off the bench, shooting 5 of 6 from 3 in 28 minutes of play. 

Tyrese Maxey
Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey, right, drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

Sixers make a statement against the Pacers

The Sixers provided further proof that they remain legitimate contenders in Indiana, where Harden put up a historic 20 assists along with 14 points, and Embiid hit his 11th (!!) 40-plus point game of the season. While the two stars deservedly received the limelight, newcomer Jalen McDaniels also got significant attention for his outstanding 20-point game.

While the game felt pretty balanced through the first three quarters – neither team led by more than six points – a decisive showing early in the fourth quarter by Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, and Danuel House Jr. gave the team a 10-point led with under eight minutes left to play.

The final score of 147-143 gives a sense of the pure lack of defense from both teams, but no one could deny that the entire Sixers’ roster was clicking perfectly. The team shot 62.5% overall, and with another excellent showing from the team’s leading bench players, they simply became impossible for a less deep team to manage. 

Sixers put the cherry on the cake

But it was the final game of the trip – last night’s unbelievable showing from Joel Embiid against the Minnesota Timberwolves – that will be remembered the most. While Embiid “only” scored 39 points (isn’t that something?!), they all came in just 28 minutes of play through the first three quarters. With the team up by nearly 20 points, Embiid sat much of the fourth quarter while the bench ran the show – basically maintaining the same lead that Embiid left them with. For a team that’s struggled mightily in non-Embiid minutes, that’s a huge win. 

A sign of things to come?

In all five games, Tyrese Maxey scored at least 24 points. James Harden averaged 25.5 in the four games he played, with his only sub-20 point night being against the Pacers when he contributed 20 assists. And Joel Embiid continues to dominate this league in ways never before seen by a 7-footer. In the five games, he averaged 36.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and a block per game. He might not care about being named MVP anymore, but he’s sure playing like one. 

The team still has work to do – their transition defense and three-point shooting both remain variable, especially when Embiid isn’t on the court. And they still have yet to put up an answer to the Boston Celtics, who they’ll likely face at some point in the playoffs. But the Sixers are playing some of their best basketball of the season. With everyone healthy, all three of their main stars putting up big numbers, and (perhaps most importantly) their bench providing solid depth and not blowing leads, this team has the potential to dominate the playoffs and break their streak of early exits. Don’t count them out just yet. 

AP Photo/Aaron Gash