Sixers quiet West-leading Thunder as Embiid, Maxey combine for 63

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey, left, and Joel Embiid react after a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Coming off of a Joel Embiid-less loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Philadelphia 76ers hit the road to Oklahoma City for a matchup against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder. The Sixers faced yet another tough task as, coming into the night, the Thunder were tied with the Timberwolves for first place in the Western Conference.

The major difference for Philadelphia in this matchup, as opposed to last Wednesday’s in Minnesota, was reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Embiid missed the Sixers’ previous game due to a sore hip but was ready to come out of the gate firing, as he scored the first bucket of Saturday’s action.

It wasn’t just Embiid who came ready to play as the Sixers went on a quick run, going up by as much as 11 in the early going. That lead would soon crumble once the often ill-fated Beverley/Morris Sr. lineup took the court. Beverley checked in with just under six minutes left on the clock while Morris subbed in around the four-and-a-half-minute mark.

In that short amount of time, despite sharing the floor with both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey for those final four and a half minutes, Beverley would finish the quarter a -11 in his time, and as for Morris Sr., a minus 10.

This has happened far too often, and while excuses can be made about Jaden Springer’s inconsistency or Kelly Oubre’s absence, these are real, preventable issues facing the Sixers. With each passing game, the noise surrounding this issue continues to grow. However, the only resolution in plain and obvious sight, outside of Springer, is waiting for the return of Oubre.

But enough on that downer of a topic—Beverly improved as the game went on, and Morris at least remained afloat thereafter; the second quarter brought with it a renewed energy for Philadelphia as they clawed back into the game with Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous Alexander on the bench.

Throughout the game, as he faced the lengthy and physical Thunder, fouls began to trouble Tyrese Maxey. The Sixers’ young star was even called for his fourth foul shortly before the end of the half, but thanks to Nick Nurse’s decision to challenge the call, not only was Maxey saved from his fourth foul, but he instead went to the line for a pair of free throws.

Nurse’s decision-making and confidence in challenging calls have been refreshing. Later on in the game, he would again challenge a crucial call, this time against Joel Embiid, that was once again overturned.

Now, Nurse is not making these decisions solely on his own. He does have a team assisting in these decisions, but the final decision is on Nurse, and the process from start to finish has certainly appeared far smoother in the Nick Nurse era.

Heading into the second half with a four-point lead, the momentum was beginning to swing back into the Sixers’ favor, or so it felt until a Chet Holmgren three-pointer brought the lead down to one within the first half-minute of the quarter. He would score seven quick points in the first two minutes of the third quarter.

However, as many know, basketball is a game of runs. The Sixers would soon counter and begin to dominate defensively against the Thunder, allowing only seven points to Oklahoma City in nearly the final eight minutes of the quarter. With a steady lead built heading into the fourth and final quarter, things were looking up for Philadephia.

Despite this, and to borrow another tired trope, the game isn’t over until the final buzzer sounds.

Both of the aforementioned challenges proved critical as, despite the Sixers’ lead after three quarters, the game would come down to the wire. The Sixers maintained the lead throughout much of the fourth quarter, but an offensive onslaught by OKC paired with some major miscues from Philadelphia allowed the Thunder to pull this game to within one at its closest.

Had Joel Embiid not gone a perfect 6/6 from the free-throw line in the final 10 seconds of the game, it’s quite possible that the Sixers would have left this game empty-handed. Thankfully for Philadelphia, that possibility did not become a reality and the team will come home with their heads high.

What stood out?

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid drives to the basket past Brooklyn Nets center Day’Ron Sharpe during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The second-year player who is technically been enjoying his freshman season of basketball has been nothing short of stunning this season, and tonight was no different. Scoring 33 points that came as easy as it does for a rookie, along with swatting three of the Sixers’ shots as well, Holmgren proved that he’s more than ready for the big time and more than capable of facing defenders like Joel Embiid—in a certain way.

Holmgren and Embiid were not matched up through the night as often as many would have hoped, but it was done purely in the best interest of maximizing the skill set of the Thunder star big man. Chet Holmgren is anything but traditional as a big, and there’s not a single thing wrong with that. This is a special young player who will likely be a star in the league for years to come.

Tonight wasn’t just about Holmgren, however; it was also about how the Sixers would respond after their two-game losing streak. How would they answer back after the hits they’ve taken and the questions they’ve faced all season? The Sixers, since the offseason, have been considered a solid playoff competitor in the Eastern Conference, but most have been hesitant to consider Philadelphia a true contender, and fairly so, due to their lack of proven, elite talent outside of Joel Embiid.

I’m not here to tell you that a win against the league’s second-youngest team suggests anything to the contrary—though again, the Thunder were leading the West until tonight’s game. Rather, the Sixers have continued to fight this season against some rather stiff competition as well.

That is what stood out tonight. Against one of the hottest, hungriest teams in the NBA, the Sixers went on the road and took every punch while throwing a counter. That type of resilience would be considered fresh by many who have paid close attention to the team in recent seasons. Whether or not that holds up over the course of an entire NBA regular season remains to be seen, but the early signs are encouraging.

What’s next for the Sixers?

The Sixers will return home for a one-game home stand as they welcome in the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night. Tip-off is at 7:00 PM for what is expected to be a star-studded event in the City of Brotherly Love.