3 observations after Sixers ride very strong start to New Year's Eve win


The Sixers finished 2022 with a best-of-both-worlds win in Oklahoma City.

James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and P.J. Tucker all had injury management nights Saturday. They watched the Sixers earn a 116-95 victory on New Year's Eve over the Thunder at Paycom Center.

It was a well-balanced, satisfying conclusion to the year for the Sixers, who now sit at 21-14 following a 2-2 road trip. They'll play the Pelicans on Monday night in Philadelphia. 

Tobias Harris recorded 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Joel Embiid posted the fifth triple-double of his career with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. He also blocked four shots. 

Shake Milton and De'Anthony Melton combined for 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Melton's stat line was perhaps the game's most impressive: 17 points, seven boards, five assists (with zero turnovers), three steals and two blocks. 

Thunder guard Josh Giddey had 20 points and nine rebounds. The Sixers held Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to 14 points on 4-for-15 shooting. 

Here are observations on their New Year's win:

Stellar start doesn’t feature Embiid 

Milton and Matisse Thybulle entered the Sixers’ starting lineup and helped the team earn an almost-immediate double-digit lead for the second straight night.

To no one’s surprise, Embiid scored the game's first basket. Guarded by rookie Jaylin Williams, he fooled him with a pretty pump fake, step-through move and layup. Embiid was then glad to let others carry the scoring load.

Melton swiped two steals in the first two minutes, while the Sixers didn’t replicate their first-half turnover troubles from Friday’s loss to the Pelicans. Milton, Thybulle and Melton each hit catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Harris drove in for an and-one hoop, Milton converted a put-back layup, and Thybulle’s corner three put the Sixers up 27-9. While OKC isn’t an elite defensive team and the Sixers were bound to start missing some contested jumpers, the team still played an undeniably excellent first quarter. There were no indications that the Sixers assumed they could coast to victory.

Harris was especially sharp in the first. Harden and Maxey’s absences meant more of everything for him — play calls, touches, post-ups — and he handled it all well, increasing his aggression while playing with good pace and spotting open teammates. And, outside of a giveaway when he telegraphed his favored pocket pass to Embiid, Milton did strong work at point guard. Though Embiid is obviously a fantastic top option — he’d led the Sixers in scoring 14 consecutive games before Saturday — the team has usually looked competent and comfortable with a more egalitarian offensive style thanks to players like Harris, Milton and Melton.

Embiid vs. old friends 

OKC turned to a lineup with two former Embiid teammates in the middle of the first quarter.

Mike Muscala played center, although 6-foot-3 shooting guard Isaiah Joe ended up against Embiid on one play. The 23-year-old managed to escape the situation by falling to the floor and drawing a foul when Embiid looked to shed the much smaller defender and get a catch at the elbow. Limiting Embiid’s touches sounded like a solid strategy for the Thunder, but they sometimes struggled to execute it. With Muscala fronting Embiid, Georges Niang threw a nice high-low pass to set his big man up for a lay-in. 

After drawing a whistle on Muscala and making two free throws, Embiid moved past Andre Iguodala for ninth on the all-time Sixers scoring list. His fast-break slam gave the Sixers a 31-point lead with 4:37 still to go in the second quarter. 

Embiid had an off shooting night against Muscala and the Thunder, dropping to 4 for 12 from the floor with a mid-range miss early in the third quarter. He passed well, though, and subbed out with just under four minutes left after assisting a Harris three to reach his triple-double. 

Melton erases any thought of collapse 

The Sixers’ lead swelled to 33 points late in the second period on a Danuel House Jr. three-pointer.

They were somewhat fortunate that Oklahoma City missed a few looks from close range and opened cold beyond the arc, but the Sixers’ defense was absolutely improved from the night prior. Melton’s all-around aptitude — including his rebounding — has consistently been so valuable when the Sixers are shorthanded. It’s been great to have at full strength, too. 

The Sixers’ third quarter wasn't good, though. Thybulle, who began the night on Gilgeous-Alexander, picked up his fourth foul just seven seconds into the second half. Thybulle’s 22 minutes Saturday were significantly more than the 25-year-old’s norm this season, but the foul trouble prevented him from getting a longer run. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers actually kept Thybulle in the game after he got his fifth foul with 6:17 remaining. A little over a minute later, Thybulle both took and made his third three of the evening. He's now at 35.9 percent from long range (on very low volume — 14 of 39). 

Embiid appeared to be fatigued in the middle of the third. He was slow to join his teammates for half-court possessions on a couple of plays and had his hands on his knees more than usual. With Embiid, Harris and Melton on the bench, the Sixers were sloppy late in the quarter. Two Joe threes helped OKC cut its deficit down to 17 points, and the Sixers were lucky that the Thunder kept misfiring often around the rim. Furkan Korkmaz missed two free throws with two seconds left in the third. 

Very early in the fourth, it became clear no terrible collapse was in the cards with Melton on the floor. In a 35-second span, he blocked Kenrich Williams, nailed a three-pointer, and made a driving layup that stretched the Sixers' lead back up to 22 points. Whether or not he remains a starter once Maxey is fully back up to speed, Melton sure has played like one.

He was a team-high plus-27 Saturday and yet again lived up to his do-everything reputation.

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