The Sixers' second Joel Embiid-less win of the season was far more dramatic than their first.
After a 20-point victory Wednesday night in Orlando, the Sixers earned a 131-127 win Friday over the Rockets at Toyota Center.
Tyrese Maxey exceeded the 40-point mark for the third time in his career, scoring 42 points and helping the Sixers improve to 22-9. The team has won 10 of its last 12 games.
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Tobias Harris had 22 points and seven assists.
Houston point guard Fred VanVleet posted 33 points and 10 assists. Jeff Green (31 points) and Alperen Şengün (28 points on 12-for-16 shooting, eight assists, seven rebounds) also had excellent outings.
Embiid missed a third straight game with a right ankle sprain. Nicolas Batum was sidelined for a fifth straight contest because of a right hamstring strain and KJ Martin (illness) was out as well.
Per The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse told reporters in Houston that Embiid will remain out when the team visits the Bulls on Saturday night and Batum will return.
The 15-15 Rockets were also shorthanded Friday. Houston was without two typical starters in Jabari Smith Jr. (left ankle sprain) and Dillon Brooks (right oblique strain).
Here are observations on a wild, back-and-forth Sixers victory Friday night:
Sixers weather a shaky start
The Sixers double teamed Houston’s highly skilled center Şengün on all of his early post touches.
Şengün countered the first double he saw by making a simple dish back out to VanVleet, who drained a three-pointer. Another VanVleet triple and a Green mid-range jumper gave the Rockets an 8-0 lead.
After initially using Maxey a decent amount off the ball, the Sixers featured him as their lead ball handler on nearly every possession. Many of the results were positive for Maxey, who accelerated past Şengün in drop coverage and darted in for a layup.
De’Anthony Melton, the Sixers’ other starting guard, appeared to take an inadvertent shot to the face from backup Rockets big man Jock Landale around the midpoint of the first quarter. Melton was shaken up and Nurse used his second timeout, but the 25-year-old was ultimately deemed fine to stay in the game. Melton, Maxey, Harris and Paul Reed have all been very durable for the Sixers thus far. Those four players have missed two total games.
Kelly Oubre Jr. contributed to the Sixers’ slow start with a couple of uncharacteristic early turnovers, including one where he tried to toss a pass into Harris at the elbow on a designed play.
The Sixers struggled on the defensive glass and took a while to find their offensive rhythm. However, the Rockets cooled off after converting 4 of their first 5 three-point shots and Şengün had a quiet first quarter with just three points on 1-for-3 shooting.
Maxey plugs away, produces at the foul line
Maxey was scintillating to begin the second quarter, as he’s been so often this year.
Entering Friday, Maxey’s 8.8 second-period points per game ranked second in the NBA. He posted 19 in Houston.
Though both players were outstanding, there wasn’t a full-blown Maxey vs. VanVleet duel. In addition to using bigger players like Danuel House Jr. on VanVleet in the second quarter, the Sixers frequently played zone. Regardless, the two guards’ basket-trading was entertaining. Maxey answered a VanVleet three with a step-back jumper in front of the Sixers’ bench.
Maxey was the Sixers’ clear No. 1 option, but Harris also provided efficient, valuable support in the first half with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. However, Harris got called for his third foul with 1:58 left in the second quarter. Reed and Şengün had just done the same during a run of near-constant stoppages.
In mature fashion, Maxey capitalized on the slew of whistles. He made all eight of his first-half free throws and finished the night 14 for 15, setting new career highs in both makes and attempts.
Vets clutch amid the chaos
The Rockets didn’t suddenly stop Maxey, but they slowed him down a bit in the third quarter and scored at a rapid rate themselves. Following two Harris misses inside, VanVleet drilled a three to give Houston a 78-68 advantage.
Nurse then helped the Sixers stymie the Rockets’ surge with a timeout and smart play call. Maxey screened for Harris on the baseline, he broke free with a flex cut, and Reed dished to him for a dunk. After Harris’ drive-and-kick assist on an Oubre corner three, the Sixers’ deficit was down to a single point.
Şengün was enormous over the next couple of minutes, though.
He hit a tough turnaround jumper as the shot clock expired, nailed a straight-on three, and outfoxed Reed with a convincing pump fake in the post to create space for a layup. When Reed subbed out and the Sixers went back to throwing doubles at Şengün, he assisted VanVleet’s seventh made three. The Embiid-less Sixers made mistakes defensively, but the Şengün matchup obviously would’ve been much easier to manage if the reigning MVP had been available.
With Maxey resting to start the fourth quarter, Harris and the Sixers competed hard. A Robert Covington put-back layup and Marcus Morris Sr. three were key buckets during a gritty Sixers run. Harris also delivered timely scoring with a back-to-the-basket hoop over Green and a go-ahead three.
He did a lot well defensively, too. The Sixers had a significant edge in the turnovers department for a second consecutive game, committing 10 giveaways to the Rockets' 17, and Harris played a major part with three blocks and four steals. Nurse had Harris guard Şengün late in the fourth and closed with Morris alongside him in the frontcourt.
That decision panned out brilliantly. In a tense final few minutes full of tricky shotmaking, Morris sunk the most important basket. Seconds after Tari Eason blocked a Maxey layup, Morris lined up a three against the team that drafted him a dozen years ago. VanVleet fouled him, but Morris canned the shot anyway and then polished off the four-point play, putting the Sixers up 127-122.
Patrick Beverley was another former Rockets veteran (and former Rio Grande Valley Viper) that Nurse counted on down the stretch. He played the entire fourth quarter, exchanged ample trash talk with VanVleet, and made a crucial three of his own shortly before Morris' shot.