Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers' winning streak ends with tight loss to Pacers

Tyrese Haliburton led Indiana to a 132-126 victory on Tuesday night.

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The Sixers are no longer streaking.

The Pacers split a two-game mini-series between the teams and ended the Sixers' winning streak at eight Tuesday night, earning a 132-126 victory at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers fell to 8-2 on the season despite a 39-point, 12-rebound, six-assist Joel Embiid performance.

De’Anthony Melton notched a season-high 30 points. Tyrese Maxey scored 27 and Tobias Harris added 22.

The 7-4 Pacers' leading scorers were Tyrese Haliburton (33 points) and Obi Toppin (27 points).

The Sixers are now 1-1 and the Pacers 2-0 in East Group A of the NBA's in-season tournament. The Sixers’ third of four group-play games will be Friday night against the Hawks.

Nicolas Batum (personal reasons) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (fractured rib) were out Tuesday. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said pregame that Oubre was “in good spirits” when he’d visited him the day prior.

Embiid, who’d been listed as questionable with left hip soreness, hasn’t missed a game yet. 

The Sixers will finish their second back-to-back of the season by playing the Celtics on Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Here are observations on their loss to Indiana: 

Haliburton the game’s brightest star in first half 

Instead of Embiid, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, or Maxey, who was fresh off a 50-point game, Harris scored the Sixers’ first eight points. He converted two transition layups, a post-up jumper and a dunk after Embiid spotted his cut down the middle of the lane. 

The Sixers sensibly ran their opening play for Maxey, having him make an Iverson cut and then run a side pick-and-roll with Embiid, but he missed an open floater. While Maxey didn't have Sunday night’s scoring magic, he did block an early Bruce Brown jumper from behind. As a 6-foot-2 guard, he’s now recorded at least one block in six consecutive games. 

“He’s taken a big step (on defense), too,” Embiid said Sunday of Maxey. “Everybody’s looking at the offensive end and what he’s been able to add — shot-creating ability, playmaking — but I think defensively, he’s just competing. ... That’s all we need from him. Just compete and we’ve got his back. He’s been great.”

Embiid was the hub of nearly every Sixers possession in the first period, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. He posted 14 points in the first and got eight of them at the foul line. Embiid was especially physical against Indiana’s big men, drawing two quick fouls on both Myles Turner and Jalen Smith. Isaiah Jackson then picked up four fouls in under 10 minutes of playing time.

The Pacers still controlled the game for most of the first half, building a lead as big as 60-48. One key factor was Indiana’s much-improved showing on the defensive glass. Two days after grabbing a whopping 23 offensive rebounds, the Sixers had a mere five. 

Of course, Haliburton was the primary star. He was great in spearheading Indiana’s relentless pace, hitting 6 of 8 first-half threes, throwing creative jump passes and avoiding any turnovers. He remarkably tallied 32 assists and zero turnovers over the mini-series.

Batum presumably would’ve helped the Sixers against Haliburton, but the 23-year-old is a sensational passer and excellent shooter regardless of who’s guarding him. 

“We kind of let him play free in the first half," Maxey said of his fellow Tyrese from the 2020 draft class. “And once you let a guy like that play free … he’s good. Maybe it’s the name."

Melton the standout role player 

Robert Covington started in the spot Batum had filled Sunday, though he sat with 7:05 left in the third quarter and never returned. Patrick Beverley got 27 minutes. Marcus Morris Sr. and Danuel House Jr. each played 18.

After a DNP on Sunday, Morris came into the Sixers' rotation and had two points on 1-for-4 shooting and three rebounds. Overall, the team received little offensively from its fifth through 10th men. Those six players totaled eight points on 4-for-11 shooting and five assists.

Many of the Sixers’ role players look best scrambling around on defense, battling for offensive boards, and generally hustling in situations where their athleticism shines. Covington and House each had impressive blocks that fueled successful Sixers fast breaks. Beverley's tight ball pressure on Haliburton early in the fourth quarter led to a backcourt violation.

Oubre and Batum's absences were impactful, though. Oubre has provided significant scoring and loads of quick-trigger shotmaking confidence. Batum tends to help offenses run a touch smoother and consistently makes the common-sense pass. The Sixers struggled at times Tuesday to throw post entry and high-low passes to Embiid, either hesitating in search of the right angle or simply missing the target.

Three-point volume was a collective issue, too; the Sixers often pump faked and drove or passed instead of shooting open jumpers. The team also wasn't very accurate on the long-distance shots it did take, hitting 6 of 22 threes in the game.

The Sixers' three-point frequency currently ranks 29th in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.

“I do like that our rim rate is way up there,” Nurse said. “It’s kind of like football; you always want to establish your running game a little bit, and getting to the basket is a priority first. But yeah, I think in this league you’ve got to be able to keep some type of pace or you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“What is it … 39 to 18 (points scored) from the three-point line tonight. It’s not like you have to win the three-point game, but you’ve got to be relatively close, right? So yeah, we need to make a few more.”

Melton had four of the Sixers’ made threes, and his aggressive drives were valuable as well; he drew 10 free throws and was perfect at the foul line.

“Just constantly being aggressive,” Melton said. “Jo did a great job of keeping all their bigs in foul trouble. So by the time I got going in that (third) quarter, I was just attacking the rim because there wasn’t really too much rim protection. Just staying aggressive, and Jo was telling me, ‘Keep going. Keep going.’”

If he hadn't been called for a fifth foul with 0.8 seconds left in the third, Melton perhaps would've played more than his 35 minutes. It was still clearly an encouraging night for Melton, whose season three-point percentage jumped from 32.6 to 36.7.

“I expect it, honestly,” Maxey said of his backcourt mate. “He’s been working. The ball wasn’t bouncing his way, honestly. He’s had a couple in-and-outs, a couple of layups that didn’t go his way. But he was great tonight. He hit shots, played defense, did a lot of Melt stuff. He was good for us — really good.”

Sixers second best in strange fourth

The Sixers faced a 13-point deficit in the third after Nurse got called for a technical foul and Haliburton made the subsequent free throw.

They played with noticeably more snarl over the next couple of minutes, defending hard in a 6-0 bounce-back run. However, the Pacers retained their composure and summoned some timely answers, including two interior T.J. McConnell hoops late in the third quarter.

The Sixers kept plugging away and trailed by just a point entering the final period. The game then halted early in the fourth and all the attention shifted to Harris, who was on the floor following an awkward play where Brown appeared to leap high and fall over the back of Harris' neck.

Harris eventually rose to his feet, though he subbed out because of concussion protocol. Indiana chose KJ Martin to shoot the free throws cold off the bench and Martin missed both.

Around three minutes later (with Harris back in the game), the officials held an extended discussion and announced that their decision had been wrong. The Sixers were supposed to pick the replacement foul shooter, since that's the specific rule for when a player exits to be evaluated for a concussion. So, well after he should have, Maxey took two free throws and knocked them down.

That bizarre sequence went right along with the chaotic complexion of the fourth quarter. The Sixers looked like they were in a good spot after an Embiid jumper put them up 109-106, but Indiana responded strongly to the adversity. Embiid had a few important miscues in the fourth, including a missed dunk, a charge, and a travel as he brought the ball up the floor.

Maxey couldn't sink the clutch shots he had Sunday, and Nurse voiced his displeasure to the officials when no whistle blew on a missed Maxey floater with just under three minutes to go.

Maxey called Indiana's defense against him “extremely physical" and Nurse absolutely agreed.

“They obviously were doing some things on the pick-and-roll, sending a little more help,” Nurse said. “I thought they were awful physical. I don’t know how many free throws he shot, but it should’ve been three times what he shot. I thought they bumped him on a ton of those shots.

“They started it early and continued to do that the whole game. But you’ve got to adjust to the officiating on each and every night. You’ve got to play through those hits and score them anyway, not let it get you frustrated.”

Nurse's team will have to get back to it immediately vs. the Celtics.

Boston picked up three straight double-digit wins after losing last Wednesday to the Sixers. Both teams are 8-2.

“We’re ready for them,” Melton said. “Every time that we see them on the schedule, we’ve got to make sure we make an impact against them.

“They beat us last year in the playoffs. So now this year, we just want to make sure we make a statement every time we see them and game plan for it like it is the playoffs.”

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