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Sixers drop in for Thunder’s annual New Year’s Eve game

Dec 30, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA;  Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) gestures during the first half against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey will take some time to return to form after missing more than a month of action, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said.

After a nine-point outing in his return on Friday, Maxey may or may not be on the court Saturday as the 76ers visit the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Philadelphia lost its second game in a row on Friday, falling 127-116 to the host New Orleans Pelicans. Maxey came off the bench to hit 4 of 10 shots while adding one rebound and one assist in 19 minutes.

“Everybody comes back differently,” Rivers said. “I think it’s difficult for guards, because I always think ball handling is the toughest part of coming back. You can’t practice the speed that you play with.

“We just want him to be aggressive and just not overthink the game. Just come in and be himself.”

Before going down with a fractured foot, Maxey was averaging 22.9 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds — all career highs for the third-year player.

Though Rivers said before Friday’s game that it was unlikely Maxey would play both games of the back-to-back set, both Rivers and Maxey left open the possibility afterward.

“I don’t know,” Maxey said. “We’ll see how the medical staff wants to do it.”

Maxey’s return figured to take some of the scoring pressure off star Joel Embiid, who enters Saturday as the NBA’s leading scorer at 33.8 points per game.

Over the past four games, Embiid is averaging 41 points per game and shooting 57.5 percent from the floor. He had 37 points, eight rebounds and five assists at New Orleans.

The Saturday game will be the first of two meetings between the teams this season. The 76ers have won five consecutive matchups with the Thunder.

Oklahoma City is coming off a 121-113 road loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday, a game in which it was outscored 66-56 in the paint.

The Thunder are third in the NBA in paint scoring, averaging 55.8 points per game.

The recent improvement in paint defense helped Oklahoma City win four of its last six games.

“I think a lot of why we’ve had success lately, defensively especially, has been because of our ability to protect the paint,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.

Next the coach wants to see consistency.

“We have to understand who we want to connect to every night,” Daigneault said. “The best teams have stone-cold habits and certain things that they do every night, and we want to be a really good team and we’ve got to work to be a really good team. We’ve made progress, but protecting the paint, taking away shots at the rim, taking away paint penetration is essential for us.”

Philadelphia is sixth in paint defense, holding opponents to 47.3 points per game.

Saturday’s game is the finale of a four-game road trip for the 76ers, who need a win to salvage a split before returning to play five of their next six at home.

For Oklahoma City, the matchup is the first in a two-game homestand.

The game will mark the 15th consecutive time the Thunder have played at home on New Year’s Eve since their move to Oklahoma City.

–Field Level Media