The Sixers’ starters struggled without their franchise center in the mix, but a bench led by Shake Milton absolutely dominated Indiana’s backups, powering Philadelphia to a 113-107 win.
Here’s what I saw.
• Rivers seems pretty set on the idea of playing some all-bench looks this season, and for that to work, Shake Milton is going to have to do some heavy lifting on offense. He’s looked up to the task through two preseason games, and while they are indeed just preseason games, you have to like what you’ve seen so far from their presumed sixth man.
Milton’s best trait is his calmness at all times — whether the Sixers are losing by 15 in the middle of the second quarter or winning by three in the fourth quarter, he plays under control and within himself. Using quick shot fakes, side steps, and a little bit of the glass, Milton started to fill it up, and once Indiana sent extra bodies his way, Milton played the role of composed playmaker, hooking up with Furkan Korkmaz in the “12” play that they used to run frequently with Simmons and JJ Redick.
The Sixers’ bench wildly outplayed the Pacers’ bench on Friday, and Milton was a big reason why, sparking a big third-quarter run that continued as the Sixers surged to the lead in the fourth. If they get this Shake all year, the bench is going to be significantly better than in years past.
(And because he deserves his own love for the run, I have to mention Furkan Korkmaz on his own merits, because he looks primed to continue the hot shooting we saw last year. Rivers has talked about Milton and Korkmaz as a pair throughout camp, and their chemistry has been excellent in the early days. Philly looks like they might have some real punch off of the bench.)
• Tyrese Maxey had every excuse to look out of sorts during the preseason. Rookies had no Summer League, the weirdest offseason in recent history, and he had to sit out the start of camp as a result of COVID, sustaining himself on Zoom sessions alone.
No matter. He has looked the part during Philadelphia’s first two preseason games, and while I don’t want to crown the kid just yet, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the rotation at this rate. There were some rookie mistakes on Friday evening – he learned the hard way what can happen when you gamble, with Malcolm Brogdon scooting by him for three the hard way — but Maxey was an excellent change of pace offensively.
Frankly, he’s already one of the better off-the-dribble players they’ve had in recent memory, and when you combine that with his finishing ability in the paint, he can do some serious damage on the second unit.
If he’s in competition with Matisse Thybulle for the last bench spot, he deserves the first crack at minutes based on what we’ve seen in the preseason. We’ll see if that’s how it actually shakes out.
• Ben Simmons did not seem especially bothered by the James Harden rumors that have been the talk of the NBA over the last 24 hours. If he was, he chose to channel that into his defensive approach instead of checking out mentally and drifting through the preseason finale.
Simmons hounded Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, almost toying with him at times by letting him get a step and then erasing the advantage for Indiana. Unfortunately, with Dwight Howard battling foul trouble due to an ongoing wrestling match with Domantas Sabonis, Simmons was forced to play some small-ball center to close out the first half. That didn’t go as well, and I remain skeptical he can be the rim protector to make that style work, though Friday night the team defense was more problematic than his own failings at center.
On the offensive end, Simmons showed a good bit of diversity with Joel Embiid out. He ran quite a few pick-and-rolls with Howard early on, connecting with him above the trees on a play or two, and he was relentless pushing the pace whenever possible, picking up some easy buckets at the rim as a result. Most notably, Simmons took a three late in the half in a two-for-one situation:
We saw the impact a shot might have for him before Simmons took this three. On an earlier possession, Simmons squared up and shot faked from beyond the arc, grabbing the attention of his defender and creating a window for him to drive. That set up a series of passes that would eventually create an open three. More of this would be great for Philly, no matter what his most ardent defenders tell you he can accomplish without a jumper.
• You can see why Rivers wants to get Mike Scott in the rotation when he shoots like this. The veteran forward is a nice release valve for guys like Maxey and Milton, ready to fire as soon as the ball hits his hands. The head coach is trying to give this offense a jolt, and keeping shooters on the floor at all times sure helps.
• He probably won’t play a lot this year, but I like what I’ve seen out of Tony Bradley so far. Not the greatest rim protector in the world, but good size, soft hands, and plenty of energy on the offensive glass. Perfectly fine third big.
• During training camp, Doc Rivers noted to reporters that getting Tobias Harris back on track would start with getting him to make quicker decisions. Harris regressed on that front in Philadelphia after playing the best, most decisive basketball of his career in L.A.
If you thought reuniting him with the coach who brought that out of him would be all you needed to fix the problem, you thought wrong. Harris had a strong offensive performance against Boston on Tuesday, but he has continued to be a slow, deliberate player on offense this preseason. When Harris is about to turn the ball over, you can see it coming from a mile away. Outside of one-read passes in pick-and-rolls, he’s robotic as a playmaker, and good defenses turn him over as a result.
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On nights where he has it going on offense, you live with his limitations and hope the better players make up for his limitations. Those limitations take center stage when he’s thrust into a larger role, which was the case with Embiid at home resting.
(By the way, when the Sixers went small late in the second, the situation was tailormade for Harris to take advantage of, with the bigger and slower Sabonis guarding him most of the time. Harris did almost nothing with the opportunity. Inexcusable.)
• All the positives about Simmons remain true, but look, when Embiid is not suiting up, Simmons has to hunt his shot more. There’s no way around it. Again, I’m not asking for him to go out and score 30 points or fundamentally change how he sees the game — he’s a playmaker, after all — but they cannot afford him to be this passive.
• Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. A new coach and a new system brings uncertainty to start the season, so a bit of early sloppiness is understandable. Fifteen turnovers in a single half is past the point of “understandable” and they need to take way better care of the ball once the real games behind on Wednesday.
It’s too early to pinpoint the cause here, so we can chalk a lot of it up to a lack of familiarity. I’m more than happy to give Rivers (and the team) some benefit of the doubt as they work through the kinks. The only real concerns are related to guys like Harris, whose protection of the ball is likely not going to get much better. And while it made for a nice story to see the bench excel on Friday, the Sixers are not going to win many games where their starters are wildly outplayed by the opponent.
Philadelphia’s ball control issue highlighted their issues defending in transition, something they struggled with against Boston that looked worse for long stretches of Friday’s game. Rivers said before the game that cleaning up their transition D was a point of emphasis heading into the clash with Indiana, which makes it all the more damning they were so bad getting back and guarding.
• Matisse Thybulle definitely appears to be the biggest loser as a result of the coaching change and roster makeover, bumped to the fringe of the rotation (and perhaps out of it) as we near the start of the season. He hasn’t found himself on either end of the floor, struggling to get into the flow on offense while making errors people chalked up as “rookie mistakes” last season.
The expectations are higher this year, and he looks worse now than he did at this point last year. We’ll see if it’s enough to leave him on the pine to start the year.
• I thought Dwight Howard was “erratic” more than he was bad, and he certainly got off to a strong start against Indiana, controlling the offensive glass and partnering nicely with Simmons in the pick-and-roll. But as the game wore on and Sabonis kept finding cracks in Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll defense, Howard’s issues in space became a bit more glaring. Still bullish on him, but something to watch (and a point of emphasis for the guys in the corners who are supposed to tag bigs on pick-and-rolls).
• Vincent Poirier played like he should have Yakkety Sax playing in the background at all times.
• The officiating in this game was pretty brutal and I hope this is not how the games are going to be called when the real ones start next week. Flopping was rewarded, minimal physical contact led to a few fouls, and some blatant reaches/hacks went uncalled for who knows what reason.
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