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December 15, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers ease to preseason win over Celtics in Doc Rivers' debut

The Sixers were as sloppy as you would expect a team to be in their first preseason game of the year, but they were a good bit more watchable than the final version of their 2019-20 team in a 108-99 preseason victory over the Boston Celtics. Start planning the parade route. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Look, it's one half of basketball, so there's nothing we can say definitively about the conditioning level of the big guy. But just using my eyes, Embiid is moving a bit differently than we've seen in the last few years. 

There was a commitment to running the floor and getting involved in the team's transition attack that we've basically never seen from him in the past. Instead of staying anchored to the perimeter when Simmons is leading a possession, Embiid cut hard to the basket on at least two occasions, scoring a layup on one and getting fouled on the other.

If you were hoping for Embiid to spend all of his time under Doc Rivers camped out on the low block, you're going to be disappointed, but the big man showed off a reasonably diverse approach, attacking Robert Williams in the post and setting screens for his ballhandlers, predominantly Seth Curry and Tobias Harris.

(Poor Robert Williams, by the way. Brad Stevens left him on an island vs. Embiid a lot, presumably just to get him some reps against a high-level opponent in a meaningless game, but he's drawing dead there.)

Embiid was just as willing to expend energy screening for teammates in the pick-and-roll/pop as he was getting established on the block. Execution left a little to be desired at times — he's got enough strength to really lay into guys on screens — but he was walking into open jumpers around the free-throw line over and over again, with Seth Curry dropping off passes to him for open looks. So long as the big fella keeps getting his shots up, I think he'll be happy to be put in any action you ask him to be in.

And that's without mentioning defense, where he created several turnovers or misses with his wingspan and effort at the rim, expending more energy in a preseason game than we saw in many regular-season games last year. 

• I was cautiously optimistic for Dwight Howard at backup center, but he already looks like the best backup big of the Embiid era, and that includes when they paid $100+ million to Al Horford last summer. This is probably a hot take, but even if Horford had been on the vet minimum, I would take the sort of play they got from Howard in a single preseason half over what he brought last year.

The thing that stood out the most? That guy played hard for a veteran during a preseason game. Howard was active on the offensive glass, actively putting out fires on defense, and his athleticism gave the Sixers a bit of verticality in pick-and-rolls, something they've been missing since Richaun Holmes skipped town. Howard connected with Shake Milton on a really nice lob play late in the first quarter, something you should probably get used to seeing.

There is something to be said for a big who comes off the bench and gives you a quick jolt to the system, a high-flier that contrasts Embiid's more methodical play. I'm in.

• The other Lakers convert, Danny Green, is going to be a guy I love watching defend night in and night out. Even in the early days of his time here, it's easy to see he's got all the traits of a difference-making defender once he's caught up on the scheme. Green has quick hands and good instincts, two things that will serve you well no matter who you play with.

• It wasn't always crisp, it wasn't always successful, but Philadelphia's overall activity level on defense was sharp, and I was even impressed with some of the reads made by guys who we don't think of as defenders. Furkan Korkmaz, for example, made at least a couple of rotations to prevent open shot opportunities, forcing the Celtics to settle for tougher shots or reset the offense.

On one such occasion, I wasn't the only one to notice. When Justin Anderson saw Korkmaz flash at Jayson Tatum from the corner to prevent a three and help Ben Simmons in the first half, he rose off the bench and yelled loudly in support of his teammate. It was not the only nice play from Korkmaz on the evening, who I thought acquitted himself well on both ends, but it was a great display of team energy from a team that lacked it most of last season.

• Doc Rivers has gushed about Shake Milton a lot during camp, and if Tuesday's game is a preview of what we can expect from Milton this season, I can see why he's excited to coach him. It felt like he was stuck between worlds and positions at times last season, but he looked right at home under Rivers, running plenty of pick-and-roll and showing off some versatility as a shotmaker.

We know he's capable as a catch-and-shoot guy after last season, and Milton feels like he has the perfect big to pair with as a roll man in Howard on the second unit, a guy who can go up and get it almost anywhere he throws the lob. Failing that, Milton had some smooth baseline jumpers go down against Boston, one through his own creation and one off of a baseline out of bounds play.

And while I'm not expecting much out of him on defense, Milton wasn't half bad there either, drawing an offensive foul on Jaylen Brown in the third and playing attentive, hands up defense for most of the game. If he's even passable there, that's a win for the Sixers.

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• Glancing at his stat line, maybe I should have Tobias Harris further up the article. I think I focused a bit too hard on his turnovers and bad possessions, of which there were too many, and lost sight of his steady night as a scorer. The offense is not centered around him the way it was under Rivers in Los Angeles, but Harris looked totally at home handling in pick-and-rolls, something fans have been begging to see him run since he arrived in Philly, and he found his way to a few effort buckets by running the floor and scrapping for a loose rebound here and there.

If he scores this efficiently all season, it'll be hard to complain about his output.

• Quiet night from Seth Curry, but if teams continue to respect his shooting as much as the Celtics did on Tuesday, he doesn't even need to make many threes to bring value to the floor. That guy is going to open up a lot of real estate for the big boys.

• Tyrese Maxey is going to take and make a lot of runners and floaters, a skill he honed at the amateur level and had no trouble showing off with the action running through him in the fourth quarter. There were some initial jitters and mistakes from the rookie, but he came on something fierce down the (garbage time) stretch and I continue to believe he'll fight his way into the rotation at some point this season.

My prediction is this kid will be a fan favorite very quickly. 

• This team seemed to be having a whole lot of fun on the floor and on the bench, and while that's natural for a relaxed preseason setting, it was not something we saw often last season. A breath of fresh air on night one of a new campaign. Honestly, this could be the No. 1 takeaway of the night — it's a lot more fun to watch a basketball team that doesn't seem to hate playing with one another.

The Bad

• Doc Rivers warned reporters over the last week that he was expecting the defense to be crisper than the offense in the early going, and their first preseason game validated that belief. It's a bit of a leaguewide trend right now with the unorthodox camp and preseason, but the Sixers were all sorts of sloppy against Boston, struggling to get into their basic stuff at times on Tuesday night.

It's too early to draw any conclusions yet, but a high-level handler still feels like a necessary acquisition for this group at some point. When they were able to get into their initial stuff, the Sixers looked like a normal NBA team (a compliment after watching them last year), but without someone who could create out of chaos, they ended up in some late clock situations where Embiid had to deal with the hot potato.

• I don't think anyone came out of that game looking worse than Matisse Thybulle, a guy Sixers fans have lost their minds over anytime he comes up in fake trade discussions. He looked jumpy and unsure of himself on the defensive end of the floor, a thing you expect from most young guys but not from the player who proved capable of checking some elite perimeter players last year.

Some of his decisions were just outright bizarre, clearing a path for players he was guarding and not really making an attempt to rearview contest after doing so. He didn't get a whole lot of burn on Tuesday, and he might be in a more limited role ths year than initially projected. Something to keep an eye on early in the season.

• Ben Simmons is going to bring a lot of value to this team with his passing and defensive versatility, two things he brought to the table once again on Tuesday night. The Sixers are not going to shoot as poorly as they did from three on most nights, and I expect him to kill in transition once again.

But we didn't see much different from him in his approach to the offensive end of the floor, even with improved spacing around him and more room to operate in a halfcourt setting. This stuff hardly matters in a December preseason game, but there will not be a game with less pressure than this one all year. Go into the year expecting him to be mostly what he is and has been on offense, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

The Ugly

• You can add shooters to the mix, but apparently that doesn't mean you're suddenly going to be a good shooting team. The Sixers were laying brick after brick from downtown in the first half, which featured the bulk of the starters' minutes, a ghastly 1/12 effort for a cool 8.3% mark from downtown.

A lot of those threes came from the hands of Mr. Embiid, and I know some of you will be grumbling in the comment section about Embiid still lingering by the three-point line too much for a big guy. I will continue to believe it is okay for him to let it fly as long as it's not at the expense of everything else he does well — this wasn't a case of him just lazily settling for threes over and over, simply a portion of his offensive output.

The rest of the group has to be better, of course. All the theoretical space in the world won't mean anything if teams don't respect their shooters in games that matter.

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