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November 01, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers pull off terrific team win vs. Blazers down three starters

The Sixers played without three starters and had a fourth leave the game due to injury in the second half, and they found a way to get it done anyway, pulling out a 113-103 victory over Portland. This will go down as one of their best team wins in recent memory. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Andre Drummond likely signed in Philadelphia expecting he'd have opportunities to start and shine with Joel Embiid on the shelf. I doubt he came here expecting he'd play those games without the services of Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons alongside him, but Drummond made the most of his opportunity, serving as a hub on offense while making a bunch of excellent plays on the defensive end. 

The latter is where Drummond stood out early, collecting three steals in the first half alone while playing the part of organizer on the back end. Drummond's engagement level has been noticeably better (or at least more consistent) in Philadelphia than it has been in previous stops, and every time one of the Blazers guards thought they could thread a pass through traffic to a rolling big, Drummond used quick hands to bat the ball down and send the Sixers running the other way.

While he may not be Joel Embiid as a rim protector, Drummond also separates himself from, say, Dwight Howard by not just relentlessly fouling the opponent every time he's on the floor. Sprinkle in his passing ability, which always adds a comedic element even when the effectiveness wanes, and he has been legitimately useful for the Sixers through their first seven games. There was a lot of skepticism when they brought him in, but he has looked like a great pickup so far.

• It has been wonderful to watch the Sixers play offense for most of this year, and that trend continued against the Blazers in spite of the notable absences they had in the starting lineup. Turns out you can put a competent offense on the floor when you put a bunch of shooters on the floor and share the basketball, you can make good things happen even if you lack star talent.

The Sixers outpaced the Blazers in the first half thanks to that share-the-ball philosophy, hitting cutters and finding shooters whenever and wherever opportunities arose. 10 different players scored in the opening 24 minutes, and the Sixers had 20 assists on 24 made baskets, a pretty remarkable achievement.

You might assume that meant the Sixers just camped on the perimeter and bombed threes all game, but you'd be wrong — 38 percent of their shots in the first half came at the rim, with Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton drives complementing the cutting of players like Matisse Thybulle and dives of Drummond. This was a team who knew they were down big stars and played like it, winning out with team basketball instead of any one guy going off script and trying to play the hero. They've talked a lot about their togetherness dating back to the preseason, but this is a game that actually shows it manifesting on the floor.

• A better shooting performance from Georges Niang likely would have put the Sixers up by a comfortable margin by the time halftime rolled around, but even with that caveat, it's almost hard to believe how big of an upgrade he has been over Mike Scott's minutes last season. Once he came to life from deep in the third quarter, it helped amplify everything else he did well to keep this group humming.

One thing that has become clear in Niang's time with the team — he may not be a guy you want to run offense directly through, but the Sixers trust him quite a bit as a decisionmaker. When Niang got run off of the line on Monday night, he did an excellent job of making controlled bursts toward the basket, keeping his head up to find teammates instead of just barreling into defenders at the rim.

Frankly, Niang probably could have put up a few more shots from the perimeter if he wanted to keep calling his own number, but his unselfish decision-making frequently led to good looks for teammates, even if it required another pass to get there. And when he called his own number on drives, Niang found some success in the second half, scoring a couple of buckets through contact. 

I have my concerns about Niang's ability to hold up in games where teams are switch hunting, and Portland tried their best to expose him when the game got close in crunch time. But for most of the night, Niang did an admirable job of showing high against Portland's guards and buying his guys time to get back into position, eventually finding his own man. A really good night for him.

• While we're on the subject of switching, the Sixers did an excellent job of scram switching when they needed to on Monday night, and though they benefitted from Dame Lillard's cold spell continuing, they walked the tightrope well as a defense, showing bodies and arms high against Lillard without getting killed by rollers on the back end.

• Tyrese Maxey did not use the absences in their lineup to go on a scoring barrage the way he did in their seven-man lineup against Denver last season, but he had the unenviable job of trying to track Lillard for four quarters while also organizing the offense. A few turnovers aside, he deserves credit for the way Philly hummed against Portland, and his passing was as adventurous as it has been since he joined the team last season.

I mean that in a good way — living with turnovers and slightly too risky plays is often what it takes to get the best out of a young guard. Maxey gave away a couple he'll regret, but he also made some excellent reads in traffic, threading bounce passes between multiple Blazers players and hitting shooting pockets to lighten the burden on the guys around him.

Lillard shooting as poorly as he did is probably more about his own issues than Maxey's effort against him, but it doesn't take anything away from the kid's effort. Maxey is increasingly getting through screens and getting up into players without fouling, and he's not getting baited into silly fouls as he chases elite guards like Lillard and Trae Young around the floor. 

• The Matisse Thybulle defensive experience has been on another level the last few games, with Thybulle finding his footing after a relatively slow start to the year. As if shot out of a cannon once he took the floor Monday, Thybulle picked up three steals in just nine minutes in the first half, capitalizing on any loose handle or reluctant pass a Blazers player made.

If they could simply find a role for him on the other end of the floor, they would really be cooking with gas.

• Even when he doesn't have his best night from deep, Seth Curry is an absolute marvel to watch shoot. Can hit from all angles, all spots, at all times. His game-ending three to push the lead to 10 with two minutes to play absolutely blew the roof off of the building. 

• This was certainly not a perfect performance from the Sixers, and they were fortunate (as many teams have been) to catch Portland with Lillard in a major funk. But no matter how you slice it, it is really damn hard to get a win when you are as undermanned as they were against the Blazers. The hub of their offense and leader of their defense sat, their best scorer was out, and their human Swiss army knife continues to leave a hole in the lineup. None of that mattered.

And listen, this is not why the Sixers ultimately won the game on Monday night, but if you want to try to prove to an opposing star that they should join you to make a run at a title, there are worse ways to do it than beating his fully-healthy team with your backups. This year's second unit is more than pulling their weight in Philly, and that threatens to make them more dangerous when it really matters next spring.

The Bad

• Philadelphia's inability to clear the glass on defense has been a problem for most of the season, and it will not shock you to learn that the problem didn't go away after the Sixers lost two of their best and biggest players before the game even started. If you thought this was a bad rebounding team with Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, you saw very quickly that it could get a heck of a lot worse.

Doc Rivers discussed the team's problem there following Saturday's win over the Hawks, and he noted that the approach has changed dramatically in that area of the game. There aren't as many people actively pursuing offensive rebounds out of fear of the opponent getting threes and layups in transition, and that has led to a lot of defenders not focusing much on the box out, simply going after the ball with no concept of where their man is. 

Perhaps the Sixers need to adopt an old-school mentality on that front because their current approach simply isn't working. Even guys who have typically been prolific rebounders, e.g. Andre Drummond, have struggled to end possessions that you would think might be routine plays. Hard to figure it out.

• One issue with Philadelphia's offensive style that is largely down to personnel — they attempted zero free throws the entire first half, which is a tough way to win games at this level. You are going to go through cold spells during games even when you shoot the lights out, and the easiest way to break out of them is to have a guy (like Mr. Embiid) who can will you to the charity stripe, slow it down, and pick up some free points. 

Tyrese Maxey did his best to change things early in the second half on Monday, generating three free throws in the first two minutes of the third quarter. Outside of that, though, the Sixers aren't exactly overflowing with foul drawers.

The Ugly

• I have absolutely no problem with the Sixers fans who showed up to the arena on Monday night pandering their assess off with Damian Lillard in the building. The players, coaches, and executives in Philadelphia have to show some level of decorum and act like they are above trying to recruit someone in public. The fans just need to make a guy feel loved, and they certainly did that for Lillard, who laughed when the fans showered him with cheers and applause during pre-game intros. Quite a contrast from the usual boos and "Sucks!" chants.

And it didn't stop there, either, with fans loading up a few "We want Lillard!" chants during stoppages in the first quarter. They failed the first time around, but when Lillard stepped to the line for the first time, the whole arena joined in, creating a pretty surreal moment.

Is this a viable strategy to make him change his mind? I highly doubt it, but good job, good effort.

• While we're on the Lillard front, I will bet $5 American dollars that some bozo media member in Philadelphia will spew some opinion along the lines of "Dame Lillard can't handle the pressure of Philadelphia" in the next day or two after he continued his poor start to the season. I won't pick a favorite, but it'll almost certainly happen.

• Already down three members of the starting lineup to start the night, the Sixers lost a fourth in the middle of the game, with Danny Green ruled out for the rest of the night as a result of hamstring tightness. Precautionary or not, Green finally looked to be finding his groove after a tough start to the season, so it would be a shame if he has to miss any time to get right.

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