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November 04, 2021

Instant observations: Eight-man Sixers beat Pistons in gritty effort on back-to-back

Sixers NBA
Drummond-Rivers-Sixers_110421_usat Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers center Andre Drummond celebrates with head coach Doc Rivers.

The Sixers had just eight rotation players for the second half of a back-to-back, but they summoned the competitive fire to get a road win anyway, outpacing the Pistons 109-98 to push their record to 7-2. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• For most of the first quarter against Detroit, the Sixers looked like an undermanned team on the second half of a back-to-back on the road. Joel Embiid was getting doubled on every possession, their issues with defensive rebounding continued, and the Pistons surged to an early lead.

The Sixers didn't do a whole hell of a lot to change up the game from there aside from getting Seth Curry the ball more. As it turns out, you can't really run a better offense than that right now, and the season-opening hot streak continued in a big way on the road in Detroit. If you looked at the box score every night and ignored the three-point shooting numbers, you would be convinced Curry is a big man who just finishes everything around the rim. That's how insane his shooting and play-finishing has been.

Eventually, the Sixers will probably have to run something other than an Iverson cut for Curry into a pick-and-roll or handoff with Joel Embiid, but with his ability to probe and find the pocket of space whenever he needs it, the best offense right now simply involves getting this dude the ball by any means necessary.

• The birthday boy Tyrese Maxey is finally old enough to drink, and he kicked off year 21 much better than most kids his age, pushing his team toward a win instead of doing enough shots to have him hugging the toilet bowl.

There were some struggles early in the game, with Isaiah Stewart blocking him badly on a first-half drive, but Maxey was a steady figure for the Sixers in this game, mixing speeds beautifully and showcasing his runner/floater package all throughout the evening. Relying on those shots on the move can't be the end-all, be-all for Maxey, as he learned in the middle of last season, but the threat of it kept Detroit's paint defenders guessing, buying him bits of space that he exploded through when he needed it. Maxey also contributed to the floor-spacing equation, hitting a pull-up three in the first half that inspired some heart eyes around the city on Thursday night.

He wasn't rewarded for it, but Maxey also showed off some of his best passing of the season against Detroit, throwing a hook pass on the money to Georges Niang in the corner and a lob to Andre Drummond that each player failed to convert. Regardless of the result, they're the sort of passes he needs to make with some regularity in order to be the guy who truly runs this offense, and seeing him expand his repertoire as time goes on is encouraging.

By the numbers, Maxey graded out as one of the least impactful high-minute players out of the gate this season. Since his nightmare game in New York City last week, Maxey has been considerably better, finding a different way to contribute every night.

(And let's not forget about his defense. Maxey's ability to get through/around screens has improved recently, and he made some great off-ball reads to break up plays Thursday night.)

• We haven't talked a whole lot about Shake Milton since he returned to the lineup, but he was a big reason the Sixers were able to keep this game close in the first half. His offensive versatility allowed him to produce in a variety of situations early on, hitting both pull-up and spot-up threes while also manning the controls of their pick-and-roll attack, setting their bigs up for some easy baskets around the rim.

At his best, Milton looks like the sort of offense-carrying sixth man that Rivers has loved having at all his previous stops, we just haven't seen a ton of that Milton since he got off to a good start early last season. Only just settling back into the lineup after an ankle injury cut his preseason short, Milton was back to his old tricks in Detroit, cooking Detroit's guards in isolation and even getting involved on the offensive glass, following his own three-point miss in for a putback layup in the third quarter.

Nights like these make you wonder more about his potential to start in Tyrese Maxey's place, giving the younger guard time to grow with the second unit while bolstering the shooting in the first five. Having Milton back creates natural competition for the young guy, and both are benefitting right now.

• Down to eight playable guys (and nine if you count another center, Charles Bassey), this was always going to be a game with a lot of goofy lineups and combinations on the floor. And it didn't take long to get to one in the first half, with Doc Rivers rolling out a Drummond-Reed-Niang grouping that would likely never see the floor in normal circumstances.

Each guy in that group did their part to make things work, starting with Drummond, who did a little bit of everything once again to cap off his Swiss army knife week. 

Paul Reed, the guy with the freshest legs on the floor Thursday, did his best to paper over any concerns you'd have about spacing by playing his ass off whenever he got in the game. His activity has always been infectious, and though Reed's enthusiasm got the best of him at times, he helped get the Sixers moving in the right direction on the glass, flying toward the ball on both ends of the floor while using his length to bother guys on defense. Against all odds, the pairing with Drummond worked in spite of Reed offering nothing from deep, thanks to off-ball movement and cutting from Reed.

My favorite play of the game almost certainly came from Reed, who took a tumble as he tried to attack in isolation and nearly turned himself into a Shaqtin a Fool candidate. But instead of losing sight of the play, he held onto the ball just long enough to dump it to Drummond, quickly rose to his feet, and flushed a putback dunk after Drummond's miss to complete the play:

Honestly, if you don't get a little fired up watching end-of-bench guys make plays like that, you're watching the wrong sport. You build a program with competitiveness like that, and Reed is finding a way to get by even as he works to build his skills. This was Reed's best game in a Sixers uniform, and they needed all the spark he had to give after a dreary start.

And Niang was the same guy we've seen step up all week, admittedly with issues shooting the ball that detracted from his night a little bit. His ability to put the ball on the deck has allowed him to take a role in this offense that goes beyond pure stretch forward, and it's a good thing he offers the ability to beat a closeout and decent passing vision because every unit he has been on looks just a little bit better on offense with Niang on the floor.

(How about Georges Niang winning a jump ball against Jerami Grant, by the way? That's got to be one of the upsets of the year. He is full of surprises, this guy.)

• The Pistons are not good at all, and the Sixers aren't going to hang a banner for this victory, but playing with the level of energy they did with just eight guys in the rotation on the second half of a back-to-back is terrific. We can ask a lot of questions about the sustainability of their offensive success, their ability to contend, and what the hell they're going to do with Ben Simmons, but they have responded to almost every single gut-check moment so far this season.

In a road back-to-back against a horrible team where they could have easily checked out mentally, you had guys like Maxey diving at full-extension to try to come up with a steal on a broken play in transition. Milton, who Rivers recently joked looked like he was going to die on the court out of fatigue, was sprinting in order to stick with a play off-ball.

They are not without their issues, but you're getting all that they have on a given night so far this year. Every win counts the same in the standings, and getting a game like this with half of your lineup out buys you a bit of cushion when things inevitably go south at some point later.

• To bookend the above point, Joel Embiid is not shooting the ball well right now and doesn't look like the MVP candidate he was a year ago. But his on-court leadership is better than it has ever been, with Embiid not allowing his individual struggles to set the tone for the game. Instead of letting his shooting percentage define him, Embiid's voice is louder than ever on the defensive end, he is embracing the concept of making quick passes out of immediate doubles, and he is competing harder deeper into games. With the offense sputtering late in the fourth, an Embiid offensive rebound and putback helped keep the Pistons at an arm's length, allowing the Sixers to coast to the finish line.

Ultimately, they pay the big guy to lead the team to wins, not to hit statistical thresholds. They need him to do more than he is on offense at the moment, but if they keep stacking victories in the meantime, everyone can be patient for the rest.

The Bad

• Whether it's the ball, a health-related issue, or just bad shooting, we once again have to point out that Joel Embiid isn't shooting the ball well enough. Teams are throwing immediate doubles at him this season, and he is moving the ball instead of trying to sledgehammer his way through the defense, but like many stars who have benefitted from the whistles in the past, there are times when he is too focused on trying to draw fouls instead of playing like the guy who joined the NBA's upper echelon last season.

On a handful of occasions in the first half, Embiid didn't get a foul call he thought was coming his way, and then gave up on impacting the play after that in order to jaw at or gesture toward the official he thought wronged him. Whether he had a case on those plays or not, he gave up potential opportunities to get offensive rebounds or get back in transition, failing to successfully make his case in the process. It's one thing to miss shots and struggle to figure out how a game will be officiated — the refs are letting guys play more physical on defense this season — but you can't compound misses with consistent bitching. As the game wore on, he figured that out, and the Sixers were better for it.

(A quick note here — when Embiid played up-tempo instead of trying to play slow and deliberate, that's when he had his most success scoring. Something to reflect on when they go to the tape.)

• Matisse Thybulle was his typically awesome self on defense, but the offense continued to be unspeakably ugly against the Pistons. Embiid hit him with a nice interior pass in the first half and Thybulle missed the layup as if he saw Trae Young trying to block his shot. There was a travel in transition after getting the ball at the rim, missed jumpers that were wide open, and possessions where his defender basically completely ignored him in order to double Embiid. Consistent shooting would go such a long way for this guy.

The Ugly

• You don't see Joel Embiid get torched in space all that often, so this one was pretty shocking:

The price of actually trying to play defense, I suppose.

While we're on the subject, hater of the year award goes to Alaa Abdelnaby for throwing cold water on the bench celebration after this play. What are these guys supposed to do, sit there and golf clap as their guy crosses over Embiid and dunks? Come on, man! Good on Kate Scott for roasting his ass on the air. 

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