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October 04, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers open 2021 preseason with loss to Raptors

The Sixers were down their three best players for Monday night's preseason opener in Toronto, and it showed in the scoreboard in a 123-107 loss to the Raptors that was not close for basically the entire second half. There were some nice individual flashes on both ends of the floor, but they were swamped by a long and athletic opponent who got out and ran the break early and often.

Here's what I saw, with a note that any game without the Embiid-Harris-Simmons trio is pretty meaningless to analyze from a big-picture perspective. 

The Good

• It would have been hard for Andre Drummond to have a better introduction than the opening quarter he had against the Raptors. With Joel Embiid out due to rest and a relatively small-ish Raptors team standing across from him, Drummond was physically overwhelming and looked the part of a guy who can play credible understudy to Joel Embiid.

In fact, the Sixers often used him like Embiid at times in the opening 12 minutes. Mind you, I don't think regular post-ups are the smartest or most productive use of Drummond, but this was a great opportunity to exploit size mismatches, and Drummond feasted early, converting a pair of early and-one layups through contact at the basket.

The most noticeable thing was Drummond's activity, which has fluctuated wildly during his career. When Drummond is engaged and locked in, he's a threat to put up a 20-20 game and absolutely dominate the paint at both ends. The trouble has been keeping him in that frame of mind, as his descent from big-money player to minimum-salary backup shows. In the preseason opener, the vet center was locked in, coming up with weakside help blocks on defense and rim running hard the other way. Drummond even featured in a set the Sixers used to great effect with Dwight Howard last year, catching a lob from Shake Milton out of a side pick-and-roll.

Philadelphia will almost certainly rely on Drummond to start games this year, if not due to injury perhaps in preventative fashion to keep Embiid healthy and well-rested for a full season. If the early returns are any indication, he might help them win a few games without the franchise player this season, so long as the rest of his teammates cooperate. 

• Early in Monday night's game, Seth Curry played passive basketball and failed to take advantage of some favorable one-on-one matchups against the young Raptors. It only took until the second quarter for him to get in a rhythm and begin bombing away, a welcome sight for an organization that has done everything short of beg for him to attack.

Curry is a coach's dream as a shooter, a guy who only needs to see one shot go down in order to get warm, and he led a one-man show to close out the first half and keep the Sixers within a respectable distance of the home team. The first half was all anybody really needed to see from him.

• In this episode of Overreaction Theater, Isaiah Joe is the obvious early candidate for the "non-rotation" players to seize a real role this season. The players ahead of him on the sheet (at least in theory) are prone to their own swings in effectiveness and confidence, so no one should count the second-year player out. He's going to be giving up weight to a lot of NBA wings, but there are signs of promise on the defensive end and shooting is his obvious calling card. That might be enough to get him on the floor.

Like Paul Reed, Joe's competitiveness shines through whenever he is given an opportunity, and on top of making a couple of nice reads in passing lanes on Monday night, Joe came up with a block in transition that was nothing more than pure effort, a great sign for a young kid playing in a blowout.

And as we mentioned in our preseason schedule preview, simply taking threes has been an issue for this group at times. Joe may be the most fearless shooter on the entire roster, a guy who is comfortable pulling off-the-dribble and coming around screens. 

• Grant Riller admittedly only got into the game once this became more of a bench affair, but he had more success driving and penetrating in limited reps than Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey had with considerable opportunities through the first 2.5 quarters. 

You're not going to be able to rely on him defensively basically at all, but the body control and touch he showed at the amateur level still looked fairly useful against NBA competition on Monday night. Riller was decisive with his moves and ate up space once he got a sliver of daylight, and he was one of the guys who helped the bench group make this more respectable in the fourth quarter.

Let's see what he does before October 20th. This team is short on ballhandlers right now, and he may be turned to in a pinch to spark some offense.

(Of course, after I wrote this, Rille rolled his ankle and left the game for good. Hopefully, it's nothing serious.)

• I love Paul Reed's activity, his occasional ability to take somebody off-the-dribble, and the tools that give him a base to build from. I'm still unsure he can be trusted as a regular rotation big, at least if he's the nominal five on the floor. He's still a bit jittery, overanxious to make a play of some sort, which leads to him taking unnecessary fouls and gliding out of the play more than you'd like. But there's no way for him to improve in those areas without getting regular reps there, and I do think he has an intriguing enough package of skills to warrant letting him try and fail at that position. 

Even during a game where I thought he was sort of helter-skelter doing "center stuff", Reed still managed to come up with a bunch of deflections and disrupted the Raptors on defense, teasing what he might become when he has matured as a basketball player. Offensively, he's versatile enough to give you something different possession-to-possession, from rim running to glass attacking to the occasional take off-the-bounce. 

It may be as simple as the Sixers playing a more aggressive style of D when he's manning the pivot. To my eye, it felt like Reed was a lot more impactful when he was playing high against pick-and-rolls and getting up into the Raptors rather than dropping to the rim and trying to play traditional rim protector. We'll see how it comes together for him.

• He didn't play a ton on Monday night, but rookie Jaden Springer's strength at a young age pops off the screen a little bit. The Tennessee product is already pretty adept at creating a bit of space in traffic and using it to find a finishing window, and he strung together some nice combination moves in the fourth quarter.

The Bad

• With the first and second unit structured the way they were in camp, the Sixers are set to rely heavily on Shake Milton to carry the latter again this season. And frankly, it doesn't look any smarter than it did last season, when Milton often tried to do much to lift up a group with minimal secondary playmaking.

You can't really blame Milton if this ends up being the case. Philadelphia's replacements on the second unit (Drummond and Georges Niang) are basically like-for-like replacements for Dwight Howard and Mike Scott, offering no self-creation skills of their own. So any improvements to the second unit were and are going to rely on improvement from Milton or others, and we have yet to see anything meaningful to suggest change is coming.

Milton looked a lot like he did last season — capable of strong bursts, able to put together some nice passes (including a no-look dime to a cutting Furkan Korkmaz), but limited as a lead handler, prone to tunnel vision and unforced errors on a drive. On Monday, there were a lot of possessions where Milton barrelled into traffic without a backup plan or even a Plan A, and he was stuffed at the rim or turned the ball over as a result.

It's games like these that make you wonder whether Rivers might consider starting Milton and letting Maxey be the second-unit spark, banking on Milton's superior shooting (and Curry's partnership with Embiid) to work better with the top group, while Maxey's off-the-dribble juice is better used in a sixth-man role. Too early to say yet, especially with Philly's most important players sitting, but a situation to monitor.

• Unfortunately, the Tyrese Maxey experience wasn't much better than the Milton show. 

This was an admittedly tough matchup for the Sixers to unveil the Maxey at point guard configuration against. Not only do they feature a strong guard defender in Fred Van Vleet, the Raptors also have length and athleticism to spare on the wing, with guys like OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes and so on there to switch. Even in that context, Maxey looked a bit overextended trying to run the show, struggling to get his own offense going or create for others in Toronto.

Maxey seemed to struggle to find the middle ground between creative force and self-assured attacker, and you do have to give some credit to the Raptors here. Toronto's length and frequent switching disrupted Philadelphia's offense in a major way at times, and Maxey struggled to find driving lanes and angles against a series of defenders who were much bigger and longer than him. But no one is going to feel sorry for him, and that's a problem he needs to solve if the Sixers hope to reach their potential — for Philly to have any chance running out a Maxey-Curry backcourt, Maxey's going to have to prove himself capable of beating wing-sized players with regularity.

No reason to get too down on this kid yet, not after last season, but it was a tough outing for him.

• Adding on to these last two points, Milton and Maxey's ineffectiveness led to a lot of guys shooting that really shouldn't be. Drummond is fine as a semi-frequent passer, but he got a little too adventurous as a self-creator on Monday night. That goes double for Niang, whose non-shooting qualities have been talked up some in camp but looked atrocious in this one.

On the other hand, my beef is with the coaching staff/philosophy on some of these looks. If they are greenlighting or choosing to accept a Drummond/Thybulle dribble handoff, for example, I have to wonder exactly what anyone thinks that is accomplishing. You are gaining nothing out of Thybulle turning the corner and either trying to get to the rim as a dribbler or pulling up from three, and you don't really trust him to hit Drummond if there's a dive/roll/lob opportunity at the rim. I get that preseason means we're going to see some goofy lineup combos, but there were a bunch of K.Y.P. issues that stood out to me.

• Teammates have remarked to reporters that Georges Niang has shown more in camp than he was often able to in Utah. Maybe this was just a rough night for him (and it was for most of the team), but perhaps there's a reason he has been used primarily as a standstill shooter during his career. We'll learn more about him once their real team is all on the floor together and he's not asked to do too much, but this was a rough debut in every way imaginable — bad passing, sloppy dribbling, minimal shotmaking, and some silly fouls on the defensive end.

The Ugly

• Preseason basketball is often ugly by default. This was a particularly rough game, given the absence of Philadelphia's three best players, this one was likely always going to be rough for the Sixers. But the Raptors weren't at full strength either, and going through a game without a lot of team strengths to point to is pretty rough.

• This will ultimately be the responsibility of Embiid and Harris, but this matchup showed the Sixers could really use a stabilizer on the perimeter. That was true with or without Ben Simmons, but when a team like Toronto begins turning you over and turning the game into a track meet, they need to figure out what the fix is and who to go to. They had no answers on Monday and it led to a lot of extended scoring runs for the Raps.

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