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November 22, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers outwork, outlast Nets in Ben Simmons' return to Philly

The Sixers entered the night down three starters and didn't blink once, running past Ben Simmons' Nets in a 115-106 win over Brooklyn. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If this was supposed to be a walkover game for the Nets in Ben Simmons' return, somebody forgot to tell the Sixers. Despite having a group of guys on the floor who largely never played with Simmons, the undermanned Philly squad was ready to roll for this game.

Chew on this for a second — the Sixers rebounded 47 percent of their misses in the first half, an absolutely gargantuan number that speaks to both the personnel they had on the floor and the difference in desire between the two teams. Brooklyn was obviously the more talented team on the floor, which is putting it lightly, but their sense of purpose was constantly in question, guys drifting through possessions and box outs and assignments. By contrast, guys like Montrezl Harrell, PJ Tucker, and Paul Reed treated every shot attempt like an excuse to hit somebody, flying through the paint and leaning hard on Brooklyn players at every possible opportunity.

(With how well Reed played in this one, there was quite a bit of consternation about Harrell starting popping up. Point taken, and I stand with you lot, but I do think Harrell's offensive activity did help set the tone out of the chute if nothing else. Rivers turned the game over to Reed for most of the second half, which is what ultimately mattered.)

This game was unique in terms of opponent and motivational factors, but this is the sort of team and situation where Rivers has done some of his best work in the past. Philly threw enough wrinkles at the Nets in this game, like some situational zone, without trying to overcomplicate things for a rotation being put together in real time. A lot of work to do in the weeks ahead, but this was a good start.

 If Paul Reed's victory tour hasn't gotten started yet, perhaps this game will at least get the parade floats moving in the right direction. Reed came into the game in the first half and had one of his best offensive stretches of the season, taking advantage of a Brooklyn lineup featuring Ben Simmons at the five and a gallery of poor defenders around him.

(Look, I for one am shocked that Simmons at the five is problematic. Not like I dismissed the idea in this space over and over again while he was here. Anyway...)

If the Sixers ran a pick-and-roll and Reed simply walked right down the middle of the lane, he was going to have a high-quality look at the rim basically by default. The Nets were almost universally unprepared to rotate or (frankly) give a damn on a possession-to-possession basis, leaving them susceptible whenever the Sixers made even a token attempt to swing the ball around. And though Reed is a little too clunky in his movement to be a consistent, high-flying finisher, he is effective enough in the paint, steadying himself with a dribble and shielding the ball pretty effectively while using the rim. 

We were also treated to a good, disciplined defensive performance from Reed, who found a way to fight his desire to chase every block opportunity. There was a great closeout on Seth Curry in the first quarter where Reed slammed on the breaks and then hung with Curry on his way to the rim, the sort of play that usually ends with him committing a crazy foul. There were lob breakups, moments of excellent rim protection, and moment-to-moment consistency the likes of which we haven't seen from Reed in a while.

This was true before this game, but it is even more true after it — I would rather see Reed continue to get these minutes and live with the growing pains than see them go back to Harrell in a regular role. Reed is the guy whose defense they are going to need in switchable lineups when it really matters, and you might as well try to get him as many reps as you can before the big moment arrives. This is the best game I can recall him playing in the NBA, and it should (hopefully) be a springboard for him to bigger and better opportunities.

• What they're doing isn't always pretty, and the Shake Milton/De'Anthony Melton backcourt has been in charge of some possessions that are getting better results than they've deserved. But they are battling, doing the best they can to keep Philadelphia afloat right now, and it's hard to ask for much more out of them in the spot they've been put in.

After Milton had a big night in the previous game, it was Melton's time to shine this time around, the former Grizzlies guard shooting the Sixers out of some bad possessions they had no business scoring on. Melton has never lacked confidence as a pull-up player or shooter, at least not the last couple of years, but the Sixers have had to live through some cold stretches while waiting for his efficiency to match his desire to let it fly. No better time than this game for him to get rolling, obviously.

Put it this way — Melton pulling up for a three felt like a better bet for the Sixers than 90 percent of their roster shooting layups in this game. That says as much about their finishing as it does about his shooting, but you need individual talent to bail you out of trouble in the regular season, and Melton was that guy for Philly for a lot of his night.

It was more of an understated effort for Milton, but it has been nice to see him come to life as a spot-up guy during this recent run of play. Milton's shot mechanics have been fairly inconsistent in recent years, and that has coincided with a downturn from deep for him. You can still see some wonkiness on the release, but he's getting shots to drop, and his confidence is flowing right now. 

• Tobias Harris was not good in the early stages of this game, understandably so after a couple of games off. When he was getting shots up, they almost all felt forced and out of the flow of the game, and even when he had a favorable matchup, he seemed uncertain of spacing and setup. There were numerous occasions where he could have simply shot over a smaller defender, only for Harris to blow the opportunity trying to play bully ball.

To his great credit, though, Harris managed to pick himself off of the mat after it looked like an ankle issue would take him out of this game, and perhaps games to come in the future. After getting a nice hand from the home crowd for playing through pain, Harris got to work. The Nets were happy to help him out — on a play where he rose up for a nice dunk early in the shot clock, they all but parted the sea for him, uninterested in paying attention while he waltzed down the lane.

Whatever it takes, I suppose. The crowd behind him at that point, Harris started to get to work in the mid-post, hunting his shot and finding the touch from midrange during a period where offense was tough to come by for Philadelphia. As pressure came, he made a few nice passes out of pressure, finding open shooters for better looks from deep.

Maybe we shouldn't have discounted his own motivation for this game, given that he is the guy who played the most minutes with Simmons of anybody available for Philly. He showed some emotion once he got rolling, yelling to the crowd right as Brooklyn called a timeout mid-run, and he demanded the ball over and over again late in this one, punishing Brooklyn for single-covering him with smaller defenders. His decision-making probably could have been better in some spots, but I think you live with that in this spot, riding him at his most confident.

Knowing Harris, I can imagine he felt he had to be out on the floor for his team in a spot where they were already down a bunch of important players, regardless of what the Simmons factor meant to him. We'll check in with him after the game on his health, but that was a gutsy effort regardless.

• It doesn't matter if most of these guys didn't play a lot (or at all) with Ben Simmons. I bet this one felt good.

The Bad

 Look, I'm not going to sit here and pretend like PJ Tucker was always good or even graceful while he was out there trying to stop the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In fact, those guys made him look old and foolish at times on Tuesday night, leaving him reaching at air with crossovers, hesitations, spin moves, and shimmies of all sorts.

The thing about Tucker, though, is that he doesn't really give a damn about all that stuff. He keeps coming play after play, trying to win that possession regardless of what happened on the previous one. And that approach was critical in a game with limited firepower available to Philadelphia — nobody sane would say he won those matchups overall, but he was basically their only chance to win them for most of the game, and he came up with some big, momentum-shifting turnovers because of his approach.

All of that would be worth discussing and even celebrating if Tucker wasn't in a massive — and I mean massive — offensive funk. His first-half airball (or near-airball, was hard to tell on press row) from four feet stood out as one of the lowlights of the first half, and he continued to smoke shot attempts from similar positions throughout the game. They need him to recenter himself on offense, because if he can just make a shot or two per game, we'll all be able to focus more on the good stuff.

The Ugly

• As if the Sixers needed any more health woes, Tobias Harris got hurt within the first minute of the second half, his ankle getting twisted up in a bad way after missing a shot at the rim. They simply cannot afford to lose anybody else from this rotation, let alone a guy who can actually create his own shot on offense. Seeing him take the floor again minutes later was genuinely pretty inspiring, so here's hoping he's good to go and not just putting himself back in the game because he felt his teammates really needed him.

• Matisse Thybulle entered the game and was promptly ignored in the corner the entire time he was on offense. He gave it a valiant effort and hoisted three three-point attempts in three minutes, including two in a single possession, but only one of those went down despite the Nets totally ignoring him. Kyrie Irving essentially got to double players off-ball as a result of Thybulle's presence on the floor. 

It's tough to get him in games right now, because the ballhandlers who might actually be able to use him as a pick-and-roll partner are all hurt right now. Really, the only guy who can consistently get value out of him there is Harden, and that says more about Harden's playmaking talent than Thybulle's fit in that role. 

• A lot of people spent all of Tuesday and the days leading into the game talking about just how bad it was going to be for Ben Simmons in his return to Philadelphia. There was no way it was going to be worse than the first time he returned and simply didn't play, when the wound was still fresh and fans were ready to let him have it. 

He's no longer the primary source of scorn or on the day-to-day list of concerns, which is what I think people in the national media missed playing up this story even after Embiid was ruled out for the game. Fans are a lot more charged up about, for example, the current head coach of the team and how they feel about him. If they have worries, they're about how PJ Tucker has looked since signing a three-year deal in the offseason. There's plenty of venom for Simmons, to be sure, but people here have more to worry about than him. And without the Embiid/Maxey/Harden trio available, most people just wanted to see some fight from a banged-up group.

• You have to be down horrendous to use a pair of first-half free throws as an opportunity to gloat. We not got a Kyrie Irving shush for the crowd when Ben Simmons hit the first of a pair of free throws, and Simmons topped him a moment later when he busted out a Jordan-in-the-Finals shrug when the second one went down. Meanwhile, the Nets managed to go down seven points to the hospital Sixers by the end of the first quarter, and more importantly, they lost the freaking game. Priorities, gentlemen. Completely unserious basketball team. 

• The flagrant foul on Georges Niang in the first half would not have been flagrant if it was committed on anyone other than Simmons, and you can't convince me otherwise.

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