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April 10, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers beat Pistons in Game 82, set to play Toronto in round one

The Sixers rested their stars and got a win in Game 82 anyway, beating the Detroit Pistons 118-106 in the finale. With the Celtics beating up on Memphis in their final game, the Sixers will sit in the No. 4 spot, drawing the Toronto Raptors in the opening round of the playoffs. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• A game like this is a good illustration of how good you have to actually be to cut it as a regular NBA rotation guy. Shake Milton has been in and out of the lineup this season, sometimes for health reasons but also with other guys ahead of him on the depth chart at different points in the year. But with a chance to be one of their leaders against a Detroit team with a lot of fringe guys on the floor, Milton flat-out dominated, easily flying past smaller Pistons guards for scores at the rim. He was a class above (and perhaps several classes above) most of the guys stuck guarding him.

It's been easy to forget about Milton this year with Tyrese Maxey emerging and James Harden coming to town, but a guy who can knock down an open catch-and-shoot three and offer just a little bit of secondary creation is always going to be valuable coming off of the bench. And it was particularly valuable in this game, with Philadelphia's main offensive pillars sitting on the sideline in street clothes. With time and touches to use, Milton did an excellent job, making his first six shots of the game by using his own handle to attack the basket.

His off-the-dribble work is not going to be especially important for Philadelphia in the weeks to come, a bonus alongside whatever shooting he can provide with Embiid, Harden and Maxey mostly running the show. But you never know what might happen during a playoff run, whether injuries or form thrust somebody into a bigger role. Even with Maxey stealing some of his minutes last postseason, a second-half explosion from Milton helped them steal a win during last year's run, and he is capable of the occasional heater where defenses can't really do much to stop him from scoring.

Milton finding his footing over the last couple of weeks is a pretty important development because he looks like one of the few guys coming off of the bench who might be able to help them in the playoffs. As the outright sixth man, Milton had some issues during last year's run, but as maybe the seventh or eighth most important guy for this year's team, he might end up having a say in where the year ends. He's in-form at the right time, at the very least.

• If anybody could breathe life into a meaningless Game 82 for Philadelphia, it's Tyrese Maxey, who has juiced up a lot of games this season that we otherwise could have ignored entirely. But don't take my word for it, just ask Allen Iverson, who was jumping out of his courtside seat in delight watching Maxey go to work in the second half of this game.

This performance was all about downhill Maxey, with the second-year guard repeatedly getting to the line and finishing through contact with his jumper MIA for most of the night. If this game had any meaning, we likely would have gotten to see him running the crunch-time offense, which would have been pretty fun, but Maxey getting his rightful spot next to the other must-protect guys on the bench was a well-deserved reward for his play this season.

• Paul Reed getting chances in the final few games of the year might not mean anything at all for his playoff chances. Doc Rivers' general preference is to play veterans, something he shares in common with most other NBA coaches, and Reed is decidedly greener than DeAndre Jordan.

But when Reed can stop himself from fouling, which isn't often, he feels omnipresent. Teams can't keep him away from the basket on either end of the floor, Reed slithering his way around bodies on offense for tough scores and occasional offensive rebounds. With a creative vacuum on Sunday evening, Reed even managed to pick up a nice assist in the first half, hitting Matisse Thybulle on a cut for two easy ones. Down the stretch, it was basically the Bball Paul show for Philadelphia, with Reed drawing loud ovations for excellent finishes at the rim, including on some plays where he looked doomed to failure right until the moment the shot rolled in.

Reed is an easy guy to get behind because he plays so damn hard, and slowly but surely, he's figuring out what he needs to do to succeed at this level.

He feels like a guy who should have gotten a lot more burn this year, at least once the Sixers made the trade for James Harden that sent Andre Drummond to Brooklyn. No one has been good enough to hold the backup center spot down themselves, and a bit more experience might have been enough to push Reed into reliable role-player territory. I still might gamble on him in a small playoff role anyway. At least I won't have to worry about him caring about each possession. 

• I don't think a static number should be taken as a sign of a great season by itself, but the Sixers are in a place now where 50-win seasons are not that big of a deal. With a full 82-game season last year, the Sixers easily hit that number, and as it is they've managed to win 50+ games in three of the last five seasons. That would have seemed unthinkable during the dog days of The Process, and it seemed a lot more hopeless for many before they underwent that rebuild, the team stuck in the muck with no hope of contending.

They may not have a real shot to contend this year, depending on who you ask. But they are undoubtedly in a better place now than at any time in their recent franchise history, and that will continue to be true as long as they have a healthy No. 21. 

The Bad

• Honestly, the strongest criticism I can offer coming out of this meaningless game is that a lot of guys the Sixers need in the playoffs played too many minutes. I know you only have so many guys on the roster, but you could have emptied the bench and played Maxey, Harris, Green, and Thybulle basically zero minutes in the second half of this game. The Sixers have access to scoreboards just like everybody else, and once they saw the Celtics were beating the crap out of Memphis at halftime, there was no reason to do anything except put their most important rotation players in bubble wrap. 

It should be said though — this was a Tobias Harris stinkbomb. With this opponent, you'd expect somebody like Harris to get an easy 20 points at the very least, and he made everything on offense look very difficult as he warred with the refs over calls he felt he should have gotten.

• DeAndre Jordan playing in the playoffs may cause a full-scale meltdown on social media, and for that matter, across the city of Philadelphia. I'm not exactly inclined to disagree with anyone who feels a certain way seeing him waltz over to the scorer's table. For a guy who has been in the league for as long as he has, Jordan has entirely too many moments where he ends up in a spot without a plan or a clue, ultimately allowing his man to get an open look. Those looks aren't always in the same places, either. Jordan manages to concede wide-open threes while also struggling to win battles at the hoop.

The thing is, even a diminished Jordan has shown some utility on offense. He has paired nicely with Tobias Harris, who has managed to find him for what feels like one easy lob attempt per game. He understands his role and what he's good at, which isn't always the case for vets who have slowed down, and he doesn't go off-script too often. If he was even halfway decent on the defensive end, I doubt anyone would care all that much about Jordan.

I don't think he's suddenly going to find the defensive gear in the playoffs, though. Maybe you're more optimistic than I am. Not sure how you could be, though, if you've watched him play regular minutes recently. 

• For the love of god, Bball Paul, stop fouling. 

The Ugly

• There were way too many fouls called in this game. I don't care if they were correct or not, there's no reason this game should have taken as long as it did. Game 82, neither team all that interested in the result, important players missing for both teams, you could have had a running clock and nobody would have really cared. 

On that note — Philadelphia fans giving the officials a prolonged, "Ref, you suck!" chant in the third quarter of an effectively meaningless Game 82 is simply incredible stuff. I would rather cover sports here, where people always care, than basically anywhere else. You're my type of maniacs. 

• Sixers vs. Raptors is going to be a bloodbath. 

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