Sixers-Cavs preseason game

I wasn’t able to cover the Sixers’ preseason victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday in person, which is what I would traditionally do, because I was celebrating the Jewish holiday with my family. Happy Yom Kippur to all who celebrate! Upon replay of the contest, here are 3 likes and dislikes from the game.

Like: PJ Tucker flowing into actions instead of standing statue in the corners

It’s easy to paint Tucker into the prototypical 3-and-D mold of just sitting in the corners and waiting to catch and shoot. Some of that probably has to do with his age, as people don’t typically associate “37-year-old basketball player” with “dynamic abilities”. It also probably has to do with the perception of 3-and-D role players who are unable to manufacture offense for themselves or others. If you can’t get creative with the ball, space to the corners and wait for someone to find you on the swing pass. 

But, Tucker can do a little more than cement his feet into the hardwoods by the baseline. He doesn’t stop the ball or immediately pass it to the closest ball-handler if the shot isn’t there when he catches. Rather, he showed that he can flow into new actions on Wednesday night:

It’s so simple, you wonder why other players of similar archetypes struggle to build such intuition. Plays like this one allow the offense to maintain pace and unfold so quickly that it’s difficult for defenses to key in on individual offensive limitations. Not only does Tucker do a great job of transitioning the play into a side pick-and-roll for James Harden, but he doesn’t abandon the action after setting the pick. He opens up to the basket and makes himself available to receive a pass if Harden has the window to get the ball to him. With Kevin Love and Donovan Mitchell converging on the ball-handler, Harden rewards Tucker for staying in the picture.

If Tucker wants, he can deliver a pass to the other side of the floor out of the short roll to keep both the left and right active in the play. Or if there’s no one else available for Tucker to forward the ball, he can take a floater off the short roll like the one above. When someone refers to “connective tissue” in basketball, this is the quintessential example.

Dislike: Harden being overly selective with shots

Point guards have the most responsibility on the offensive end of the floor. The job is a little easier if you’re built leaning toward either side of the facilitator-scorer spectrum. But, there’s a balance to strike for some lead guards, and that’s especially the case for players like Harden. We saw Doc Rivers tell Harden to be one of the leaders of the pecking order in a side conversation caught on microphone that went viral during training camp last week. But, he also has to leverage his gravity as a passer and scorer by taking advantages of small pockets of space whenever they present themselves:

You can drive yourself crazy over-analyzing game-speed decisions in preseason games. There are many reasons why Harden might’ve deferred on this shot, among which is the valid claim that the extra attention on the strong side of the court left a teammate wide open elsewhere. You might even pardon this example because Tyrese Maxey ultimately drilled an open look off Harden’s pass. But at the end of the day, Jarrett Allen is in a slight drop coming out of the ball screen. That leaves Harden plenty of room to let it fly, and it’s not a shot he should be deferring.

Like: De’Anthony Melton flashing some secondary ball-handling

The offense has been shaky through two preseason games for the Sixers’ draft-night acquisition. Shots haven’t been falling, he’s been loose with the ball when given extended touch time, and he’s made some head-scratching decisions with the rock in his hands. But, this play was a glimpse into what I think Melton can be for the Sixers:

As I wrote in my preview of the team’s offense, I’m bearish on Melton being able to commandeer an offense as a lead ball-handler. The first preseason game reinforced that bearishness, and probably even strengthened it a bit. But, I do believe he can bring some secondary ball-handling to the second unit. This play was an encouraging sign. It’s a cross-court pass to the open man off of one dribble. Fairly simple play. But, being able to make those reads consistently — finding the open man on the weak side to force his defender to retreat back home after dropping in help as the ball moved to the other side of the floor — builds equity with teammates.

Just because an action occurs on one side of the floor doesn’t mean the ball movement has to end there. The Sixers can space Melton on the weak side, reverse the ball, and initiate a new action with him. That’s a lot of movement for the opposing defense. Doc Rivers still needs to stagger Maxey and Harden so that there’s a credible and dynamic primary ball-handler on the floor at all times. But, throw Melton on the floor opposite a Harden pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell, and there’s some fire in those non-Embiid lineups.

Dislike: The transition defense

Isn’t the point of preseason to work out the kinks so that fixable weaknesses don’t cost you games when the regular season comes? I get it’s a low-effort environment for many players, especially those guaranteed certain roles, but this is quite bad:

The worst part might be that it wasn’t even ignited by a missed shot or live-ball turnover. The Cavaliers had to take the ball out of bounds on a made shot and the Sixers just didn’t care to get back in time to find the shooters. Judging by his reaction to Mitchell making the three, Tucker agrees. 

Like: Maxey

What can you say? The young guard hasn’t missed a beat. Maxey proved he was capable of taking over games against elite playoff opponents. He worked all offseason. And then picked back up right where he left off. He looks particularly comfortable in the midrange:

The most notable difference is that Maxey seems to have more balance on his pull-up midrange jumper than he did in the past. Maxey used to look like he was shooting a bowling ball after shedding defenders for midrange jumpers. Last season, his shot diet consisted heavily of threes and attempts at the rim or within the free throw line. After building muscle mass this past summer, Maxey appears to have better control of the ball when creating space in a crowd. He’s scoring at all three levels through two halves of preseason basketball. 41 points in 29 minutes of play over two games. A true shooting percentage of 92.84. An effective field goal percentage of 92.11. He’s been the best player on the floor between the Sixers and their two opponents thus far.

Side note: Notice how quickly Embiid rifles the ball to Maxey once he knows he’s open. There were times last season when Embiid wouldn’t trust Maxey and other teammates, hesitating to let go of the ball or electing to create offense through other channels altogether. This is a sneaky sign that Embiid really trusts his young teammate, and Maxey has earned that equity.

Dislike: The fourth-quarter assault on the backboard

It would be disingenuous of me to say I had high expectations for the deepest parts of the bench. But, man, many of the Sixers’ shots in the fourth quarter didn’t even nick the rim. The backboard might’ve needed the ice bath more than the players did after the game.

The Sixers will see these Cavaliers again in Cleveland on Monday in their third of four preseason games. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can watch the action on NBA TV.


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