The Philadelphia 76ers (9-8) visited the Sacramento Kings (6-11) on Monday night. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Saturday’s loss to the Blazers. Sacramento, which fired head coach Luke Walton and replaced him with Alvin Gentry all on Sunday, wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Andre Drummond’s 10-rebound fourth quarter provided the extra boost the Sixers needed to grind out a win, 102-94.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
The Sixers were down Seth Curry (back stiffness) and Tobias Harris (left hip soreness) on Monday. Danny Green remained out as he nurses a tight left hamstring. Joel Embiid has returned to the practice facility to work out. But, he was unavailable as he finishes up his stint under the league’s health and safety protocol.
Ben Simmons, who is not mentally ready to play and has missed the entire season to date, remained away from the team.
Jaden Springer and Two-Way players Aaron Henry and Grant Riller were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond.
The Kings were without Two-Way signees Louis King and Neemias Queta. They, along with Jahmi’us Ramsey and Robert Woodward II, were on G-League assignments.
Alvin Gentry started De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Moe Harkless, and Richaun Holmes.
The Kings mostly tucked De’Aaron Fox away in the corners early on. But when they toggled their offense into his ball-handling, the Sixers had a reasonable enough strategy for combating his speed in pick-and-rolls. A horrendous three-point shooter to date this season, they weren’t switching ball screens to minimize space on the perimeter. Rather, Philly showed high with soft hedges from Andre Drummond to stunt Fox’s dribble penetration while Maxey fought through the ball screens. It was a sensible adjustment from their usual pick-and-roll scheme with the speedy but under-sized Maxey on the floor. Of course, when Maxey subbed out, they switched on the screens and Fox promptly nailed a pull-up triple in isolation.
That’s a good segue to my next observation — Rivers took Maxey out after 2 early fouls. That’s something you might do with other featured players. But, Maxey is averaging 2.3 fouls per game this season. He’s nothing of a foul risk. So, it seemed like as good an opportunity to as any to test his reaction to that type of adversity. I get the rationale, but I didn’t love that decision.
The first quarter was as good as Drummond has looked in quite some time. It’s not a coincidence that it came at a time when he showed some urgency on the defensive side of the floor. The big man maneuvered around the paint with ease in his first stint of the night. His timing around the rim was sensational, too. That anticipation yielded Drummond 3 blocks in his first 8 minutes of play. The Sixers are going to need that effort more consistently in Embiid’s absence. And perhaps they’d have broken the losing streak sooner if he had been engaged the way he was in the first quarter on Monday. Fortunately, with Embiid scheduled to return soon, Drummond’s role will be reduced and he won’t need to be counted upon for extended runs of focus.
Marvin Bagley III got some run late in the first quarter. Perhaps that signals a change in philosophy as a new head coach steps in. Or, perhaps the Kings wanted to showcase Bagley to the Sixers in case trade talks around Simmons deepen. I’ll go on record and say I had Bagley at the top of my big board at the time of his draft. Nagging injuries have prevented him from developing any sort of rhythm in the NBA. But, I’ll wear my L on that one. Can’t always be right (*shrugs*).
Isaiah Joe had himself quite the showing in the second frame. He came off the bench to stroke a pair of triples en route to an 11-point performance in 10 minutes. His minutes have been few and far between this season. That’s before we even account for his stint in the health and safety protocol. In those few opportunities he received before Monday, he really struggled to find the mark from deep. So, it was encouraging to see Joe get some lift under his sniper. He also had a gorgeous pivot and step-through for a difficult layup to beat the shot clock.
The cold stretch for Furkan Korkmaz continued on Monday. He hit a triple in the first quarter, but couldn’t find the bottom on his other 5 attempts in the first half. Short streaks of cold shooting are fine. But, his staying power in the NBA is his three-point prowess. If he’s not making the wide-open ones, he doesn’t have the dynamic or other levels of scoring necessary to warrant keeping him on the floor. He’s gotten better as a team defender and can hold his own in some one-on-one matchups. But, he doesn’t credibly prevent dribble penetration. At that point, it’s coming down to his playmaking. He had 5 assists in the first half against the Kings. But, his tendency to over-extend his body into no man’s land to make unnecessarily risky passes induces agita.
I’ve criticized Drummond very heavily of late. But, he earned some credit in the first half. In addition to stepping up to the plate in his security at the rim, he threaded the needle on some excellent passes and spread the ball around the floor to keep teammates involved instead of defaulting to Maxey. Beyond that, he was bowling his way to the rim (without getting stripped) and picking up fouls on the Kings standing in his way. He didn’t score much (his free throw woes are infamous and, well, we’ve witnessed something resembling touch around the rim). But, he involved himself in a variety of other ways that paved paths to positive outcomes for the Sixers, both in the moment and later in the game.
It’s hard to believe that it took until the third quarter to go into detail on Maxey, but here we are. The third quarter was really the first time this season I can remember Maxey elevating his risk tolerance to turnovers for the sake of making plays. Maxey has been one to neglect more complex reads to find open teammates as a way of avoiding turnovers. As a result, he’s limited himself to strong-side passes that don’t derive maximal value out of the plays.
While he’s the lead ball-handler and one of the featured offensive options in Embiid’s absence, that risk aversion is fine. In that context, the margin of error is thin and you just need to scratch points together. But in order to achieve his highest ceiling, Maxey is going to have to take risks as a playmaker. He did that a bit in the third quarter, threading the needle with cross-court passes from the baseline to the weak-side corner to facilitate ball swings around the perimeter. If he’s willing to make those passes more often, or even make weak-side passes from the lane off of dribble penetration, it will open up his game substantially.
Matisse Thybulle has vastly improved his recognition of opportunities to shade towards the rim as the play unfolds in preparation for backdoor passes. There were a couple of instances in which he flashed to the restricted having read misplays by Sacramento’s help defenders. He was rewarded for his off-ball movement with some easy dunks. It seemed as though Thybulle’s three-point shooting off the catch was turning a corner before he was sidelined with the health and safety protocol. Beyond the three-point game, his recognition and action on backdoor cuts is critical to his offensive development. We know there’s limited upside with a four-year college player who is already in his third NBA season. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he develops into much of a playmaker or shot-creator. So, prolific cutting and hitting a respectable portion of his threes are musts.
It really seemed like the game was slipping away when Tristan Thompson, of all people, stepped onto the court. The Sixers were not prepared for his physicality. He accumulated 8 points and 7 rebounds in an 11-minute run split between the late-third and early-fourth quarters. His impact was battling to help create second-chance opportunities against the Sixers and diving to the rim at the right time for scores. The Sixers’ lack of adjustment for Thompson gave the Kings an arm’s length of control as the fourth frame wasted away.
But, the Sixers kept it close. Georges Niang has had a brutal time on the defensive side of the ball since his role has elevated from the roster’s short-handedness. Teams have been blatantly targeting him in pick-and-rolls to force switches and in isolation to punish his lack of speed and agility. That was still the case on Monday. But, the free agent addition made some difficult shots down the stretch to bail the Sixers out when the offense had nothing else going.
It was when the starting unit checked back in that the Sixers took control in the guts of the game. The unit, collectively, made huge shots down the stretch. But, Drummond’s rebounding prowess was the life raft that kept the Sixers afloat as the fourth quarter came to a close. He reeled in 10 boards in the frame, 4 of which came on the offensive glass. Those offensive rebounds were critical, as they forced Sacramento to extend its defense and burn fuel. As a byproduct, the Kings were flat on offense in crunch time. It was mostly one-and-done for Sacramento when the game hung in the balance. The Sixers, on the other hand, were getting deposits from Milton, Niang, Drummond, and others.
The Kings are obviously in disarray as they cycle into a new head coach. As bad as they are, they were at full strength. The Sixers, on the other hand, were down all 5 starters from last season and 4 of their 5 from this season. With Golden State looming, it was an unlikely win that the Sixers sorely needed. To their credit, they didn’t let their short-handedness distract them from the task at hand, and they eeked out an ugly victory on the road.
The Sixers (10-8) will wrap up their road trip against the Golden State Warriors (15-2) on Wednesday night. Tip-off is set for 10 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.