Those Philadelphia 76ers (4-2) were back in action on Monday night. They played host to the Portland Trail Blazers (3-3). The Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to three games. The Blazers wanted to right their wrongs from a loss on the first leg of a back-to-back on Sunday. Georges Niang contributed 21 of the short-handed Sixers’ 40 bench points to hold off the Blazers, 113-103.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

All active Blazers were available for Portland. 

First-year head coach Chauncey Billups started Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Jusuf Nurkic.

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who was given the night off to rest after playing through knee soreness since the season-opener in New Orleans. Ben Simmons was unavailable for personal reasons. Tobias Harris was a late scratch after entering the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol. Grant Riller, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, was also unavailable.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, and Andre Drummond.

First Half

I will start off by pointing out that this was a strong prediction to start the week:

Lillard, the guard at the top of the Sixers’ wish list in the Ben Simmons trade soap opera, received the warmest of welcomes from Sixers fans upon being introduced prior to tip-off. But, it didn’t stop there. He received a noticeable applause on his first made bucket, too. And if he blocked out in the two prior instances, the Philly faithful made sure he heard them loud and clear the third time:

Hold Simmons in as high a degree of contempt as you’d like for all that he doesn’t do on offense, but the Sixers have sorely missed his presence as a defensive rebounder in the early part of the season. The Blazers benefitted from a handful of second-chance looks from deep. Fortunately for the Sixers, many of those attempts were off the mark. Great teams aren’t going to be as generous when they get new leases on life when their bigs slap the ball into the pockets of space on the floor.

The size discrepancy isn’t even an excuse that holds a ton of water because many of these rebounds are popping long off the rim. It comes down to Philly’s perimeter defenders failing to execute on fundamentals. They don’t box out consistently, leaving opposing guards or wings to retrieve long boards on the basis of hustle. As a byproduct of not boxing out when shots go up, the other four on the court for the opposition are free to relocate while the offensive rebounder pivots to pass and revive the possession. It comes down to effort. And the Sixers are not big enough as is to not complete defensive stands with box-outs. Regardless of what you think about Simmons, he finds those long rebounds more often than not.

Once or twice a game, Korkmaz rips a fancy pass that he would never have dared to do in seasons past. Whether it’s a short behind-the-back, a needle threading, or a no-look fling over his shoulder as he slashes to the rim, Korkmaz is going outside the box to apply things he practices in actual games.

Besides proving his development from season to season, it’s also an indicator that he’s growing increasingly confident in areas of his game beyond shooting. Thus far this season, Korkmaz has shown a new aptitude as a ball-handler and, now, as a playmaker. He’ll have games when he drives you crazy, but Furk has slowly blossomed into more than just an ultra-streaky bomber.

Second Half

In Saturday’s observations, I wrote about Maxey’s (bad) habit of shying away from contact by fading across the lane when he senses a foul coming. Maxey sees his fair share of free throws for an under-sized second-year guard. But, he could be living at the charity stripe given his speed and craftiness. But there was one play early in the third quarter on Monday night in which Maxey had Lillard giving him his dominant hand to the basket. Maxey attacked the angle and went right at Lillard’s body. The result? A bucket, plus the harm. One of Maxey’s favorite phrases is “get one percent better every day”. While it’s only one possession, it’s excellent to see the youngster’s attention to detail in assessing how he can improve within season.

Don’t look now, but Korkmaz is sneakily becoming a deflection specialist on the defensive end of the court. That speaks to his IQ on the defensive end of the floor, more than anything. He understands where he needs to be as a team defender. Understanding where you need to be on the floor — and gaining your coach’s trust — is half the battle on the defensive end of the floor. If the Sixers can really trust him as a defender in high-leverage games, both Korkmaz and the team will have groomed quite a valuable wing off their bench.

The best part? They’re only paying him about $5 million per year. Inexpensive, versatile wings off the bench are increasingly rare. That, my friends, makes Korkmaz a commodity.

Speaking of value contracts, Georges Niang is looking like a bargain at about $3.4 million per year. He’s not just a high-volume three-point shooter without even the slightest conscience. Niang is adept at putting the ball on the floor. He is also comfortable with one or two counter moves if his defender plays his first dribble well. Beyond that, Niang battles when faced with like-sized defenders in the post. That extra fight and footwork got Niang a bunch of and-1s on Monday night.

The Sixers did an excellent job of closing out the game on the defensive end of the court. The objective seemed to be to deter dribble penetration towards the middle of the lane in crunch time. And the closing five were up to the task. There was a bunch of shading Drummond towards the outside of the ball screen to thwart attacks out of the pick-and-roll. Thybulle was also fighting through screens in which Lillard was the ball-handler to keep him uncomfortable. With crisp rotations all around the floor in the last five minutes of regulation, the Blazers did not see open shots. That was how they kept the Hawks at bay on Saturday. The theme persisted on Monday, despite being short three of their five regular starters in crunch time on Monday.

The Sixers have registered a number of wins in this era. They have not strung many great wins together in sequence over the last four seasons. Amidst a season full of drama early on, they have two great victories in a row.

Philly (5-2) hosts the Chicago Bulls (5-1) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.