The Sixers (28-16) visited the Portland Trail Blazers (21-23) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to improve to 4-0 on its five-game west coast road trip. Portland intended to right its wrongs from Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver. A brutal first half of shooting for the Blazers helped the Sixers build a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 105-95 win.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Blazers were without Gary Payton II, who is nursing a left calf contusion.
Justise Winslow was sidelined with a sprained left ankle.
Chauncey Billups started Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Jerami Grant, and Jusuf Nurkic.
Embiid did whatever he wanted in the first quarter. Attacking the basket or shooting jumpers from the elbows or nail. Screening and diving with Harden leading him to the basket. Deep catches after sealing his defender into no man’s land. Portland had no answers. Much of it resulted from Harden controlling the pace. He basically led the offense through a shell drill in the first quarter, the Blazers not the least bit interested in defending anything.
Even if the Sixers didn’t knock down shots every possession, they got to the free throw line. They didn’t turn the ball over in the first 10:42 of the game. Philadelphia gave itself a chance on every possession through the first nine minutes of the game. It wasn’t the cleanest quarter of shooting, but the Sixers took full advantage of the Blazers not being able to make anything. Jumpers, shots at the rim, none of it mattered. There was some strong defense on Philadelphia’s part, but the Blazers were frigid, too.
I liked the Sixers pressing Lillard in the backcourt, particularly with Matisse Thybulle, late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter. They kept the Blazers from getting into early offense. The Sixers forced Portland to work against the shot clock by the first or second pass the Blazers made in the frontcourt. They weren’t necessarily showing off with overwhelming defensive rotations. Rather, they denied the Blazers opportunities to play with pace by pressuring Lillard more than 50 feet from the basket and before he even touched the ball.
Really good first half off the bench for Tyrese Maxey. Almost all of the work came in the pick-and-roll with one of Embiid and Montrezl Harrell. Maxey knocked down a pair of pull-up midrange jumpers in righty pick-and-rolls. He used his footwork to create drives to the basket for himself after rejecting ball screens. The young guard capped a strong first half with a triple off the catch. Those are the types of spurts they need from him if he’s going to be a sixth man on this team. Now, it’s just about consistent aggression and quick decision-making.
You know things are going well when Harrell is getting into passing lanes and tipping the ball away for steals in the open court. He even won the foot race against Nurkic, retrieving the ball and drawing a foul in transition.
Georges Niang was a bit indecisive curling for shots off the catch when the Blazers went to zone defense in the first quarter. He leads the team in threes made per 36 minutes and is far and away its best catch-and-shoot sniper. If a team dares go zone with him on the court and the ball swings his way, that shot should be going up more times than not.
For two-and-a-half quarters, it looked like the Sixers were going to earn themselves a night free of criticism. But, not so fast. They were up 26 points in the third quarter and still needed to put their closing lineup on the floor. Not every game is going to be a blowout. But, this team bizarrely just forgets how to do all the things they did to build the lead. It shouldn’t be so difficult to deliver the knockout punch when you have someone on the ground. Yet, there are the Sixers, letting their opponents get back on their feet far too often. It’s been a problem for years. This one was relatively stress-free when all was said and done. But, they had this team dead to rights in the third quarter. It shouldn’t have ever been interesting in the fourth quarter.
The Blazers chipped a 75-49 deficit with 5:48 left in the third quarter to single digits late in the fourth quarter. Portland went on a 16-4 run over the remainder of the third frame to inject some life into the building. Pretty much all of the damage came at the expense of the all-bench lineup. I thought Matisse Thybulle, in general, did a fine job crowding Lillard throughout the game. But, there was a stretch in the third quarter in which the Blazers attacked him off the dribble and made a spirited effort to get to the rim frequently, including a Lillard dunk over Thybulle on a baseline drive after the Sixers wing had him locked up in the corner and let him escape. There were also some brutal offensive moments for Thybulle nearby on that timeline. He nearly airballed a short floater over the rim and then punched the backboard on an open three from the left wing.
It certainly wasn’t all on him. The team generally lacked focus on offense, starters and reserves, and committed far too many turnovers in the second half. But — I and many others have said this repeatedly — Thybulle has to make offenses hear him if he’s going to make the Sixers run a 5-on-4 offense when they have the ball. He has to be an overwhelming defensive player, and he’s not more often than he is. Sometimes his assignment is just really, really good — he’s not out there to guard role players. Other times, offensive players simply don’t feel threatened by him or know they can trick him by changing speeds as they dribble and using fakes.
Getting back to the all-bench lineup, I think mixing the starting lineups up to bring Maxey off the bench against certain matchups is totally fine. His role, whether he’s starting or not, is to push pace and get buckets — it’s as simple as that. But, experimenting with different starting lineups inherently means experimenting with bench lineups, too. As we saw in the Clippers game, there are some nights when Maxey can carry the offense by himself. But, that hasn’t been the case every night. It was in the first half on Thursday, Maxey ripping off a handful of buckets leading the charge as the featured creator. But, there was no such success in the second half.
There’s going to be some inconsistency if Rivers keeps allowing Maxey to commandeer the bench lineups without staggering one of Embiid and Harden with him. If he’s going to test what Maxey can do as the featured stud in those lineups, Rivers has to manage the lulls without being too quick to abandon ideas. Personally, I’d stagger one of the starters with Maxey if I was bringing him off the bench. But, I also think it’s unfair to crush Rivers for the all-bench lineup imploding after a really good first half. It worked for a game and a half, and he extended the leash. Then, it abruptly broke down.
There’s something to be said about investing more time in those lineups when they struggle, hoping that the trust makes all five guys play harder for you, thus creating synergy. But, there also comes a point in which you have to pull the plug when it’s clearly hurting the team. I think there’s more experimentation to be done with the starting lineup, and that means there will be some inconsistency from various bench lineups. And in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t, there will need to be some patience as Rivers and company give different combinations honest tries. Thursday saw the down side of those wild inconsistencies. But, the good news is that Rivers has 37 games left to experiment before things get real.
Getting back to Lillard briefly, he was mostly dreadful. I thought some of it was a star player forcing unnecessary shots or suffering from bad shooting luck. But, Philadelphia, in general, did a really nice job of defending him. He’s one of the most prolific players in the league, so kudos on that.
The skies didn’t immediately clear when Harden and Embiid returned in the fourth quarter, the offense vacillating back towards stagnation. It was partially the Sixers’ fault; the closing unit was disengaged because Embiid and Harden killed Portland all night. But, the Blazers also tightened up on defense. As such, the Sixers couldn’t just turn on autopilot on offense like they did in the first quarter and eat up the remainder of the game. Harden had three awful turnovers in the process. But, above all else, there’s no way he should only have three shots in eight fourth-quarter minutes. In general, he wasn’t nearly aggressive enough in looking for his shot. Strange considering he did make more than half of the ones he took. He’d probably tell you that Embiid was feasting on a weak interior all night and looking for his big man was a no-brainer. But, sometimes you have to change up the flow to make the defense shift a bit.
Maxey was also totally disengaged in the fourth quarter. He played the entire period, but took just two shots. After cooking for 13 points in the decisive frame against the Clippers the other night, one would’ve expected him to come out and assert himself. He was a little too comfortable just standing around off the ball. All parties — Rivers, Embiid and Harden, and Maxey — have to do a better job of keeping him involved. I understand Harden is the point guard, but the offense stagnates because there are very few secondary actions. That should never happen when you have a Harden-Maxey backcourt.
Speaking of the offense in the fourth quarter, you felt like you were watching all isolation when the closing lineup took the floor. How about getting back to that two-man game that has been nearly a guaranteed bucket every time Embiid sets a pick?
Embiid grabbed his knee after falling to the wood on a dunk in the fourth quarter. He got up and smiled, but there was clearly a moment of pain. Don’t like that at all, although he seemed totally fine once he got up.
The Sixers (29-16) will visit the Sacramento Kings (25-18) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 10 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.