The Sixers played their third of four preseason games on Monday night, visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tyrese Maxey scored 19 points to lead the Sixers to victory over the Cavaliers, 113-97.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Joel Embiid did not travel to Cleveland as part of planned rest. Montrezl Harrell had an intercostal strain and was unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.
Kevin Love missed the game after bumping knees in a recent practice. Evan Mobley is recovering from a sprained ankle and was unavailable. Dylan Windler is nursing an ankle injury and did not play.
JB Bickerstaff started Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Caris LeVert, Dean Wade, and Jarrett Allen.
Maxey started the game as torrid as ever from beyond the arc, knocking in a trio of trifectas in the first three minutes of the game. By now, you know he can shoot. The far more fascinating development is the context in which he’s getting off his three-point looks. He made them off the dribble in the first preseason game, off the catch in the second game, and then picked for Harden and made one catching his backcourt mate’s pass off the pop on Monday.
Last season, Maxey was comfortable taking threes off the dribble against isolated defenders. As the season went on, he became comfortable off the catch as a spacer for Harden. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Maxey will be used as a screener with any sort of meaningful volume. The important growth point is that he looks comfortable in an action without necessarily having to be the ball-handler.
That changes the calculus for the Sixers’ playbook a bit. Rivers can mix and match his pick-and-roll combinations with a bit more liberty if he believes Maxey can be effective popping out of a guard-guard pick-and-roll. Taking it a step further, one wonders if Maxey is comfortable curling off of screens, catching, and shooting. That off-ball shooting gravity is something I’m not convinced the Sixers have. Using him in a JJ Redick role is a misallocation of resources. But if he can come off a screen and pose the threat of a sniper, that opens the floor for the ball-handler because off-ball defenders are preoccupied with tracking the shooter. It also makes life a bit easier for the screener, especially if Maxey grows as a passer. The threat of him catching and squaring will cause defenders to converge. That will leave the screener to dive to the basket unabated.
Speaking of off-ball play, Tobias Harris looks increasingly comfortable hoisting from deep peeling away from off-ball screens. The touch hasn’t always been on the mark. But, he’s not hesitating when he shoots it. Being a stretch four isn’t Harris’ natural role. As such, there will be peaks and troughs as he gets used to a lower-usage, more catch-and-shoot-intensive role. But he’s buying into the vision Rivers has for him on offense, and that’s all he can control on a night-to-night basis.
On the topic of players extending beyond jobs they’ve typically been assigned, Paul Reed switched onto an island to dance with Darius Garland a few times in the first half of this game. It’s difficult to know what that would’ve looked like in the past because Reed hasn’t played much to this point in his career. When he did play, it was in a relatively simplified role as a rim-protector. Nonetheless, he held his own. Instead of getting his feet in the driving lanes and collapsing the interior, Garland passed out of an isolation after Reed refused to give him the contact he needed to draw a three-shot foul on a pump fake. Garland later settled for a long prayer of a three over Reed’s contest. It was a great, disciplined stand against one of the league’s shiftiest young point guards.
I don’t think Harden has particularly stood out or looked decisively better or worse than he did in the playoffs. But, he has had moments in which he’s found the crease on an off-balance defender and turned on the jets to get around them. As the season goes on, the mileage will inevitably slow him down and that ability to shake past defenders will stretch thin. But, there are still times in which Harden’s equity as a scorer works to the Sixers’ advantage.
Helpers will roam a step closer to him to clog the driving lanes, leaving shooters open. Shots that weren’t there just seconds before suddenly open up because Harden enters the picture and lulls defenders by merely touching the ball. So even if he loses some of that step as the season goes on or never even recovers a portion or majority of what he lost at the hands of the hamstring injury, Harden impacts the game for the better just by being on the court.
After a very rough start to the preseason, Matisse Thybulle was well off the mark on his first two three-point attempts of this game. He responded by connecting on three in a row through the remainder of the game. You obviously need a much bigger sample size to make any sort of judgment. But, it was encouraging to see Thybulle remain confident even though he wasn’t getting the results he wanted in the early-going.
Shake Milton looked much quicker in this game than I remembered him ever being. He beat Cavalier defenders to various spots on offense to set himself up for scores. Milton also had a couple nice bursts to the rim for challenging finishes through traffic.
At this point, the writing is on the wall for Charles Bassey. He didn’t play at all in this game despite neither Embiid nor Harrell being there to eat the minutes in front of him. He’s played 14 minutes total — all of which came in the victory over the Nets — in the preseason. He has $74,742 guaranteed. The rest of his roughly $1.5 million salary becomes guaranteed in early January if he’s not waived by then. Sometimes, there are just too many guys for 15 roster spots. And when it comes to difficult decisions, the guy who is owed the least amount of money can be an easy target. He might have a future in the league, but it doesn’t look like it will be with the Sixers.
The Sixers will wrap up their preseason slate on Wednesday at home against the Charlotte Hornets. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.