Shake Milton looks to improve and increase his role on the 76ers this season. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

Your Philadelphia 76ers (44-21) were back in action on Wednesday night. They wrapped up a three-game road trip in Houston, where they were hosted by the Rockets (16-49). The Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to six games and take a 2-game lead (plus tie-breaker) over the Nets for the 1-seed in the East. The Rockets were looking to snap a three-game losing streak. Philadelphia’s bench poured in 56 points to maintain the Sixers’ big second half lead and ice a 135-115 victory.

Before we get to what I saw, I owe you some context.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Furkan Korkmaz, who suffered a sprained right ankle in the team’s win against the Bulls. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Rockets were without:

  • Sterling Brown (sore left knee)
  • Dante Exum (strained right calf)
  • Eric Gordon (strained right groin)
  • Danuel House Jr (sore right ankle)
  • David Nwaba (sprained right wrist)
  • Jae’Sean Tate (health and safety protocol)
  • John Wall (strained right hamstring)
  • DJ Wilson (health and safety protocol)
  • Christian Wood (sore right ankle)

The Rockets started Kevin Porter Jr, Avery Bradley, Kenyon Martin Jr, Daquan Jeffries, and Kelly Olynyk.

First Half

You could tell that the Sixers were just playing for cardio early on, as there was not much energy in this game at all. Embiid wasn’t really focused on dominating the paint and was settling for triples early in the shotclock. Defensive effort wasn’t impressive outside of the first pass, as there wasn’t much urgency in fighting over off-ball screens. To be fair, you could also tell that they were approximately fifteen times better than the Rockets without even trying. So, whatever keeps Philly healthy and winning is fine, even if it’s a snooze fest at times.

Danny Green could author a book titled Off-Ball Movement For Dummies. Defenses know where he resides and where his points come from. Yet, he terrorizes them with quiet but consistent off-ball movement. He has a way of tip-toeing around the baseline and rotating into open corner triples multiple times per quarter. The art of off-ball movement isn’t even just staying active. It’s about reading one’s teammates, as well. Green burned the Rockets with a number of corner triples early in this game.

It is more a testament to Green’s basketball intelligence and experience, as he’s quite proficient at sneaking around teammates as they push the rim to provide a backup option if they can’t get an angle to the basket. From there, they just have to feed it back to him and offer some sort of blockade as Green lines up his triple. His timing on those plays is impeccable, as he’s always in the middle of curling around whomever has the ball right as they see him coming. That way, he’s never waiting too long to receive the pass. His teammates are always aware of his location.

The Danny Green Cut

When he’s not sneaking behind teammates as a safety pin for when defenders converge, he’s cutting baseline to baseline and quietly floating into openings around the corners. His silence is often deafening. One minute his man thinks he’s got him, the next minute he’s loading up a pocket three-ball.

He’s so proficient at it, Rivers even has a term for the way Green gets open in the corners. “It’s called The Danny Green Cut,” Rivers said after the victory. “So, clearly he probably does it better than everybody. I mean, he probably gets two or three a game where he’s just dead open from movement. I mean, the one in the first half, just genius. It was a read and guy was still standing in the opposite corner. He didn’t know Danny had gone. He has a knack for it. You know, I’m really hoping all our other guys see it because it is obviously instinctive. But, it is probably something you can teach, as well. So, I’m hoping our other guys are seeing him do it.”

“We’ll keep winning and you guys keep talking about the jump shots.”

Ben Simmons has been getting his jumper out the mud a lot more than usual lately. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his team is playing teams like the Rockets every night right now. But, he’s giving Sixers fans who refuse nuanced basketball discourse what they want. It hasn’t been for three-point attempts. But, he’s been a lot more liberal in casting up midrange faders out of the post. The irony is that he’s actually comfortable attempting such difficult looks. But, he won’t take the open ones. To be fair, some might argue that the open jumper is psychologically more difficult than those that are contested, given that there’s nothing in your way to impede shot-making. Fans and media, alike, harp on the jumper endlessly. Everyone has their takes on the importance of him taking them. I’ve always resided on the side of him not taking shots he’s uncomfortable with being better for the team. But, if he’s comfortable with those, by all means let them fly.

Rivers was dismissive of Simmons’ recent uptick in jump-shooting after the game, although that wasn’t a deviation from his previous sentiments about the topic this season. “I’ll let you guys talk about all the jump-shooting. I think you guys love that subject,” Rivers said. “I’ll let you stay on it. We’ll keep winning and you guys keep talking about the jump shots. But, I don’t care. I mean, he works on everything. He really does. We’re working on a little right and left hand hooks, fade-aways. But, I just want him to keep playing. I don’t worry about his shot selection right now. For the most part, he takes pretty good ones.”

Out Of Nowhere

Matisse Thybulle’s help defense is absolutely insane. He’s become incredibly proficient at identifying the appropriate times to gamble on selling out in help. Your eyes don’t even process him sneaking away from his man to come affect the play. But, he just swoops into the action out of nowhere and blocks shot attempts, deflects passes, or generates loose balls with poke-aways. It isn’t a once-in-a-while occurrence, either. He’s disrupting the opposition more often than not when he’s on the floor. That proficiency, that consistency, that tendency, is why he’s a strong candidate for All-Defensive First Team. Against a team like the Rockets, Thybulle can salivate as he takes candy from a collective baby.

Second Half

Joel Embiid should’ve had a handful more assists than he had when all was said and done in this game. He was as good at maneuvering double-teams as he’s been all season, and he was making crafty passes for his teammates, too. There were a couple of plays in the third quarter where Embiid leveraged his improved passing ability to draw helpers towards the teammate he was staring down, only to rifle it to someone else who was left open by the help rotation.

That won’t always be something he’ll be able to pull off, especially against teams that aren’t 16-49, but it’s an indicator of how good of a passer he’s become and how improved his vision out of double-teams has become. He’s still a negative playmaker (averages more turnovers than assists). But, one of the most important developments for the Sixers in 2020-21 has been his ability to punish the opposition for sending double-teams his way.

Balancing The Second Unit Ball-Handling Duties

One of the more interesting storylines to watch come playoff time is the balance of ball-handling duties between Shake Milton and George Hill within the second unit. Rivers has made it very clear that he wants to groom Milton into a ball-handler. His decision to give Milton the keys to that offense for most of the season and his willingness to empower him through high praise to reporters has made that undeniable. But, Milton has sometimes stalled the offense by over-dribbling on the perimeter without much of a purpose. Against a team like the Rockets, you can look past it. Their youth is reflected in their defensive product. But when that happens against playoff teams, turnovers are almost certainly going to ensue when defenses key on him.

With that said, it doesn’t make a ton of sense that Rivers is still opting to give Milton a heavy load of ball-handling duties even with Hill on the roster. Ideally, you balance that load out because you want to get Hill prepared for that come playoff time. On the other hand, you want to get Milton used to playing off-ball, as well. I don’t really see the purpose of trading for Hill if he’s going to assume off-ball play with Milton maintaining the role he’s had all season.

I understand the desire to build consistency with Milton. But, you traded useful pieces to get a guy who you’re not really using to his fullest. Now maybe that adjustment is made if it proves a problem come the postseason. But, it feels like Hill is being thrown into the fire if he’s not being consistently used as a handler at that point.

“When those guys have confidence in you, that builds confidence within yourself.”

Tyrese Maxey has become quite a specialist when it comes to finishing around the rim. When he’s not knifing into the lane and shielding the ball for finishes over bigger defenders, he’s finishing off the wrong foot with the help of the glass. His potential shows through on a nightly basis, and it’s going to be quite interesting to track his standing with the team this offseason. It’s bled into his outside game, as Maxey has been letting it fly from deep without hesitation lately. He was getting excellent lift from beyond the arc against the Rockets, and he was making them pay for giving too much space.

According to the rookie guard, his teammates inspire much of the confidence he has to go out and be that aggressive. “Joel’s been telling me, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball. I mean, you work so hard. Why would you pass up shots?’ And that comes from everybody,” Maxey said after the victory. “Every time I shoot and miss or make, Tobias will yell, ‘Tyrese, you’re a great shooter!’ When those guys have confidence in you, that builds confidence within yourself. So, just working and keep building confidence.”

A Difficult Decision Looms For The Sixers

My suspicion is that he’ll be traded as part of a blockbuster deal this summer. But, that’s a fascinating storyline to follow. The Sixers need to be calculated in deciding what Maxey’s future holds with them. If they feel like their window resides in the next handful of years, they have to consider moving him to solidify their core of star-level players. But, the risk there is that his development follows an accelerated timeline. Maybe he becomes a star. No one really knows what that likelihood is, no matter how confident their diagnoses of his potential may be. If they feel like they have more room than a few years, then it becomes an increasingly easy decision. I’m glad my job doesn’t reside in making such determinations.

The Sixers (45-21) will host the New Orleans Pelicans (30-36) on Friday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.