Sixers-Pistons

The Philadelphia 76ers (2-2) hosted the Detroit Pistons (0-3) on Thursday night. Philadelphia was looking to right its wrongs from a non-competitive lost at the hands of the New York Knicks on Tuesday. The Pistons were looking to claim their first victory of the season. Joel Embiid dropped 30 points and recorded 18 boards to send the Pistons packing, 110-102.

Before we get to the action, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Detroit was without the services of 2021 first overall pick Cade Cunningham, who is on G-League assignment as he recovers from a sprained right ankle. Isaiah Livers and Chris Smith were also unavailable as they tend to their own G-League assignments.

Dwane Casey started Killian Hayes, Josh Jackson, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, and Isaiah Stewart.

Philadelphia was without Jaden Springer and Aaron Henry, who are on G-League assignments. Grant Riller, who continues to recover from a torn meniscus in his left knee, was unavailable. Ben Simmons continues to be unavailable as he tends to a personal matter.

Shake Milton, who missed the first four games of the season to nurse a sprained right ankle, was available to make his season debut.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

The Sixers have started this season very intent on activating Seth Curry as the starting unit’s primary ball-handler in the half-court setting. He’s effective enough as the featured guard in that environment, even if he’s not supremely fast. The puzzling angle is that Curry is far better than Maxey is playing off the ball. Further, Maxey is ball dominant and devastatingly quick when he’s pushing the rim. Given Maxey’s pronounced struggles at spacing the floor away from the rock, it’s befuddling that the Sixers haven’t leaned more into Maxey as the handler. Such an adjustment doesn’t change the ceiling for the personnel on the court, but it theoretically raises the ceiling of what the sum of the parts can do.

After resisting sustained activity in the paint for most of the first four games of the season, Embiid was much more willing to play out of the post and face-up. One of the best indicators of Embiid’s conditioning and health is when he catches beyond the arc, throws a shot fake, and attacks the close-out for a dunk. In addition to being more agreeable to physicality in the paint, Embiid was driving the ball and getting to the rim. However, Embiid did grimace a bit as he made his way back on defense. The knee soreness isn’t going to resolve itself overnight. The big man may even have to bite the bullet and sit a game or two. But, he certainly looked more like his normal self against Detroit. Perhaps that has as much to do with the unimposing size on Detroit’s roster as anything. His response to the athleticism and size of the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night will be a better indicator of where the truth lies.

Rivers played with a lineup of Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond. The product made Mr. Naismith roll over in his grave. 

Such a lineup might actually produce something if two of the non-Drummond players weren’t egregiously passive. Milton’s passivity partially results from his just trying to get his game legs back under him. But, Thybulle has been absolutely dreadful on offense to start this season. His lack of confidence catching the ball beyond the arc is alarming, especially since no one is within an arm’s length of contesting him. Thybulle is playing hot potato and shooing the rock to the closest teammate. If he’s not doing that, he’s waiting too long to make a decision and attacking close-outs. The problem there is that he’s neither an assertive dribbler nor a confident passer. So, those decisions are yielding turnovers more often than not. 

At the end of the day, Thybulle simply must grow into a respectable three-point shooter. He’s an All-NBA-level team defender. But, his ball defense is not good enough to negate the fact that his most obvious offensive development is improved recognition of and action upon opportunities to cut to the rim when the ball isn’t in his hands. 

Despite a hideous first half, the Sixers found themselves leading by 6 at the break. That credit goes mostly to Embiid. He absolutely bullied Detroit’s bigs (Luka Garza, in particular) from every spot within fifteen feet of the basket in the second quarter. The big fella dropped in 19 points and 12 boards before intermission.

Second Half

Danny Green has committed a number of mind-boggling fouls to start this season. He’s been caught reaching in at unnecessary moments. He’s been whistled for making body contact on shots in ways that won’t hinder or prevent the field goal. Green has also executed close-outs in reckless fashion. Perhaps his body is trying to compensate for some slowness as he ages. But, he’s too experienced and too smart to excuse such ridiculous fouls. 

Maxey leveraged his speed and body control quite well to convert a couple of layups slashing to the basket in the third quarter. That wasn’t something he did with consistency in the first four games of the season. But throughout this matchup with the Pistons, the second-year guard was extremely comfortable gliding to the rim and using his best weapons to his advantage. I’m not particularly fond of the way he leaves the ball exposed when he rises for layups. He leaves himself susceptible to being blocked by instinctual rim protectors. That’s something that has actually happened quite a bit in the early stages of this campaign. It’s a tendency that should be less of a concern with time if his vertical athleticism improves. But for the purposes of Thursday night, it didn’t matter. He was far too quick for any Piston to keep up with him anyway.

Seth Curry is an aesthetically pleasing rhythm dribbler when he dances with defenders in one-on-one situations. It’s not particularly fluid from my point of view. In fact, it’s quite shifty. He literally dances. But, it’s fun to watch him cross over at the very last moment and then cross back because his hips can’t quite keep up with the ball to effectively change directions. His dribbling pattern might be something that he picked up playing street ball in his younger days, because I don’t know any coach who would teach such herky-jerky dribbling techniques. Nonetheless, perhaps the younger Curry brother has a post-NBA career with And1.

The Sixers found themselves holding a 22-point advantage in the fourth quarter. Of course, as anyone who follows the team closely knows, no lead is safe. Detroit went on a 16-1 run to make Philly sweat towards the end of the affair before Philly eventually re-established command of the game. It’s certainly not out of the ordinary for the Sixers’ bench to not be able to hold a lead down. But even when the starters returned to stabilize the game, their offense struggled. Similar to the Brooklyn game (another game that featured a 16-1 run by the opposition), the Sixers lacked a closer to get them out of the mud down the stretch. It’s not going to get any easier; the Pistons, after all, are winless. So unless someone takes an unexpected step or a significant trade is made, this is going to be a problem all season long. It’s a weakness that all opponents will look to capitalize upon at the ends of games. It’s why the Sixers will rarely have a lead that feels completely safe.

Fast Break Points

Shake Milton had a perfectly nice season debut. He notched 13 points on 10 field goal attempts, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5:1 in 16 minutes off of Philadelphia’s bench. 

The Sixers (3-2) will be back in action on Saturday when they host the Atlanta Hawks (3-2). Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV.