The Philadelphia 76ers (9-7) visited the Portland Trail Blazers (8-8) on Saturday night. It was the fourth stop on Philly’s six-game road trip. The Sixers were looking to build on Thursday’s win over the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers wanted to push their own winning streak to three games. Damian Lillard scored a season-high 39 points to send the Sixers back to the L-column, 118-111.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Matisse Thybulle returned from his stint under the league’s health and safety protocol, leaving Joel Embiid as the only Sixer currently sidelined for that reason. According to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, Thybulle would be on a minute restriction in his return.
Danny Green was unavailable as he continues to nurse a tight left hamstring.
Aaron Henry and Grant Riller (Two-Ways), as well as Jaden Springer, were away from the team on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Ben Simmons, still not mentally ready to play, remained out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Georges Niang, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond
All active Blazers were available.
Chauncey Billups started Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Jusuf Nurkic.
There was a gorgeous Maxey drive to the cup in the first quarter that appeared to be interfered with by Andre Drummond before falling off the rim. It was hard to tell whether the Drummond got his hands on the ball in real time, but it got me thinking — there have been an unusual number of plays in which Drummond has interfered with or nearly interfered with the ball as it hung on the rim. It could be an issue of focus, which has vacillated for Drummond during this stretch of increased role without Embiid. Alternatively, it could be that Drummond is constantly anticipating rebounds when shots go up and chases the board too early. Whatever the case, it’s a bizarre trend that is foreign to these eyes.
Matisse Thybulle’s off-ball defense was very impressive in bursts against Portland’s elusive and multi-skilled guards. There were sequences in the first half in which Lillard had to reject screens because Thybulle top-locked him and denied his path to curling into catches. But even then, Lillard would flare out and veer back to try to free himself. Thybulle wasn’t sleeping, though. He was quite disciplined, exhibited strong conditioning, and did not appear to miss much of a beat.
He did have some trouble navigating ball screens, though. Unable to fight off the screener in quick order, there were a few occasions in which the likes of CJ McCollum or other Portland guards were able to peel off the screen and step into gaps for open, rhythm jumpers.
Charles Bassey continues to earn trust from his coaching staff. While he showcased more of that impressive rim protection we saw against Denver, it was on the offensive end of the floor that he really impressed me on Saturday. He didn’t do anything that would show up on box scores. Rather, it was his comfort and fluidity on that end. He seamlessly read ball screens and slipped them to open himself up for passes from the ball-handler. Even if the pass wasn’t there, he was stretching his roll so as to help maintain spacing for his teammates. There was also a play in which Bassey caught a pass on the roll and knocked down a short jumper on the move.
While Bassey has impressed as a deterrent at the rim, he wasn’t quite able to adapt to Portland’s strengths on offense. He wasn’t playing up to the level of screens for the Blazers’ guards, and they were having no problems getting downhill in the middle of the floor as a result. Rivers lauded Bassey’s knack for calling out coverages on defense. But there was evidently a disconnect on that end on Saturday.
Playing through some nonsensical officiating, Tobias Harris did an admirable job of playing outside of his comfort zone in the first half. Rather than being a ball-stopper by dribbling the clock away or looking to score every time down the floor, he acted as connective tissue in the middle of the floor. He was catching the ball at the elbows and then running down the zipper to draw defenders out of the paint before dishing to his big men on the floor for dunks. The playmaking effort wasn’t always effective — he had 5 turnovers through three quarters — but it served as a ‘break in case of emergency’ valve to help connect both sides of the offense when things stalled. He’s not Draymond Green, but those reads are simple ways Harris can be effective without having the ball in a half-court environment.
Harris’ fit with the Sixers has raised skepticism throughout his tenure because of his need to have the ball in his hands to be effective. Even as a three-point shooter, he’s not really the quick-trigger type off the catch (although, 57 percent of his made threes are assisted, ranking in the 97th percentile of NBA players). But, he laced a pair of triples off the catch in the third quarter. While perhaps meaningless on paper, that’s a proficiency that would benefit Joel Embiid tremendously.
While mostly a finished product, if Harris could take a step as a catch-and-shoot forward — or even slightly modify his mindset as a scorer — it would afford Embiid the requisite spacing to live in the paint if he dedicated himself to doing so. Harris can achieve a balance between getting to his sweet spots in the post and being a quick trigger off the catch on the perimeter. For the sake of the team playing its most efficient brand of basketball, it’s a project that should be worth consideration. The ask isn’t to transform into Bojan Bogdanovic. Rather, it’s to be a bit more liberal in willingness to let it rip off the catch instead of finding the most efficient way into the lane or setting up camp in the post.
While we’re on the topic of Tobias Harris, it felt like the Sixers were forcing his isolations down viewers’ throats throughout the third quarter. That’s not his game, especially when you give him enough time and space to calculate a plethora of decisions with the ball in his hands. Such a plan was even more baffling when he was quite effective as a scorer and playmaker off the dribble on the second side of the floor when the ball swung his way. That’s partially Harris for not recognize what was working and redirecting his teammates. It’s also on Rivers for not going to that mechanism within the offense more when the Sixers were getting production out of it.
Furkan Korkmaz’s touch from deep has completely dissipated. Whether it’s a rut resulting from over-exposure in an elevated role or just regression to the norm, there’s little reason for giving him minutes over Isaiah Joe in the fourth quarters of these games. That isn’t to say that Joe is a better player than Korkmaz. Rather, it’s a matter of gambling with the hot hand.
Korkmaz isn’t seeing the ball go half-way down and pop out. His shots are bruising the creases between the backboard and the rim or falling woefully short on the front of the hoop. He has no idea where the ball is going right now. You don’t continue to play the same hand when you’re on a cold spell. You re-shuffle the deck of cards and try to change the luck. It’s unreasonable to expect Joe to step in and be a positive defender and a playmaking threat on offense. But it’s not wild to expect him to knock in a couple of threes in a short stretch while the starter he’s relieving is recharging.
I’m going to write on this more in the coming days, but my goodness does Tyrese Maxey continue to impress. His touch around the rim is unlikely anything this city has seen in quite a while. And now he’s getting to the line more. It used to be that he never got whistles. Now, he’s the beneficiary of some extremely generous calls. It’s a product of his development as a driver. Maxey stopped fading away from contact. Now, he’s going right at the chests of the defenders in his way. On Saturday night, he took 9 free throws. He converted all of them.
The Sixers (9-8) will visit the Sacramento Kings (6-11) on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 10 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV.