Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The 6-2 Philadelphia 76ers were back in action on Thursday night. This time, they visited Detroit to visit the Pistons (1-6). The Sixers wanted to push their winning streak to five games. The Pistons were interested in breaking a two-game losing streak. Tyrese Maxey shined on his 21st birthday as the Sixers won their fifth consecutive game, 109-98.

Before we get to the action, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Tobias Harris (health and safety protocol) and Danny Green (tight left hamstring). Furkan Korkmaz (right wrist soreness) and Isaiah Joe (h/s protocol). Grant Riller remained out as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Aaron Henry (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer were away from the team as they tend to G-League assignments. Ben Simmons remained out due to personal reasons.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and Joel Embiid.

The Pistons were without Isaiah Livers (right foot injury) and Chris Smith (left knee injury).

Dwane Casey started Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, and Isaiah Stewart.

First Half

Boy, did the Sixers ever get off to a slow start in this one. They looked every bit like a team playing a lottery-hopeful in their building on the second night of a back-to-back. ESPN’s box score indicated that Embiid did not attempt a field goal in his first nine minutes of play. While the eye test indicated that that was a glitch in ESPN’s data, Embiid certainly did not look like a star trying to dominate a game. The big fella struggled to impose his physical will on the Pistons early, acquiescing to heightened ball pressure and lacking the focus needed to avoid mistakes that he had improved upon since Rivers arrived.

Embiid has certainly had a rough go of shooting the ball to start this season. Part of that, as he mentioned on Wednesday, is likely growing pains of getting comfortable with the league’s new ball. But shot selection and shot difficulty play into matters, too.

His touch didn’t just leave him to such a pronounced level after an MVP-caliber season. Right now, Embiid is trying to figure out the new ball with live game reps. Perhaps he feels pressure to get a feel for the rock fast, so he’s chucking shots as often as reasonably possible even if they’re not good looks. Perhaps the knee discomfort is still affecting him. The part that is outside of his control is what the defense is showing him. Right now, opposing defenses know that half the battle is limiting Embiid. So, he’s only seeing double-teams.

All of those things — struggles with the new ball, poor shot selection, and shot difficulty — are contributing to the big guy’s cold start to the season.

Those early struggles were infectious, as three of the other four starters struggled to find a groove. The reason the Sixers didn’t find themselves against the wall early was, of course, Seth Curry. He continued his scorching hot start to the season, registering 16 points in the first quarter. But beyond Curry, the Sixers looked lethargic in the early goings. The extra efforts that won them Wednesday night’s game against the Bulls weren’t there on Thursday in the first quarter. The Pistons kept pace just by outworking the Sixers.

The tides changed a bit when Rivers put Paul Reed on the floor with Andre Drummond. Both had fresher legs, with the latter tapping into the fight like a super-charged bull. That injection of energy empowered Philly to take control of the offensive glass in a way that the starters simply could not. That effort on the offensive glass afforded the Sixers extra looks from the perimeter, and they started to reel in the game. 

Reed’s energy went beyond the glass. He showcased some impressive awareness as a power forward within Rivers’ offense away from the ball:

On the surface, it’s a simple backdoor read that allows the springy second-year big to cut to the rim for a feed and dunk. But, it speaks to how the personnel on the floor have bought into Rivers’ emphasis on cutting within the offense. That Drummond was even in a position to make that play speaks both to his under-rated capacity as a passer and Rivers’ recognition of the veteran big’s ability to serve as connective tissue within the second unit’s offense.

That side pick-and-roll and dump-off out of the short roll, as simple as it looks, requires some offensive dynamism that the Sixers have never had out of their backup bigs in the Embiid era. They have a dominant scorer anchoring their starting lineup, and they have a playmaker who affords them flexibility within their second unit offense. 

Shake Milton deserves a lot of credit for picking up the second unit offense, as well. He’s still leaving most of his triples short on the rim. But, he looks increasingly comfortable as a combo guard with each passing game. Rivers has said on numerous occasions that he doesn’t think his team has a pure point guard. That’s certainly true right now and probably true in the future. Right now, Milton is extremely effective navigating ball screens and balancing midrange jumpers with attacks at the rim. While he has certainly stepped up his game in that regard, he can thank Drummond for being an excellent screener. That’s yet another way Drummond has really helped Philly early in this season. A significant source of offense that doesn’t include Embiid, Curry, or Maxey is just letting Milton snake ball screens from Drummond and create offense once he clears those picks. 

Second Half

Detroit’s length bothered the Sixers in the third quarter on Thursday. Whether it was Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Milton, or other Sixers, the likes of Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Cade Cunningham, Jerami Grant, or other Pistons pressured Philly’s passing lanes. The Sixers were having problems resetting the offense with passes out to the perimeter because they couldn’t see around outstretched Pistons caving in on them in the paint. There were also a few instances in which the initiating ball-handler turned the rock over on Piston deflections. Those transition opportunities — and Detroit’s offensive rebounds — gave the lowly Pistons new life while the Sixers tried to pull away.

Fans have fired Doc Rivers on 11 different occasions this season, but he deserves credit for his adjustments on Thursday. He started both halves with the small-ball lineup and then immediately veered to an ultra big lineup with Paul Reed at power forward in the second unit. When he flipped the switch to the big lineup in the second half, the Sixers immediately took command of the defensive glass and finished defensive possessions on the first shot or forced turnovers. Limiting Detroit to one look per possession, the second unit was able to build the lead before the closing unit was inserted.

It was quite the night for Tyrese Maxey, who turned 21 on Thursday. He was noticeably comfortable launching threes, and he was extremely efficient in his scoring (20 points on 12 field goal attempts, with 2 free throws). But beyond that, he produced an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5:1 (3:1 for a guard is very good). His aptitude as a team defender was especially impressive on Thursday.

Maxey is beginning to develop a knack for deflections (given the defensive characteristics of this team, not surprising at all). He’s also making strides as a team defender with his IQ. There was a play early in the fourth quarter in which Maxey forced a turnover with a late double on Grant out of the post, triggering a Philly fast break. At his size, Maxey’s defensive proficiency hinges on his IQ developing and his endurance. Not only does he have to be one of the smartest defenders on the court to make up for his lack of length, but he has to be able to maintain a low stance to bother bigger assignments.

Now, go enjoy some adult beverages, young fella!

The Sixers have had a healthy diet of drama to open the season. In a world full of negativity — and a sports world where people always find things to complain about or criticize — the Sixers (7-2) have simply been impressive and pleasantly surprising.

They will travel to Chicago to visit the Bulls (6-2) on Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.