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

The Philadelphia 76ers (8-4) took the court to square off with the Miami HEAT (4-5) to wrap up their two-game home series. It was both teams’ first games in the aftermath of the league-shifting James Harden trade. Harden ultimately landed in Brooklyn. Ben Simmons was the centerpiece in the Sixers’ package for the former MVP. All eyes were on Simmons, who was coming off one of the worst performances of his career in the first matchup with Miami prior to nearly being traded for the Rockets’ guard. In his return from COVID protocol, Shake Milton poured in 31 points. Ben Simmons notched a triple-double, and the Sixers beat the HEAT to complete the sweep, 125-108.

Before we dive into the Thursday night showing, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers’ lineup is beginning to return to normal. All players except Seth Curry (protocol), Vincent Poirier (protocol), and Furkan Korkmaz (left adductor strain) were available to play for Philadelphia. Rivers started Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Prior to the game, Rivers offered some insight into how he would look at being mentioned in trade rumors. “I just know that when I was a bad player, I was never mentioned in trades,” the head coach said. “When I was a really good player, I was mentioned in trades. I looked at it that way. Now, I was never mentioned in a trade for a James Harden. I was never that good. That’s how you should look at it.”

Due mostly to COVID protocols, the HEAT only had Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala, Precious Achiuwa, Gabe Vincent, Chris Silva, and Max Strus available. Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Precious Achiuwa, and Kelly Olynyk. 

First Half

After spending much time guarding Duncan Robinson on Tuesday, Simmons drew primary assignment duties on Tyler Herro from the tip. Before the game, Rivers alluded to the potential adjustment on the defensive end: “We put him [Simmons] in a tough spot. We don’t usually have him guarding guys like Duncan Robinson. He’s not built that way to do that. We decided to do it anyway, it really didn’t work. I thought it hurt Ben in a lot of ways.” Robinson scored 13 points when defended by Simmons on Tuesday, including a pair of four-point opportunities.

Chess, Not Checkers

The decision to start Maxey proved quite brilliant. If you recall in Tuesday’s game, Vincent’s short frame and speed posed tremendous difficulties for the Sixers. Vincent was able to squirm his way past bigger defenders and get to the rim when needed. He was also able to clear screens and create space on the perimeter.

With those physical traits working to his advantage, Vincent was able to hit the Sixers for a career-high 24 points on Tuesday. Rivers opting to start Maxey even with the return of Shake Milton served as a subtle adjustment to counter the pesky Vincent. Maxey was able to maintain speed parallel with Vincent and was able to stay within an arm’s length of him on screens. With Maxey and Milton taking turns on Vincent’s hip, they were able to curtail any attempt the second-year guard made to get hot.

Mike Scott walked off the court gingerly early in the second quarter and went to the locker room. He was diagnosed with left knee soreness and did not return to the game.

Embiid Sits In The Passenger Seat

Joel Embiid looked a bit disinterested in the first half. It’s not really a huge deal since the Sixers led by 15 points and didn’t need his dominance to be successful in the half. But, he was missing free throws, blowing rotations on defense, and generally not active on the offensive end. You can say he’s earned that right after Tuesday’s game. I don’t think it’s harsh to make an observation.

I suppose the contributing factor would be the increase in three-point volume and pace. When the pace picks up, Embiid is less involved on offense because the team is always pushing the speed. With the Sixers’ three-point barrage, there was no call to action for him to wake up and take control.

The difference in this game was Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey. The two guards combined for 32 points on 15 field goal attempts in the first half. Their production from the field made it unjustifiable for Miami to bust out their zone defense, and the Sixer offense was able to flow without problem. Their performances in the first half was a loud reminder that this team’s offense is quite potent in the East when the roster is at full strength. It was a reminder that the fanbase sorely needed.

Second Half

The Sixers’ third quarter performance was a fatal punch to the HEAT and a lesson in offensive principles. Philadelphia continued to separate themselves from Miami by distressing the HEAT interior. The Sixers got into the paint and generated paint scores. ‘Paint scores’, as Doc Rivers has termed them, are any points generated by getting the ball into the paint. They are not necessarily points in the paint. They can be accumulated by three-point makes stemming from drive-and-kicks.

The Sixers did a tremendous job of luring the HEAT defenders into heavy close-outs and then attacking the paint off the dribble. They would then wait for the help rotation before slinging the rock to the opposite side of the court, and the receiver would read and react.

Their flow on that end of the court energized the defense, and the Sixers began pressuring the ball and generating steals in the passing lanes. Ultimately, they pushed a 15-point lead to 25 deep in the third quarter. There will be nights where they can’t make shots, but generating the open looks is pivotal. If you generate enough open looks, they’ll fall, even on off nights. The key is ball movement and activity.

Putting The ‘J’ In Joe

Isaiah Joe continued his torrid shooting, connecting on a quartet of triples in this game. With the way he’s shot the ball, Doc Rivers might have a difficult decision to make when Korkmaz is healthy again. Logically, the decision will likely come down to Joe, Thybulle, and Korkmaz.

Maybe Rivers already has his mind made up, maybe it’s not a difficult decision. But, I think Joe’s upside outweighs Korkmaz’s marginal short-term advantage in experience and tangible value. After the game, Rivers dismissed the idea that a decision would have to be made: “There’s never any complication when guys are playing well. You know, there’s room.”

“I control coming in with my mindset in practice and on the floor.” 

Ben Simmons notched his second triple-double of the season late in the fourth frame. It was the 30th of his career. Simmons is never going to be the sexy scorer that Harden is, but very few stars will ever be that. His value is dominating individual matchups on the defensive end, and the statistics show that he is up to that challenge.

His stardom on offense is generating points for everyone else. I would be disingenuous in saying that he’s shown improvement as a scorer to this point in his career. But, that doesn’t mean the overall player isn’t a star. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t contribute to winning either. If you want to look at him through the one-dimensional lens of ‘how many points does he score?’, be my guest. A nuanced discussion would look at the player, as a whole. That player, as it turns out, is a star.

After the affair, Simmons addressed the trade rumors: “I come in here to work every day. My job is to get better and get wins. All the other stuff I can’t control. I control coming in with my mindset in practice and on the floor. I had a great time tonight. I’m blessed. I get to play the game I love every day at the highest level in the world. There’s far worse things going on in the world, so I’m in a blessed position. If you told me I would never play the game again, that’d be a different story.”

When asked if he enjoyed being in Philadelphia, Simmons laughed and said, “of course”.

Shaking Off The Rust

Shake Milton scored 31 points off the bench. That is a refreshing performance by a member of the second unit, as the Sixers have struggled to average more than 32 points per game as a whole bench over the last three seasons. Danny Green said Thursday that he felt this team’s bench was a strength. Milton’s barrage later that evening was a microcosm of the depth the Sixers added this offseason.

The Sixers (9-4) took care of the Heat (4-6), winning 125-108 on Thursday. Philadelphia will travel to Memphis for a matchup with the Grizzlies (5-6) on Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 8 PM. You can watch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.