The Philadelphia 76ers (22-12) hosted the Indiana Pacers (15-17) on Monday night. It was the second time the teams met this season. The Sixers were looking to rebound from a disappointing, low-effort loss to the lowly Cavaliers on Saturday night. The Pacers were looking to end their three-game losing streak. In a shocker for the ages, the Sixers’ bench put forth a 67-point effort, and the Sixers demolished the Pacers, 130-114.
Before we get to what we saw, some notes.
Tobias Harris missed his second consecutive game with a right knee contusion. Mike Scott started in his place.
The Pacers were without Jeremy Lamb, who is recovering from a sore left knee. Caris LeVert (recovering from surgery to treat renal cell carcinoma) and TJ Warren (stress fracture in left foot) remained out, as well. Nate Bjorkgren started Malcom Brogdon, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner.
Whatever Defensive Player of the Year campaign Myles Turner thought he had looked laughable early in this game. Embiid was able to force his way down to the low post and put Turner in no man’s land without too much taxation on his stamina. Despite Doc Rivers deeming him “very questionable” prior to the game, Embiid’s ankle looked quite healthy in the pivot. He was able to get virtually whatever he wanted around the rim, and Turner was a frequent prisoner to his fakes and pivots. Embiid’s footwork in the low post cleared space for him to rise for easy finishes, and the MVP candidate converted the easy opportunities.
After the game, Embiid made it known that he respects Turner. But, he wasn’t going to hold back the truth. “I say this respectfully,” Embiid said after the win, “But that’s a matchup I’ve dominated since I got to the league.”
The Sixers, one could argue, are a top-five defensive team in the league. But, the thing about defense is that it’s not confined to the half-court setting. While Philadelphia’s half-court defense is quite strong, their transition defense is sorely lacking. Often times, it is effort. They will commit their fair share of live-ball turnovers and fail to get back in time to recover. Now, there are occasions when opponents will take control of the ball so far ahead of the Sixers that there’s no point in pushing it and risking injury.
But, there are occasions in which opponents are pushing the pace in transition in a 3-on-1 scenario and the other four Sixers are standing in the front-court with their hands on their hips. Of course, you’re not going to stand strong against every transition attack. But, the Sixers need to do their half-court defense justice and give themselves a chance in the transition department. For a team with a differential of only +3 (average outcome of Sixers games is them winning by 3), that transition defense could certainly make the difference in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Reserves Put On A Show
A rare night is it when the bench is scoring in bunches. Philly’s bench put together 36 points in the first half. To put some significance behind that number, the reserves average 31.3 points per game. That ranks third worst in the entire league. Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz were the primary contributors from the bench.
Milton found the Sixth Man mentality that I felt he had been missing for some time. Rather than hesitating and looking to make plays that were a few levels above his development, Milton just looked to score the ball. But, he didn’t force anything. Crucial to his output was that he scored as dictated by the defense. He happily pressured the lane with quick-burst attacks and forced Indiana’s interior to stop him. If the Pacers gave him space, he was perfectly comfortable with elevating for soft jumpers from all over the floor.
Korkmaz contributed a quartet of triples. But, I wasn’t as impressed by that as I was by what he did to create those opportunities. Korkmaz found himself in the correct positions to create deflections and intercept passes within the half-court defense. Those live-ball turnovers generated numerous transition opportunities for Philadelphia, and Korkmaz was rewarded for his efforts on defense when teammates made the extra passes.
As a whole, the second unit did a tremendous job of generating transition opportunities with deflections and synchronous defensive rotations. If their offensive output is going to stagnate, that’s part of the expectation given the limitations of the group. But, the defense has to be passable, and it was in the first half.
“So, every single game I got to go out there even if I’m not one hundred percent.”
Embiid appeared to be walking a bit gingerly towards the end of the first half. He did tweak an ankle in the game against the Cavaliers and, as mentioned previously, was questionable for this game. With a seventeen-point halftime lead, you hoped he could receive some of that ‘old school load management’ that Rivers has popularized after blowout victories this season. After the victory, Embiid talked about his ankle. “[The ankle was] pretty sore,” Embiid said. “But, I like to make myself available to my teammates, even if it’s not all the way there. If there’s a chance, that’s what I want to do, especially for the rest of this season because that number-one seed is very important for me and for us. We need to get that number-one seed. So, every single game I got to go out there even if I’m not one hundred percent.”
The Sixers came out noticeably flat early in the third quarter. They allowed a triple and a three-point play in the first minute. It would’ve been an 8-0 run to start the third, as Turner had a wide-open look sneaking backdoor for a layup that he inexplicably botched. Joel Embiid secured the rebound, but that was enough for Doc Rivers.
“I asked them, ‘Why are we changing what we’re doing?’.”
The head coach called a timeout just a minute into the third frame. Whatever he said clearly touched a nerve, as it was the turning point in the game for the Sixers. They effectively knocked the Pacers out after that moment, closing the third quarter on a 33-16 run.
After the victory, Rivers spoke about his usage of the early timeout. “I was so upset the other night, I thought we had no space,” Rivers said. “Tonight, we spaced the floor, we got to the paint, we made passes to each other. The third quarter, when I called the timeout, I asked them, ‘Why are we changing what we’re doing?’. In the first three or four possessions, it was crowded again. Then, we got it back out. You could see Joel running down the floor. Space keeps it wide. I just thought we passed the ball to each other a lot, as well.”
“Just kick it as quick as you can because any time they put two to the ball, it means somebody’s open.”
As the Sixers turned this one into a laugher, and Milton continued to wound the Pacers, Indiana elected to trap him when the ball was in his hands. Even as the intensity dies down in a blowout victory, there’s never a bad time for exposure to new environments that defenses pose. Milton likely won’t see too many doubles on this team. But, as he develops and improves, defenses may have to throw those schemes at him from time to time. Learning to split double-teams or make quick passes to break traps are certainly valuable for the young guard. He looked a touch uncomfortable, occasionally taking a bit too long to make passes or decisions, but I thought he handled that pressure perfectly fine for it being his first time doing so in a game-speed environment.
Milton offered some insight into the traps after the game. “We’ve seen it before,” Milton told me. “The easiest way to do it is just throw the flow pass. Just kick it as quick as you can because any time they put two to the ball, it means somebody’s open. So, once we recognized what they were doing, it was kind of easy to deal with.”
It is a rarity that a victory is so decisive in this era of Sixers basketball. The Sixers will take them as often as they can get them. In their final game prior to the All-Star break, the Sixers (23-12) will host the Utah Jazz (27-7). Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.