Seth Curry vs Fred VanVleet

The Philadelphia 76ers played their first game in the Wells Fargo Center since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Thursday. After getting boat-raced by the Raptors earlier in the week in Toronto, the Sixers returned the favor with a 12-point victory. 

Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Raptors continued to be without Pascal Siakam (left shoulder surgery rehabilitation), Chris Boucher (surgery on dislocated left middle finger), and Khem Birch (health and safety protocol). Yuta Watanabe also missed the game due to a left calf strain.

Nick Nurse started Freddie Gillespie, Goran Dragic, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Precious Achiuwa.

The Sixers were without Matisse Thybulle (sore right shoulder) and Grant Riller (torn left meniscus).

Riller tore the meniscus during Monday’s game. On Wednesday, the team announced that he would have surgery on the knee and be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

Bearing in mind that Joel Embiid did not play in the preseason opener, Thursday marked his first real game since Game 7. While his mid-range game needed some time to adjust, his two-man game with Seth Curry did not miss a beat over the summer. Curry struggled to capitalize on open looks early. But, Embiid was finding the shooter at the slightest sign of discomfort out of the post.

The second fold of that chemistry is that Curry’s aptitude in relocating off the ball came naturally. Without Simmons in the mix, the Embiid-Curry two-man game is going to have to be a featured cog of the offense for the Sixers this season. Given Curry’s lack of athletic dynamism, the ball-handling duties elsewhere will have to be limited to maintain the energy of the two-man game with Embiid. But, Rivers has talked about the gift of continuity from last season’s team often during this season’s training camp. With gaping holes elsewhere, that is a weapon in which the Sixers can feel some degree of comfort.

A Tale Of Two Back-Courts

Shake Milton really struggled against Toronto’s physicality early in the game. Even pushing out of the back-court off of the inbound pass, he was unable to control the pace. Scottie Barnes and other lengthy, athletic Raptors had no problem cutting off his angles to open spaces and leveraging physicality to thwart his attempts to push by them.

While Milton struggled with the starting unit, Tyrese Maxey looked much more comfortable leading the reserves. In fact, to the shock of the entire planet, the Sixers found an all-bench unit featuring Maxey, Korkmaz, Niang, and Drummond that was actually effective. Their success was born from Maxey’s pace and confidence. He controlled the ball and played with direction and speed — and the other four Sixers on the court responded to that leadership. 

As a result of Maxey’s control and pace, the Sixers didn’t struggle with turnovers like they did on Monday. They also benefitted from a plethora of open three-point looks. Philly committed just four turnovers in the first half, and they connected on twelve triples. That was the foundation of a sixteen-point lead at halftime.

Second Half

Furkan Korkmaz started the second half in place of Danny Green. Rivers didn’t play Curry or Green in the second half of Monday’s game. So, he seems to be toying with different combinations in preseason.

Not Your Average Joe

You won’t find a Sixer on the fringe of the rotation who wants that trust more than Isaiah Joe does. The second-year wing is fighting his South side off on both ends, too. He has no conscience as a shooter. But, you already knew that. He plays with a degree of fluidity that blends in with that of the more established wings on the roster. The defensive side of the ball is where he’s set himself apart, though. Joe held his ground against Toronto’s drivers, denying them their first looks and forcing them to pivot out of their drives to adjust. Perhaps as important as that toughness was his will to fight for loose balls. There was one particularly notable play in the second half in which he chased a 50/50 ball, didn’t get it, returned to the play, and knocked the ball off of a Raptor leg to force a turnover. 

I’m very cold on cliches, but those displays of hunger are how you earn a head coach’s trust. If someone beats Joe to the rotation to start the season, he’ll be right behind them, waiting for his chance. 

Perhaps one of the more underrated parts of Maxey’s play is his motor. It might seem a bit obvious given the pace with which he plays. But, the little things he does away from the ball showcase that it’s more than just foot speed. The second-year guard may be targeted on defense quite often by virtue of his size. But, he’s able to attack consecutive close-outs on the strong side of the floor with control and urgency. There was at least one sequence in the second half in which the Raptors had to second-guess or pass out of threes because he closed in enough to make them uncomfortable.

The Early Returns On Drummond Are Very Good

Drummond continues to inspire confidence in what the Sixers have below Embiid on the depth chart. He was more than capable of duking it out with the imposing Raptors in the paint. Beyond that, he has played with shocking control and finesse as a driver outside of the post. His offensive repertoire goes well beyond scoring, too. He consistently makes cross-court passes that Dwight Howard made once in a blue moon, if ever. You can see that credibility as a passer flourishing into a two-man game with whomever his ball-handler is on any given possession. The early returns suggest that he’ll be a steal on a minimum contract. If he can adapt his game to build chemistry with all of his ball-handlers, the Sixers might have one of the best value free agent acquisitions of the offseason.

The Sixers will host the Brooklyn Nets on Monday. It will be their third of four preseason games. You can catch the action on ESPN 2.