The Sixers (8-8) hosted the Brooklyn Nets (8-9) on Tuesday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Saturday’s loss to the Timberwolves. Brooklyn wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. The Sixers put forth a full team effort to upset the Nets in Ben Simmons’ first game in Philadelphia, 115-106.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Nets were without the services of TJ Warren, who is recovering from a left foot injury.
Yuta Watanabe missed the game with a tight right hamstring.
Alondes Williams is on a Two-Way assignment with Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Jacque Vaughn started Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Royce O’Neale, Kevin Durant, and Nic Claxton.
The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who has a sprained left mid-foot. James Harden was out with a strained right foot. Tyrese Maxey has a small fracture in his left foot and was unavailable.
Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was out.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Montrezl Harrell.
Aside from the early outburst from Claxton, the Sixes did an impressive job of resisting Brooklyn’s efforts to score in the lane. The Nets were able to get movement around the paint, namely from Simmons operating out of the short roll or driving, or Durant flashing to the elbows for catch-and-shoot jumpers. But, if the Nets dared try to push too deep or put the ball on the floor by the basket, the Sixers swarmed them, forcing misses up close or live-ball turnovers. They didn’t just roll over and concede their disadvantage with Embiid out.
The Sixers had a very hot start from three, canning five of their first eight attempts. That shooting helped them turn an early eight-point deficit into an 11-point lead early in the second quarter. Kudos to them for keeping it interesting past the opening tip despite the stardom disparity.
Look no further than Paul Reed for some oomph off the bench. He picked the right time to have the best game of his career, at least offensively. On defense, he made some strong help rotations, stepping up in space to confront potential drivers and forcing them to swing the ball to someone with a better angle. He met feeble layups from the likes of Joe Harris at the rim, spiking them to the hardwoods and. getting Philadelphia out on the run. He didn’t back down from Simmons in isolation or in the post, holding his ground and keeping his arms up to force his former teammate into awkward flip shots over his shoulder. I won’t give him too much praise because it’s not like Simmons’ touch has really gotten substantially better, but Reed’s head was in the game.
Offensively, he’s really begun to slow the game down. Reed plays with direction, pivoting and dribbling the ball to teammates to facilitate DHOs with control. He even pulled off a between-the-legs dribble move similar to the one he pulled out of his pocket at the end of the third quarter in Saturday’s loss to Minnesota.
He still has a ways to go until he’s even close to being someone you trust doing virtually anything with the ball in his hands. But, he doesn’t look like he’s lost anymore. Reed even had some nice rolls to the rim out of screens, catching and pivoting into a shot or something else. He still lacks awareness of his surroundings when he catches on the move, one play standing out in which he missed Simmons helping on the cut and turned the ball right over to him upon catching it. But, baby steps. This is partially what you get when you don’t get much experience through two NBA seasons.
This game would’ve likely been over before the fourth quarter had it not been for Tucker’s defense. Say what you will about his offensive game (and some are saying a lot — more on that below), but his effort on defense was nothing short of miraculous. Even at 37 years of age, he was comfortable matching Durant’s minutes. The perennial MVP candidate had no luck shaking Tucker moving off the ball, leaving efforts to cut fruitless.
Even when he could retrieve the ball, Tucker did a fabulous job of staying in Durant’s air space without fouling, giving him space to land and maintaining verticality on contests while making sure the length he could offer bothered the lanky superstar. Durant still scored 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting, but Tucker did not let him get going in any sort of meaningful way. He simply wore Durant down, which is what his job is. If he does that all season long, I don’t really care what he does on offense.
Aside from Reed having the game of his life, the Sixers won this game on the backs of Melton and Harris. Melton had a phenomenal night shooting the ball, knocking down six triples in total. Melton’s range is slowly expanding and his overall efficiency as a three-point shooter rebounding nicely after a bit of a cold start to the season. He’s starting to get comfortable shooting both off the catch and off the dribble, and he’s taking them from a few steps beyond the arc instead of toeing the line. I don’t quite understand how he struggles to make layups as much as he does, especially given his length and athleticism, but he came up with timely makes over and over again in this game.
Melton’s defense is spectacular in a variety of categories, too. Tonight, his pressure was disruptive, the Nets turning the ball over multiple times because he was able to deflect or intercept floating passes out of the air to secure stops for Philadelphia. He also had some great rotations and last-second efforts at the rim, coming out of nowhere for trailing blocks off the backboard.
The “Likes” wouldn’t be finished without some kudos to Harris, who had his coming-of-age moment in the second half after a brutal first half. Harris tweaked his ankle on a play early in the third quarter. After writhing in pain, he limped off to the locker room. And when it seemed like Harris might be done for the night, he came back out, ready to play.
Whatever he did in the locker room, Harris unlocked his inner closer. He attacked the rim for a one-handed dunk, wrestled for position in the post before executing a handful of moves, and knocked down a triple. He was to the task of answering every big Nets bucket, cashing in one of his own. Harris found a clear extra level, despite battling through hip and ankle injuries, and out-dualed both Durant and Irving.
The boos for Simmons seemed to affect Harris more than the intended target. Harris had an absolutely abhorrent start on both ends of the floor, over-dribbling a would-be decent shot or a drive into nothingness before passing the ball to a teammate. He then tried to isolate on Durant and launch a triple over his outstretched arms, only to sky the ball well short of the basket.
It got no better on defense, Harris neglecting Claxton as he plunged to the rim for short finishes around the cup. He did nothing to block out or even deny the interior to Claxton, forfeiting relatively easy points to the Nets inside before their more dangerous scorers even touched the ball.
It should be getting late for Harrell pretty early already. He had a handful of opportunities for layups or dunks in the first half of this game. He either bobbled the ball out of bounds or missed shots up close. I get that he takes a ton of contact, such is the nature of a big who makes his money battling for scores inside. But, if that’s what his calling card is, and he’s not doing it, what are we doing here?
The Sixers were minus-4 with him on the court in the first half, and plus-10 with Reed in his stead. The eye test was worse than the numbers indicate, the Nets going on significant runs with him on the floor. Much of it has to do with the defensive scheme, the Sixers married to drop coverage with him in the game. That gives silky smooth midrange shooters — something the Nets have in bunches — room to rise out of ball screens. It’s not like he’s a good rebounder, either.
You can even tell Harrell’s lost some of his power. There are times when he catches the ball at the top of the floor, has space to attack off the dribble, and declines the opportunities, instead searching for teammates to work an action with. As recently as last season, Harrell licked his chops at the opportunity to go right at an opposing big. He’s not doing that anymore.
Much has been made of Tucker’s lack of existence on offense in recent games. I personally believe those concerns are far overblown with the team in its current state. He needs to play off someone who can actually facilitate offense, and that’s something that has been painfully lacking since Harden went down.
If it’s still a problem when Harden returns, it’s another story. But, for now, all I see is an already-marginal offensive player look even more marginal without his point guard there to set him up. He hasn’t really been taking open shots. Then again, his teammates are basically never looking his way. But, he did airball one of two open corner threes he took. Some like to judge by the binary of whether or not the ball goes in the basket. I’m more comfortable doing that when there’s significant sample size.
The Sixers (9-8) will visit the Charlotte Hornets (4-14) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.