The Sixers (5-1) took the court on Monday looking for their best start since the 2000-01 season. That team, as you know, represented the Eastern Conference in the Finals. The Hornets (2-4) were looking to avoid their third consecutive setback. Courtesy of a big second quarter, the Sixers pulled away in a 118-101 victory over the Hornets.
Before we take a look at what happened on the hardwoods on Monday, some notes.
The Sixers were without Mike Scott and Furkan Korkmaz in this affair. Scott missed his second consecutive contest with a left knee bruise. Korkmaz is recovering from a left groin strain.
The Hornets started Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, and Bismack Biyombo. Cody Zeller remains out with a fractured finger on his left hand.
Earlier in the day, Tobias Harris was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Harris averaged 23.3 points (57.1% FG and 56.3% 3P), 9.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game in the team’s three games last week–a week in which the Sixers went 3-0. Before the game, Doc Rivers expressed tremendous pride in Harris: “It’s just great for everyone. He really puts in the work and so we’re very proud of him. Obviously, as I always say, the individual honor is usually due to team execution. So, that’s what makes me feel good about it.” Rivers also credited Harris for developing his three-point shot and his team for getting him back on track with quick line-drive play when he was previously hesitating with the ball in his hands. The Sixers recognized Harris’ accomplishment, presenting him as the Bell Ringer for their patented pregame ritual.
The Sixers turned up the pace dramatically in the first frame. Embiid was limited to 1 point and made none of his three field goal attempts. Simmons, on the other hand, attempted eight shots. An interesting challenge that has plagued the offense at times throughout the duo’s history together has been balancing field goal attempts between Embiid and Simmons. That is largely a function of pace. When the pace slows, Embiid sees his touches increase. When the pace quickens, Embiid is left trying to play catch up while Simmons pressures the rim with line-drives in transition. Embiid had taken just eleven shots in each of the previous two games prior to Monday’s show. On Monday, he attempted just ten field goals. That trend of fewer field goal attempts for Embiid is something to monitor, especially if it affects his level of engagement and, by nature, his level of play.
A Big Energizer Bunny
Dwight Howard recorded 7 points and 6 rebounds in 7 minutes of play between the first and second quarters. His impact beyond that was quite remarkable. Howard generated a number of second-chance opportunities with 4 offensive rebounds in that stint. Those 4 offensive rebounds resulted in 5 points and 1 turnover. The Sixers capitalized on Howard’s production and were able to contain Charlotte’s push to build on their lead while Embiid took a break. Those moments, collectively, serve as a good example of how plus/minus is a statistic that doesn’t always tell the real story. Howard was a -6 in those seven minutes despite the work he did on the glass.
This iteration of the 76ers is truly a testament to how brilliant of an executive tandem Daryl Morey and Elton Brand can be and just how poor of a job the previous regime did. Morey and Brand made four notable moves last offseason, three of which all came on draft night. They executed two trades to get off bad-fitting pieces without having to overpay dramatically. With Green in for Horford and Curry in for Richardson, the Sixers have tremendous ‘boom’ upside. There are six players on the roster who can legitimately score twenty-or-more points on any given night. They haven’t had that depth in previous seasons.
Now, they can win games if one or two guys are having off nights. Or, they can turn a deficit into a significant lead in a matter of minutes. On Monday, the two offseason trade acquisitions connected on three triples to put the Hornets to sleep before halftime. Those three-point shots, in their sequences of occurrence, helped turn a one-point deficit into a fifteen-point lead. This offense, with its shooting, passing, spacing, and movement, is a deep breath of fresh air. Better than that, it is dangerously potent.
This game was over at halftime, when the Sixers led by 15 points, for all intents and purposes. The Sixers led by as many as 26 points in the fourth frame, and the Hornets were just playing for pride at that point. While the second half lacked a flood of observations, there was an important contrast from ghosts of Sixers past that came to light.
The Load Management Domino Effect
During the Brett Brown regime, the Sixers very rarely had the luxury of executing teams early in games. They would get them down on the ground, but consistently failed to finish them off. Instead, turnovers, offensive stagnancy, and defensive exploitation contributed to blown loads. Even in victory, those blown leads presented a domino effect from time to time.
With Embiid having to come in to restore order, his minutes often rose from 25 or 28 to 34 or 35 for games that the Sixers had well under control. As a result, that led to him having to miss games due to load management. As we all know, the team relies heavily upon Embiid’s availability to be competitive on a nightly basis. So, those situations were far less than ideal. From a human standpoint, those missed games caused Embiid to be disregarded for season awards. Whether he admits it or not, he’s a human. Anyone would be frustrated with that.
Embiid spoke on the new-found luxury of being able to trust his team to hold leads. He said, “It’s gonna be great [when that load management keeps him fresh for the playoffs], especially when it comes to back-to-backs. Nights like tonight, just resting and energy, and not having to take on a lot of physical toll and all that stuff is great. It puts me in a position to be playing and being able to play all these back-to-backs.”
Maxey Mania Has Arrived
Tyrese Maxey is about as exuberant a young player as I’ve ever seen. His smile bounces around the Zoom screen when he talks. You can feel an authentic excitement and love for the game in his presence. On Monday, Maxey scored a career-high 11 points. After struggling to calibrate his range in the speed of a real NBA Game, he connected on a pair of triples. Maxey is beginning to find that balance between the nervous excitement of being a rookie guard in the NBA and calming down enough to focus on being effective in those precious minutes he receives.
Maxey’s energy on the court is contagious. He’s even picking up on defensive principles–digging under ball-handlers and making them uncomfortable, moving his feet instead of his arms, and staying on the ground. That focus doesn’t take away from his offensive game either, as he continues to put elite pressure on the rim as a ball-handler in both the full-court and half-court settings. When the game begins to slow down for him and the jumpers start falling in bunches, Maxey will transform into a key fixture in the rotation.
“If you miss, who cares? Just shoot. If you make it, good, onto the next shot.”
Doc Rivers believes that that time will come, too. Rivers said following the victory: “I think he’s an excellent shooter. It’ll just keep getting better, you know. Once he’s ready and takes a shot, he’s good. He has great speed, he’s gonna be a terrific player for us. We’re very lucky that he fell to us [in the draft].” Joel Embiid added, “I’ve been telling him every single time–just shoot it, especially when I kick it and he’s wide open. Just let it fire. If you miss, who cares? Just shoot. If you make it, good, onto the next shot. He’s been doing a great job just coming in every single day. He wants to learn. He knows he does his job and it’s been great.”
The Hornets fell to 2-5 with their third consecutive loss. The Sixers move to 6-1, and they will host the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.