The Philadelphia 76ers (39-21) were back in action on Monday night after a miserable four-game set last week. They were back in their building, hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder (20-40). Philadelphia was looking to snap a four-game losing streak and pull within 1 game of first place in the East. Oklahoma City was looking to snap a thirteen-game losing streak. The Sixers collected an NBA season-high 22 steals on their way to a 31-point victory over the Thunder.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Oklahoma City Thunder were without:

  • Tony Bradley (left ankle sprain)
  • Gabriel Deck (not with team)
  • Luguentz Dort (strained right hip)
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (plantar fasciitis, right foot)
  • Josh Hall (bilateral knee soreness)
  • Mike Muscala (sprained right ankle)

Mark Daigneault started Theo Maledon, Kenrich Williams, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley, and Moses Brown.

The Sixers were without Danny Green (left hip recovery) and Mike Scott (left hip soreness). Ben Simmons returned to the lineup after missing four games due to an unspecified, non-COVID illness. This game marked the first time Simmons and George Hill would ever play together. Doc Rivers started Simmons, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

I am all for sacrificing games to preserve players for the playoffs. It would’ve been perfectly fine to let Embiid rest this game after carrying the team as much as possible last week. However, the Sixers needed a win to keep pace with the Nets after last week’s collapse. Obviously, the hope was that Rivers would be able to grant Embiid some ‘old school load management’ in the second half, if all went right on Monday. Rivers also mentioned some degree of worry about chemistry and rhythm after Saturday’s loss to the Bucks. It’s a fair concern, seeing as guys have been in and out of the lineup all season.

Additionally, Hill is expected to have a significant role with this team, yet he hasn’t played a single minute with Simmons. The Sixers have to sharpen themselves before they rest guys. Dropping four in a row and losing the 1-seed, especially this season, takes away the margin of error that comes with sacrificing games. I’m good with resting guys after the seeding is etched in stone. There will probably be bumps and bruises in the playoffs as they try to get Hill comfortable on the floor, they don’t have enough time to make things perfect on that front. But, the talent and cohesion throughout the rest of the roster should be able to overcome any hiccups with Hill.

“He had great energy, great pace. It was Ben being Ben.”

Simmons certainly did not look like a man who had recently overcome illness. Against the Thunder, he came out with as much purpose as he’s had all season. He was intuitively jumping into passing lanes to deflect the ball, changing paces at optimal moments, and putting incredible downhill pressure on the rim. His two-man game with Seth Curry did not miss a beat, either. Simmons was offering dribble hand-offs without any mistiming, and Curry was obliging with quick pull-up triples immediately upon clearing the screens. I also thought Simmons’ touch in the low post was just about perfect. He was decisive and confident with the baby hook against the Thunder. The attempts were soft on the rim, and Simmons hit a pair of them in the first quarter.

Simmons was also without lapses in timing or feel as a facilitator. He generated a number of open looks for Philadelphia in the opening stanza, dishing 3 assists and sparking the Sixers to a field goal percentage above 60 before checking out late in the first quarter.

Rivers was eager to laud his point forward after the victory. “Like I was talking about the coach called [a story he told in his pregame availability] and said, ‘If anybody talks about his value on offense, just watch’,” Rivers said. “The first play of the game, we got a three. It was created by Ben Simmons, so I think he was really good. I thought defensively he was even better tonight. You could see he had his legs, great energy. So, that was good. Good team win, we needed to win that one. He had great energy, great pace. It was Ben being Ben.”

“Man, he’s good. He’s going to be good for us. You can feel it, you can see it.”

If only the defense had functioned at the nearly pristine efficiency at which the offense functioned against the Thunder. The Sixers paid for some cheating in the passing lanes and were a bit lethargic in fighting through screens. The perimeter rotations were also lazy, and that enabled the Thunder to penetrate the lane and create open looks with athleticism at the rim. If they weren’t leveraging their size and athleticism to score at the rim, they were weaponizing it to generate open jumpers on the perimeter, and cashing in on those extra passes, too.

The defense momentarily synchronized with the offense within the second unit, and it coincided with the entries of Hill and Matisse Thybulle. Obviously, you’re going to get an extra boost with Thybulle creating chaos on the perimeter. But, I thought Hill helped implement order and structure within the defense. On the offensive side of the court, Hill did an excellent job of just playing without committing himself to any one style of play. He wasn’t overly passive, but he wasn’t overly concerned with hunting shots, either. He demonstrated a degree of Swiss army knife play or, as Jackson Frank calls it, dribble-pass-shoot equity, that keeps defenses guessing as to what is coming next. That’s something that the Sixers don’t really have, at least not to any degree of effectiveness, outside of Hill and Tyrese Maxey.

Rivers couldn’t speak highly enough of Hill’s presence after the game. “I thought he was a difference-maker when he came in, just defensively,” Rivers said. “You can still see his rhythm offensively is not great yet, but defensively, man, he is so good and talks. Just listening to him on the floor tonight, directing Shake and directing those guys where to be. Man, he’s good. He’s going to be good for us. You can feel it, you can see it.”

Second Half

I’m totally cool with Embiid refusing to jump in games against sub-.500 opponents for the remainder of the season. Seeing what we’ve seen recently, and what happened to him earlier this season, there’s no need to put any unnecessary pressure on his knees in non-playoff contexts.

With the game virtually out of reach after the first few minutes of the third quarter, the youngsters got some good run in during the second half. The allure of Rayjon Tucker is pretty clearly his springiness and vertical athleticism. But, he’s more intriguing than a KJ McDaniels archetype, which is what he profiles as in the world of names that resonate with Sixers fans. There seems to be more to work with than there was with McDaniels, as Tucker has better control with the ball in his hands and is less focused on crashing into things around the basket. He doesn’t really have a tangible NBA skill at this point, but there’s something there worth grooming. He profiles quite well from a physical standpoint, and work ethic will determine much of what’s to come for him.

“I don’t know if he’s gonna be in a regular rotation or not, but I have no doubt that he’ll play in the playoffs.”

Subtle is Tyrese Maxey’s great tendency to shield the ball by keeping his dribble low as he drives to the rim. He also keeps the ball low as he rises up for layups so as to minimize its exposure to the rear defender and the rim protector. Maxey does a great job of coupling it with his electric pace management. He will occasionally get eaten up by a massive interior defender, but that’s more a product of his size. Against the Thunder, as well as throughout the season, he’s been quite effective around the rim against bigger defenders by minimizing the amount of exposure the ball has to the defense.

While minutes have come and gone for Maxey in his rookie year, Rivers seems to have a vision for using Maxey come playoff time. “I don’t know if he’s gonna be in a regular rotation or not, but I have no doubt that he’ll play in the playoffs,” Rivers told reporters before the game. “I’m fully confident of that and fully confident of him. We’re going to have them all ready. Then, when the playoffs start, we’ll see who will play. But, I would have no hesitation of putting him in.”

A Bball Paul Sighting

The more you see of Paul Reed, the more ways you discover he can help this team in the long run. Tonight, I was particularly impressed with his second jump around the rim and his ability to out-muscle Thunder defenders for offensive rebounds. Sure, it’s only the lowly Thunder. But, I’m looking at the long-term projections based on the evidence available now. Reed’s physicality and athleticism play well in any environment. He’s going to have to develop comfort with the ball. Right now, he has no clue what to do when he catches outside of the paint. He often looks like he’s going to forget his pivot foot and has to lunge around the court whilst keeping that foot nailed to the pivot spot.

Once he figures out how to be productive away from the restricted area, he’ll be playable. Right now, however, he’s very limited in what he can actually do. The Sixers don’t have a ton of spacing on the court to begin with. It shouldn’t be a years-long project, though. With this team, he really just has to work on rhythm shooting out of a screen and timing his screens out of the dribble hand-off so that he isn’t committing offensive fouls. With an offseason to develop, he should certainly have a bigger role next season. Hell, my guess is that his emergence will enable the Sixers to address other needs in free agency. Funny how winning on the margins helps, isn’t it?

The Sixers (40-21) will be back in action on Wednesday, when they host the Atlanta Hawks (34-28). Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.