Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

Oh boy, what a situation. The Sixers (7-2) hosted the Denver Nuggets (3-5) in a Saturday matinee after the NBA deemed that what Doc Rivers described as a “nuts” previous 36 hours was not enough to postpone play. During Thursday’s loss at the hands of the Nets, Seth Curry was revealed to have registered a positive COVID-19 test. Immediately following the game, the Sixers were placed in quarantine in New York while contact tracing was conducted. They arrived back in Philadelphia late last night. The Sixers, with only eight of their seventeen players listed as available,

Before we get into a very weird game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Try not to laugh at the insanity of playing a game while reading this list, but these were the Sixers who were unavailable to play for “a variety” of reasons (health and safety protocol unless noted otherwise):

Joel Embiid (back tightness), Ben Simmons (left knee swelling), Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Terrance Ferguson (legitimate personal reasons), Shake Milton, Vincent Poirier, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz (still out with the left adductor strain).

Mike Scott was listed as available, but Doc Rivers said that he had no intention of playing him during his pregame availability. Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Danny Green, Dakota Mathias, and Dwight Howard. Prior to this game, Isaiah Joe had played 27 minutes in his NBA career, while Dakota Mathias had registered just 30.

The Nuggets were without Michael Porter Jr (health and safety protocol) and Greg Whittington (left knee sprain). They started Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic.

Rivers let it be known before the game that he was against the decision to hold the contest, and he reiterated a concern for player health numerous times. It’s hard to blame Rivers at all. While simply canceling the season doesn’t seem viable when the number of cases swells, the format of this season’s schedule builds in flexibility for these situations. That this game was played was very clearly a league-level mandate, and it certainly was not an optically flattering looking for Adam Silver. While this game shouldn’t have been played, it does count towards each team’s records, and rightfully so. It should not, of course, be considered a legitimate measurement of what either team is truly capable of at their bests.

First Half

The Sixers debuted their City edition uniforms in this game. An unfortunate day for the introduction, to say the least.

The rookie in Tyrese Maxey showed itself early in this contest on the defensive end. Maxey showed little resistance to Jamal Murray, allowing him to get to his spots for pull-up jumpers. Maxey also got stuck on back-screens on a few early plays, allowing Murray to leak to the rim for easy lays courtesy of Nikola Jokic.

It’s still very early in Maxey’s rookie campaign, but holding strong and resisting opposing point guards as they try to get to their comfort zones is crucial for his defensive development. Maxey said after Thursday’s loss that his early chemistry with Dwight Howard is built from watching a ton of film. This matchup with Jamal Murray will be a good opportunity for him to study film and serve as a valuable experience for playing extended minutes against lead guards.

Maxey’s Offensive Game Has A Ceiling In The Clouds

Maxey’s toughness on the offensive end is extremely impressive. He had been a bit timid in previous games, which is understandable when sharing the court with first, second, and third scoring options. But, this game was a testament to Maxey’s intelligence on that end of the floor. His timing is improving. He’s waiting for screeners to establish themselves before initiating actions, and he’s reading his matchup and then attacking the angle given to him.

Maxey is also manipulating speeds well to get to the rim. There were a number of possessions in which he created shots at the rim by lulling roaming bigs to sleep with hesitations before exploding to the rim for open layups. The floater, which we have already seen a handful of times, seems to be Maxey’s bread-and-butter to this point. He converts those attempts so often that they’re bordering on automatic for him. The jumper is coming along, and Maxey is even testing the waters on pull-ups in transition. Adding strength is going to be key this offseason, but the rookie looks more and more like a diamond with each passing game.

Bball Paul

Paul Reed scored early in the first frame, and Matt Cord referred to him as ‘BBall Paul’. It was glorious. The brand is strong.

Reed gave the Sixers tremendous energy in the first half of regulation. He was active in pursuing 50/50 balls, and he showcased the athleticism and versatility that made the Sixers view him as a steal late in the draft. His skill is clearly very raw. He hit the top of the backboard on a corner triple, lost the ball as he dribbled a number of times. I’m not sure Rivers can trust him enough to view him as playable depth as this season goes on, but there is some ceiling worth tapping into there. 

Trying To Uncover The Next Duncan Robinson

I’m not sure I see the value in Dakota Mathias as a Two-Way contract. He’s a quick trigger for sure, and his shots always look like they’re going to cash in. But, outside from spot-ups and the occasional make off of a snaked screen, he’s not giving you much in the way of ceiling. On the defensive end, he’s not stopping anyone at all. He’s not quick enough to keep smaller matchups in front, and he’s not athletic enough to hold his ground against bigger matchups.

Every team is trying to uncover the next Duncan Robinson, but Mathias is only 6-foot-4. Part of what makes Robinson so effective is that his 6-foot-7 frame makes contesting his shots very difficult. I would like to be wrong, but I don’t see the value there.

Isaiah Joe scored his first NBA points on a handful of triples in the first half. He displayed encouraging confidence for someone who has struggled to find his footing thus far. His shot selection may damage the confidence Doc Rivers has in rewarding him with regular minutes, but it also very well could be him just testing the NBA waters in the first real minutes of his career.

The Sixers Lack Big Man Depth

This game was a reminder of just how thin the Sixers’ big man depth is behind Dwight Howard. Howard, as has been the story throughout his career, is prone to foul trouble. When those moments come, it’s hard for Rivers to look down his bench and believe in what he sees. Tony Bradley isn’t athletic enough to be a pogo stick at the rim, and his touch around the rim is severely lacking. I don’t see how he’s credibly contributing to winning games on either end of the floor. As for Vincent Poirier, he doesn’t get off the bench unless the game is decisively out of hand. It looks like the Sixers have to trust in Embiid and Howard to be rock solid, and that’s not exactly comforting.

Second Half

Post-halftime was largely a crossover episode to the Process era. The Nuggets started connecting on open looks and moving the ball with actual effort. The Sixers hung largely on Maxey, with the rookie continuing to build upon his career game. He finished with 39 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Maxey turned the rock over just twice in 44 minutes of play.

Superman Is In The Building

Dwight Howard has been fine in his role for this team, especially given his price. As I said earlier, this team lacks big man depth after Embiid and Howard. Having said that, Howard needs to be more cognizant of his actions in those limited minutes. Howard picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth frame, and Rivers had to rely on Bradley more than he should’ve had to.

Howard is often victimized by phantom calls and the whistle treatment he receives is disrespectful by Hall of Fame standards. But, he makes many of the same mistakes over and over again. He isn’t always set on screens, he swings his limbs, and he’s overly aggressive on both ends of the court. While that may have been part of his roll at previous stops, the Sixers cannot depend on Bradley and Poirier. The seventeen-year veteran must be better.

The limited Bball Paul minutes have been a job. He doesn’t try to do too much, but he isn’t afraid of going outside of his comfort zone. Late in the fourth quarter, he had a very fun play in which he ripped down an unlikely offensive rebound. He pursued the ball out to the perimeter, and then tried to thread the needle with a pass to a cutter. He left it a bit soft for an interception, though. Again, not too crazy. But, a dabble into something that he was clearly not used to, nonetheless.

A 50/50 Ball To Forget

There was a play midway through the fourth quarter in which all of the Sixers on the court allowed Denver to poach an offensive rebound on a loose ball. On one hand, I get it. You had seven guys available and you’re running on empty. Sometimes, your legs feel like bricks on those 50/50 balls. On the other hand, it’s a free rebound. Five of the seven Sixers available to play had incredible opportunities to sell Doc Rivers on why he shouldn’t gloss over them.

Those 50/50s are how prospects prove how committed they are. Obviously, that’s one play in the grand scheme of an entire game. But, that play did not sit right with me. That Dwight Howard was on the court and failed to retrieve the ball was most disappointing. Howard has been incredible for this team. That would’ve been a great example to resonate with the young guys on the importance of finishing strong. It’s one play that many have probably already forgotten. But, I thought it was a bit lazy to allow Denver to record that rebound.

The Sixers were ultimately too undermanned to keep up with the Nuggets in this game. Denver (4-5) was able to snap the Sixers’ 20-game winning streak at The Center with a 115-103 dispatching. The Sixers (7-3) will head to Atlanta for a clash with the Hawks (4-4) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can watch the affair on NBC Sports Philadelphia.