It has begun. The 76ers took on the Boston Celtics in their first preseason game of the season. It was their first game since being eliminated from the playoffs by the same team in August (still feels weird to write). As everyone knows, there has been tremendous turnover with the team, from front office to roster. Their first test came Tuesday night, and the Sixers passed with a 108-99 victory. 

Contextual Notes

Terrance Ferguson was questionable up until the 5:30 PM injury report with a sprained left ankle. He was ultimately available to play.

In Doc Rivers’ first game as head coach, his starters were Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. 

First Half

The Sixers got off to a rather sloppy start in their first game playing together, committing three turnovers in four minutes prior to the first timeout of the game. Many of the actions used to free up the clogged offense involved pin-down screens to engage Danny Green and Seth Curry in the half-court. Such actions effectively put pressure on Boston’s defense to expand to the outside.

The Sixers made a concerted effort to engage Joel Embiid in the offense early on. A number of possessions ended on Embiid post-ups or jump shots coming from the free throw line or lower. They also worked in a number of pick-and-roll plays for Embiid to catch the ball at the elbow and go to work. Embiid played seventeen minutes in the first half, amassing 18 points (6/14 FG, 6/6 FT), 3 rebounds, and only 1 turnover.

Doc Rivers’ substitution patterns followed his endorsements throughout training camp. Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Dwight Howard were the first three Sixers off the bench. Mike Scott and Matisse Thybulle were the second duo to rotate in from the bench.

There were a number of plays in the first half in which Ben Simmons actively attacked the lane only to dime up a cutting Embiid. The story here is not that Simmons didn’t bowl Celtics over in an effort to throw one down. Rather, for the first time in memory, Embiid is sensing off-ball opportunities to dive to the rim. Those simple observations by the big fella caught Boston off-guard, and Embiid was able to get to the rim without much difficulty. On December 7th, Doc Rivers told reporters that being active off-ball was a goal for Ben Simmons, with cutting being one of the focuses. The first half was a gentle hint that that goal was assigned to more than one Sixer.

Furkan Korkmaz Upgraded 

Furkan Korkmaz teased at some of the work he put in during the offseason in a lengthy stint in the first half. Korkmaz was aggressive in attacking the rim, even using some added strength to power past Celtic defenders to finish. Korkmaz also flashed some added attention to court vision. On one play of note, Korkmaz used his shooting prowess to attract a Boston help defender after snaking a ball-screen, and then delivered a pass to the deserted Sixer in the corner. If Korkmaz can add a degree of playmaking element to his game, it would give Rivers some flexibility to use him in a variety of different lineups.

Of course, Korkmaz’s defense was lacking, as usual. His feet remain heavy, and he showed a lack of discipline, biting on a number of Peyton Pritchard shot fakes from the perimeter. If Korkmaz intends to earn enough trust to warrant extended minutes, he will have to train himself to not allow guards–and rookie ones, at that–to get him on their hips as they attack the lane. 

Second Half

Neither Joel Embiid nor Danny Green started the second half. Dwight Howard and Shake Milton started on their behalves. 

Ben Simmons was noticeably more aggressive without Embiid in the game. Ben pushed himself to get downhill often, using pure strength to get around smaller defenders and make plays for others or get to the rim. Of note was Simmons’ handle apparently taking a step forward. He seems to have added a tertiary counter-move to his ball-handling arsenal, and his dribble is lower to the ground whilst maintaining strength. With his size and speed, a supremely tight handle will elevate Simmons’ functionality as a playmaker without attempting jump shots.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Doc Rivers, as well as numerous teammates, have raved about Shake Milton throughout training camp. Milton showed why in the third quarter. After breaking out last season, Milton poured in 15 points in the frame. The guard supplied that bench boost in a variety of ways, as well. Transition looks off of the catch, shots derived from creating space, and organic looks within the offense. Milton looked comfortable in a plethora of contexts on the offensive end of the floor, and that will provide the Sixers with the lineup optionality that has become a theme for their decision processes. An added bonus that will make it easier for him to play in different lineups: Milton showed improvements as a credible defender, too. He held his ground against various matchups and was able to avoid being baited into contact.

It seems the battle for the last roster spot could be between Vincent Poirier and Tony Bradley. Both played minutes in the fourth frame, although Bradley’s showcase doubled the sample size of Poirier’s.

The Tyrese Maxey Hype Train Has Left The Station

Tyrese Maxey was the entire conversation in the final frame, playing all twelve minutes. Maxey showed impressive poise and looked commanding–quite the opposite of how non-lottery rookies traditionally look on their first NBA steps. Of particular interest was Maxey’s ability and comfort in getting downhill within a half-court setting. He knifed around screens on numerous plays in the final twelve minutes. Upon clearing said screens, he showed tremendous ability to change speeds to get defenders off balance. He then executed the possession with hints of his touch as a shooter, connecting on a number of floaters in the final quarter.

“He’s Got It”

Doc Rivers was effusive in his praise of Maxey after the victory. “He’s good, you know, and I’ve said that he’s a good player,” Rivers said. “He’s got to push relentless because he’s a good basketball player. He knows how to play. Can’t speed him up. You know, he’s got a plethora of shots. He made simple plays. I’m throwing this out to Cal, as I said before. Kentucky guys come in prepared. This kid knows how to defend, he talks on defense. He’s been coached, for sure.”

Ben Simmons continued the praise for Maxey, adding “Once he got the jitters and excitement out of the way, he slowed down the game and got to work.” Simmons continued: “You know, he’s been working, I’ve seen, numerous hours doing that. You know, floaters and working on his game. So, no, to me it’s not a surprise, but it’s great to see all that work pay off. He’s gonna be great offensively and defensively. He wants to learn the concepts and things like that. But, offensively, he’s got it.”

Maxey has certainly endeared himself to the fans and the team.

The Sixers take on the Pacers at 6 PM on Friday night. It will be their second and final tune-up before the season-opener.