The 2020-21 Sixers transitioned from an on-paper vision to an on-court product Tuesday night.
The Sixers beat the Celtics at Wells Fargo Center in their preseason opener, 108-99. Shake Milton had a game-high 19 points and three assists.
Players kneeled during the national anthem before tip-off.
Head coach Doc Rivers, one of two coaches on the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, said on Dec. 1 that he told a couple of players he didn’t want them to be “one-hit wonders” in advocating for human rights. Rivers said pregame he hadn’t discussed plans for during the national anthem with players but would support whatever they decided to do.
Below are observations on the game. The team’s second and final preseason contest is Friday night against the Pacers.
A lot to learn offensively
The Sixers’ starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid wasn’t in sync offensively to begin the game. There’s been little time to learn players’ tendencies and preferences, and Curry had said Sunday that the team’s defense was further along than its offense.
There were, however, promising signs once everyone settled into the Sixers’ first game since August. Outside of an aggressive Embiid, the Sixers’ main objective appeared to be moving the ball and seeking good shots for each other. The results were mixed and Rivers will always want more easy points before the defense has a chance to station itself, but that’s certainly not a bad mentality to have. Harris was mostly decisive and efficient, scoring 16 points on 7 for 11 shooting.
One of the better-looking offensive actions in the first quarter was a Spain pick-and-roll with Harris, Embiid and Danny Green that flummoxed the Celtics’ defense. The play was a nice reminder that Rivers’ plan to run more pick-and-rolls doesn’t just mean stationary two-man looks. This open jumper for Green was likely more about Boston's preseason confusion than anything else, but it’s still an intriguing action for the Sixers.
Another set to watch moving forward: Curry making an Iverson cut, flowing into a side pick-and-roll with Embiid. Curry pulled the Celtics in his direction and found Simmons heading downhill when the Sixers ran that action in the second quarter, though Simmons didn’t have a path to drive all the way to the rim.
Simmons emphasized after the game that much of the offensive motion was improvised.
“For not really having any plays put in or running any plays, I think we did pretty well," he said. "Just moving the ball. Doc so far has been a great coach in terms of just letting us play, but giving us instructions on how you want to play — moving the ball, cutting, making guys guard you and finding the open man.”
More room for Embiid to operate
Embiid’s effort running up and down the floor stood out in his opening stint. While he did settle for several mid-range jumpers, Embiid earned one layup early in the shot clock simply by beating his man down the floor and converting a feed from Simmons.
When he did post up, he had plenty of space to operate thanks to the shooters around him. After Embiid powered through young Celtics big man Robert Williams for an and-1 in the second quarter, Rivers could be heard yelling out, “Run it again!”
The Sixers indeed went back to the same set on their next possession to get Embiid the ball on the left block, and he predictably drew a foul on Williams. Embiid finished with 18 points in 17 first-half minutes and sat out the second half.
"Phenomenal," Rivers said of Embiid. "For Joel, we ran our stuff but we didn’t run his stuff, and he still had 18. And that’s one of the things that I was telling him. We can run continuity offense and not even run any plays for you, but you’re still going to end up with the ball because you’re the best player. And you’ll see that happen, and that did happen tonight. I thought that was a great thing for Joel to see.”
Milton isn’t just hype
The Sixers' first three men off the bench were Furkan Korkmaz, Milton and Dwight Howard. That trio replaced Green, Curry and Embiid. Mike Scott and Matisse Thybulle were the fourth and fifth bench players to appear, respectively.
Beyond the particulars of Rivers’ rotation, Milton’s performance as the lead second-unit ball handler was perhaps the most notable bench-related takeaway. He tossed a highlight lob to Howard, hit a nifty step-back jumper in the third quarter and was as unruffled as usual.
His defense was solid, too. The ample training camp praise from Rivers and his teammates wasn’t coming from nowhere. Milton’s ability to initiate offense and hold his own defensively will be tested this season in non-Simmons lineups, and this was a bright start for an emerging player.
Rookie Tyrese Maxey also backed up many of the good things Rivers and his teammates had said about him during camp, posting eight points and three assists in his first NBA action and playing with a characteristic high pace and energy in the fourth period.
"He’s good," Rivers said. "And I’ve said that. He’s a good player. He’s going to push for minutes. He’s a good basketball player — knows how to play, can’t speed him up, has got a plethora of shots, makes simple plays. I’m throwing this out to (Kentucky head coach John Calipari). As I said before, Kentucky guys come in the NBA prepared. This kid knows how to defend, he talks on defense. He’s been coached, for sure.”
Impressive defensive potential
As was the case last year, the Sixers appear to have a high defensive ceiling.
Boston shot 43.4 percent from the floor and turned it over 20 times. While the Celtics didn’t execute well offensively, the Sixers deserve credit for a consistent defensive effort with few clear breakdowns for a preseason opener. Drop coverage still seemed to be the norm for the Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense, though Embiid did come “up to touch” on occasion.