After an excellent road trip that included four wins, five games and just seven days, the Sixers did not hold their most grueling practice Thursday.
“I’m tired today, so if I’m tired, they’re exhausted,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “We did a lot, but no running, really. We will not have shootaround tomorrow. Hopefully, we can get our legs back for the next game after that. ... It’s just a tough stretch. We know it. It’s going to just require us to have as much focus as possible, and try to maintain our legs.”
Going into their game Friday against the 31-35 Trail Blazers, the 43-22 Sixers listed no injuries. James Harden, who missed Tuesday’s win over the Timberwolves because of left foot soreness, participated in practice and even added a bit of running up and down the floor to his typical post-practice work with assistant coach Sam Cassell.
As for the practice session itself, Tyrese Maxey called it a “mental day.” He said he’s learned to value those and that his body feels “great.” The 22-year-old described his 18-game absence earlier this season following a left foot fracture as a “blessing in disguise.”
Maxey has started the Sixers’ past five games and scored 20-plus points in each of their last six. He's shot 23 for 40 from three-point range during that run, raising his season percentage to 40.9.
The third-year guard sounds like he’s begun to adopt a veteran’s approach to taking care of himself physically.
“I’ve grown and I’ve kind of graduated to putting my feet in an ice bucket,” Maxey said. “I ice my knees after every single game. And I get in the cold tub when we’re at home on off days. I’m trying to stay young. I mess with James. I get in it with him and the big fella, (Joel Embiid), and sometimes P.J. Tucker and Georges (Niang). They’re old guys, so I get in there with them just to keep my youth.”
Maxey helped the Sixers open their road trip with a 23-point win over the Heat and close it with a 23-point victory over the Timberwolves. Embiid sat in Miami, Harden in Minnesota. Even though everything didn’t unfold exactly as Rivers envisioned, his bench players showcased their adaptability.
He learned more about what Jalen McDaniels brings to the table, too.
“He’s really good with the ball in the open floor,” Rivers said. “Indiana was pressing us and we used Jalen to be the flash guy. Really, we thought he was going to be the flash guy to pass it. He flashes and he goes straight; he’s a really good straight-line driver. He has great feel in the paint. We knew he was a great cutter.
“And he’s a way better shooter than we thought. He can shoot the ball. It’s not great results yet, but you’ll see ‘em. You can just tell by the way he shoots the ball.”
Rivers suggested that McDaniels’ playing time may soon increase. In 11 games since joining the Sixers as part of a deadline deal that sent Matisse Thybulle to Portland, McDaniels has averaged 17.2 minutes.
“With Jalen, we’re almost now trying to figure out how to get him more minutes at different spots,” Rivers said. “We only did Tuck at the five once. … We had planned to do it in the Indiana game. He didn’t play. And the Minnesota game, that was our game plan, but it was his first game back (from injury), so we didn’t want to do it again. Our plans kind of got thrown away for that.
“We thought those were two great teams to go small (against) — with Minnesota, keeping (Rudy) Gobert away from the basket. But we won the games, so we’ll take ‘em. So there’s things we didn’t get to work on that we thought we would. But as far as expanding our rotation, we did that and that went well.”
Paul Reed continued to serve as Embiid’s backup throughout the trip and absolutely looked worthy of the role. The Sixers outscored their opponents with Reed on the floor in every game, and by 54 points overall.
Rivers feels he’s honing chemistry with teammates and better grasping where he fits in. At times this year, the 23-year-old has been noticeably out of sync with Harden. The 10-time All-Star has been demonstrative in pointing out instances where he’s wanted Reed to shift to the other side of the floor, come up to set a screen quicker, or roll harder to the rim.
The two have appeared to make major improvements together. A couple of Harden’s assists to Reed against the Pacers were encouragingly intuitive plays. On one, Harden rewarded Reed for correctly seeking a high-low pass over the much smaller T.J. McConnell.
And with Isaiah Jackson momentarily confused off of a sideline out-of-bounds play, Reed snuck along the baseline and Harden found him right away.
Reed also picked up more reps as a short roller when defenses blitz Harden. Rivers and the Sixers generally ask Reed to focus on simple, solid decisions, but it’s a nice bonus that he's flashed skill in that spot as both a driver and as a passer.
“I’m just realizing he’s a great 1-on-1 player,” Reed said of Harden. “And I knew that, but now I know when I need to set the screen to get a defender off of him and when I don’t need to set the screen. And what lanes he likes to take on the different sides of the court.
“That’s the type of stuff I’m picking up on with James, as well as other guys on our team. It’s just the more I’m out there, the more I can learn and the more I understand how to help them get better shots, basically.”
Even with just 17 regular-season games left, it hasn't seemed like a bad thing lately that the Sixers are still learning.