When Ben Simmons was ruled out with left knee soreness about 40 minutes before the Sixers tipped off Saturday against the Kings, the team faced a game with both of its All-Stars and its best three-point shooter sidelined.
The Sixers already knew Joel Embiid (left knee bone bruise) and Seth Curry (left ankle sprain) wouldn’t play this weekend, meaning they were heavily undermanned for the final contest of their four-game homestand.
However, just about everything the Sixers who were healthy touched Saturday turned to gold in a 129-105 win. The team led by as many as 36 points and shot 55.8 percent from the field, 47.8 percent from three-point range.
Tobias Harris had 29 points on 12-for-18 shooting, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Shake Milton scored 28 points in his second start of the season and Danny Green added 18 points.
“We have a culture and a system here that works," Harris said. “When we trust it and when we do what’s asked of us, we’re a hell of a team."
The 29-13 Sixers will play the Knicks Sunday night at Madison Square Garden in the first game of a six-game road trip.
Here are observations on their victory over Sacramento:
A lot to like from makeshift starters
Though the Sixers’ starting five of Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Green, Harris and Tony Bradley wouldn’t have been on head coach Doc Rivers’ radar if he was able to select from a full pool of healthy players, they played very well.
Green made his first three long-range jumpers, came up with a steal and subsequent lob to Thybulle, and spearheaded a 27-12 Sixers run to begin the game. He capped that stretch by lurking in the backcourt to steal an inbounds pass, rebound his own missed shot and then lay it in.
“He’s being Danny Green, when you think about it," Rivers said with a laugh. “You can say that’s been his whole career. No one talked about him in San Antonio. They had Tim Duncan and (Manu) Ginobili and (Tony) Parker and all those other guys. No one talked about him in Toronto. They had Kyle Lowry and Kawhi (Leonard). No one talked about him last year with the Lakers. It doesn’t affect him, I can tell you that. He just does his job, happy to do it — good for your team.”
The Sixers looked more ready and excited to be playing than the Kings, who beat the Celtics Friday night in Boston.
They were level-headed as a group, too, making uncomplicated plays and valuing the ball. The team only turned it over once in the first period. Bradley (14 points, eight rebounds) was a prime example of that straightforward style of play as he screened, rolled, boxed out, protected the paint and only passed the ball or handed it off when he was absolutely sure it would find a teammate.
Sacramento’s defensive breakdowns and lack of pressure contributed to the Sixers’ success. Even with no All-Stars to worry about, the Kings played like one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams, enabling the Sixers to move the ball freely. They entered the game last in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
Milton’s 1-for-8 start was one of the few early negatives for the Sixers, though there wasn’t anything terribly wrong with his decision-making or shot selection. Milton didn’t change his approach and was rewarded with a seven-point spurt late in the second quarter when he scored an and-one fast-break layup, made a catch-and-shoot three from the right wing and knocked down two free throws.
Harris’ scoring was perhaps the least surprising aspect of the Sixers’ performance. He’d gone 0 for 7 in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Sixers’ loss Wednesday to the Bucks and, with two days between games to get some much-needed rest, was due for a big night.
“I thought it started before the game," Rivers said. “I made a comment that this was the first game of this trip, and Tobias echoed it. He said, ‘Guys, he’s right. This is a road game tonight. Our road trip starts tonight. We don’t care who’s playing, we’ve got to win this game. These are important.’ He’s such a pro, but he really set the tone with his attitude — and then, obviously, his play. His passing and his total play was phenomenal, as well.”
His high-level production in isolation situations was expected, and Harris’ smart playmaking has become the norm, too. That he’s improved in areas besides scoring is important for the Sixers, especially if it translates to the playoffs. The belief that Harris would keep getting better was one of the reasons the Sixers signed him to a five-year, $180 million contract, and his overall game does indeed seem to be trending upward.
Thybulle strong against another star
Simmons has said he believes Thybulle could win Defensive Player of the Year if he received more minutes.
Plays like Thybulle’s out-of-nowhere second-quarter block on De’Aaron Fox are why Simmons doesn’t sound silly when he expresses that view.
“He’s like Inspector Gadget with those long arms. ... His instincts, they’re incredible, and his recovery time is absolutely unbelievable," Rivers said. “He keeps making plays like that every night and it’s just absolutely wonderful to watch.”
Fox, who was averaging 23.9 points and 7.5 assists heading into Saturday’s game, finished with 16 points on 5-for-14 shooting and six assists. Thybulle defended Fox well outside of that highlight, shadowing him around the floor and avoiding unnecessary fouls outside of one fourth-quarter infraction where he bumped Fox on a three-point attempt. Green spent time on Fox when Thybulle sat.
Offensively, Thybulle didn’t have to do a ton besides maintain proper floor spacing and fire away when open. He posted eight points on 3-for-6 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes.
Relatively low-stress fourth quarter
Tyrese Maxey returned to the Sixers’ nine-man rotation and served as the team’s backup point guard.
The matchup against Cory Joseph was a good one for the rookie, in part because the 6-foot-3 Joseph’s size didn’t bother him at all. Maxey converted a driving layup and a floater in his first stint, playing at a brisk but controlled tempo.
He played 15 minutes and finished with nine of the Sixers’ 32 bench points, though Rivers isn't satisfied with his defense.
“Just up and down," Rivers said. “I thought offensively he had some good moments. I thought in the first half he was actually very good. I thought he struggled in the second half. We’ve got to get him to be better defensively — which he will be. It’ll take some time. And then just seeing the floor and understanding what he’s looking for. But he’s a rookie. He’s also a rookie that never played point guard, really, in college. He’s a work in progress.”
Rivers looked set on using his bench for most of the fourth period, inserting Isaiah Joe for a couple of minutes, but he turned back to his starters when Sacramento trimmed down the Sixers’ lead and showed signs of life. He was able to use a non-rotation lineup for the final 3:28, with two-way player Rayjon Tucker making his Sixers debut.
Twenty-five minute evenings for veterans like Green and Harris would’ve been ideal for the Sixers, but a low-stress win without three key players is not bad at all.