SIXERS

3 observations after Maxey, Sixers roll to win vs. Raptors

SIXERS

Doc Rivers said pregame Thursday night that he wanted more competitive fire from his team, and he got just that.

The Sixers won their first home game since that infamous Game 7, rolling to a 125-113 win over the Raptors in the second preseason game of the 2021-22 season.

Joel Embiid scored 10 points and pulled down six rebounds in his preseason debut, running for 19 minutes before hitting the bench. Georges Niang led all Sixers scorers with 16 points 

The Raptors were led by 22 points from OG Anunoby.

Matisse Thybulle was a late scratch from Thursday's game. He's dealing with right shoulder soreness, the team said.

Grant Riller was out with a left knee injury he suffered in the team's preseason opener vs. the Raptors earlier this week. Ben Simmons (you may have heard about his situation) was listed as "not with team."

Let's run through three observations from Thursday night's festivities:

1. The point guard question

Shake Milton was a surprise entry in Doc Rivers' starting lineup on Thursday, after second-year sparkplug Tyrese Maxey got the nod at starting point guard in the preseason opener.

With the ongoing Summer of Ben Simmons still unresolved, Rivers is searching for an answer at point guard before the regular season starts.

Rivers said after the game that he was "just looking at different guys."

If Thursday's outing is any indication, the decision should not be a hard one.

Milton was underwhelming at best in his first extended run Thursday night, getting more than seven unencumbered minutes as the de facto PG. His half-court game was largely similar to that of Ben Simmons in years past: bring the ball up, find a man, and disappear.

 

He struggled as the initiator on Thursday, getting pick-pocketed by rookie Scottie Barnes and consistently having a hard time finding space against pressure when getting into the half-court.

"Had to settle down," Rivers said of Milton's tough start. "I thought he struggled early, and then started playing really well. So yeah, I mean it's a competition."

Rivers said he thought Milton played better later, and he did in a second stint with the starters towards the end of the second quarter. He finished a drive and hit a three in short order. Later he found Seth Curry in the corner for a wide-open three on a nice skip pass.

"[Milton's] really trying to run the point guard spot, and it at times makes him not aggressive offensively," Rivers said. "He's going to have to find his happy medium, because I still want him to be an aggressive offensive player. I thought in the beginning of the game he was trying to run the team, and then as the game went on he just played."

But Milton is probably still not a point guard, and while Maxey is still clearly growing into the role - the fan-favorite often runs into the trees in the paint with little idea of how to finish the play - it seems one he can actually grow into.

The ultimate vision of Point Maxey came in the late first and early second quarter, as he drained signature floaters, dishing out an assist, and later creating space with a nifty stepback-into-a-three.

Maxey's shooting was all over the place in his rookie year, but a big part of his offseason work was reportedly working on the shot. That's the player the Sixers need him to be if he's running the Sixers' offense in Simmons' stead - and perhaps even after the trade eventually goes down.

Maxey showed off his passing ability more in the second half with a slick one-handed pocket pass to Georges Niang in the third quarter, and a perfectly-tossed alley-oop to Drummond in the fourth.

This isn't the first time we've seen Milton floated at the 1, and the preseason is certainly the right place to try it, but it's just not the right fit when Maxey is the alternative.

2. Embiid making use of the preseason

Last year's MVP runner-up, Joel Embiid will somehow have even more on his plate this year.

On Thursday, he looked like a man easing into what will no doubt be a hefty lift. 

The Sixers hunted Embiid looks on their first few possessions, running the clock down in search of post-ups and isos for the big man. His first quarter of action was a mash-up of good and bad: some turnovers, some hits and misses, and a fair amount of sloppy basketball. Embiid hadn't played in an NBA game in 109 days, and it looked it: before the first half was out he was bending over with his hands on his knees.

 

Afterwards the big man said he felt good in his first action, but acknowledged jumping back in against a Nick Nurse team wasn't a breeze.

"Playing against Toronto is always a challenge for me," Embiid said. "Not necessarily a challenge, but these are the type of games where I really focus on passing the ball, inviting double teams, kicking it out. That's not the team where I'm going to go out and score 50, because they're going to double and triple team every single possession. But it was good. 

Embiid also had the ball stripped more than once when attacked by those very double teams in the first quarter, something he expressly said he worked on this summer and wants to avoid during an NBC Sports Philadelphia sit-down with the big man on media day. He still needs to clean those up, and Embiid acknowledged the turnovers after the game.

"You can always get better," he said.

But frankly all of that is to be expected. We see rust across the league in the first few games of the preseason; often it extends into the early days and even weeks of the regular season. The NBA is a beast and these guys need to get up to game speed.

Plus Embiid still broke out the hits - a turnaround jumper here, some nasty footwork in the paint there. In the third quarter he caught the ball on the right block and hit the classic quasi-Dirk fadeaway, an un-guardable shot if ever there were one. 

The man is one of the five best basketball players on planet Earth. Hopefully the Sixers figure out a way to maximize his talents without grinding him into dust across 82 games.

3. The reinforcements look sharp

At least in the early going, the lack of Simmons will shorten up the Sixers' rotations, which means Rivers will be looking for added contributions from their bench guys to make up ground as one of Maxey or Milton is elevated to the starting lineup.

A trio of bench guys stood out to me on Thursday.

Furkan Korkmaz, who secured a 3-year, $15 million bag this offseason, could be primed for somewhat of a "breakout" year. He's not going to become Sixth Man of the Year, but consistency could turn him into a real weapon for the Sixers.

On Thursday night, Korkmaz did a little bit of everything. He looked to play-make, finding Andre Drummond for an oop on a pick-and-roll (ultimately unsuccessful); he showed great anticipation and plucked a steal away before pushing the ball up the court; he pump-faked a defender from the right wing and drove, finishing off glass.

Korkmaz was also himself, splashing an open three in transition from the left wing. He's still a gunner, first and foremost.

Georges Niang's second game with the Sixers showed what he can bring to a team in need of as much scoring as possible.

 

He hit four of seven three-point attempts, pulled down two rebounds and dished out three assists, and also added a steal while not turning the ball over. Niang played within himself, never trying to do too much - on a team with big names like Embiid, Tobias Harris, and the like, he won't really have many opportunities to do so - but always staying ready to make the right play.

"Georges gives us composure," Rivers said. "Shoots the ball, sneaky driver because of his shot, kind of settles the group down. As I said before camp, he's a big pickup for us. Kind of one of those sneaky ones that no one talks about. But he can make shots and he knows how to play, he's physical."

Niang isn't going to score 16 points every night, but if he can simply terrify defenses from deep and make smart plays as part of the bench unit, he's going to see good minutes.

And Isaiah Joe continued his push for a spot in Rivers' rotation on Thursday night. The man's jumper is smoother than silk; every shot he takes looks ticketed for twine.

Joe hit three threes and scored 15 points on Thursday after burying four triples in Monday's preseason opener, and he showed off different parts of his game in the Raptors rematch in South Philly. I particularly liked a sequence in the first half when he got his defender off his feet and drilled a midrange jumper. The form looked exactly the same.

Rivers said this week that he wants to find a way to get Joe into the rotation, and if the second-year guard keeps playing the way he has in two preseason games, it'll be hard to keep him out.

The Sixers' next preseason game is Oct. 11 vs. the Nets.