The 2020-21 Sixers have yet to lose, though that’s not a fact they care about much.
The team wrapped up its two-game preseason Friday night with a 113-107 win over the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Shake Milton had 15 points and five assists, while Dwight Howard added 14 points and made all seven of his field goal attempts.
Joel Embiid missed the game with an illness unrelated to COVID-19.
“We’re just being safe,” head coach Doc Rivers said pregame. “I expect him to be ready for practice when we pick back up.”
The Sixers’ regular season begins next Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center against the Wizards.
Here are observations on their last dress rehearsal:
First-half sloppiness, second-half shakeup
Rivers wouldn’t have expected perfection, but a clean, free-flowing performance would’ve been his ideal way to end the preseason. This was anything but that.
The Sixers turned it over four times in the first five minutes and 15 times in the opening half. Tobias Harris had one bad first-quarter stretch in which two of his passes intended for Howard were picked off. He wasn’t the quick decision-maker Rivers is pushing him to be this season, driving into trouble several times instead of catching and shooting or moving the ball.
It’s mildly concerning for the Sixers that they have not yet comfortably executed many set actions and gave the ball away so frequently in their preseason finale. They’ll aim to be sharper when the games actually count, and it would certainly not be shocking if Rivers has some looks up his sleeve that he didn’t show in the preseason.
"I thought their pressure bothered us in the first half, and I thought they played in our air space," Rivers said after the game. "It’s good to see in the second half, we handled it better, we slowed down."
Milton replicated his second-half spurt from Tuesday against Boston and conducted the offense well as the Sixers erased a Pacers lead as large as 17 points. He’s the highlight of the preseason for the Sixers, without question.
Simmons lets one fly
Ben Simmons attempted a three-pointer from the top of the key in a 2-for-1 situation at the end of the second quarter. Such events remain notable for Simmons, who made two long-range jumpers in the regular season last year, as well as one preseason three and one exhibition game three.
He posted nine points, eight assists and five rebounds in 26 minutes. More important than any of the numbers is that he’s still explosive and healthy after undergoing left knee surgery in August.
The pros and cons of Howard
Howard started in place of Embiid and scored six of the Sixers’ first 11 points. He seemed determined to make life as easy as possible for Simmons, setting screens for him often and appearing eager to run the floor and catch lobs. Since Howard isn’t a shooter and offers little in terms of passing and ball handling, that’s likely the blueprint for the Simmons-Howard pairing offensively.
"I want Ben to just dominate everybody," Howard said. "And I know Ben can do that. I’ve got to give him some easy shots and some good looks at the basket. With me going in to set screens for him, that will free up him, but also free up the other shooters. I’m not worried about myself. I know that if I get those guys good shots, I’ll get rewarded by getting the offensive rebounds and stuff like that."
Defensively, Howard dropped quite a bit on most pick-and-rolls. On one occasion in the second quarter, he couldn’t sprint out to the perimeter in time to deter a popping Domantas Sabonis from taking and making a top-of-the key three. At 35 years old, whether Howard is vulnerable on defense against centers who are agile or threats to pick-and-pop will be an interesting question.
The Howard vs. Sabonis matchup was testy for a preseason game, with both players pushing plenty off of the ball and voicing frustration to officials. Howard said earlier this month that Rivers wants him to “be an agitator — get under people’s skin, be physical.”
The Sixers finished the first half with Simmons at center after Howard picked up three fouls. He was surrounded by Milton, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris. Unsurprisingly, that shooter-heavy group struggled to stop Indiana.
Rivers said the Sixers hadn't practiced with that lineup, though he thinks it has potential.
"Clearly, we didn’t know what to do," he said. "I thought that was our worst stint of the game. It should’ve been just a great one for us and we didn’t take advantage of a lot of things. But it’s good to see what happens and how other teams will guard it, so we’ll figure that out.”
Is Thybulle's stock down?
Based on what we saw Friday and what we’d heard from Rivers, it appeared Matisse Thybulle might not receive many minutes to begin the regular season.
Furkan Korkmaz and Milton were the Sixers’ first two substitutions, followed shortly after by Mike Scott and Tony Bradley. Tyrese Maxey appeared next, sharing a backcourt early in the second quarter with Korkmaz, and Thybulle was the last potential rotation player to enter.
With Rivers having said Thursday he’s “sure” about four of his five bench rotation players, it looked like Scott was part of that group and Thybulle was not. The 23-year-old was limited during training camp by a left ankle sprain.
According to Rivers, that injury explains why Thybulle's preseason usage was limited.
“Oh, he will (play regular minutes). He’s missed most of preseason," Rivers said. "We’re just taking our time with him, but I wouldn’t read into any rotations right now.”
When he’s not forcing turnovers in spectacular fashion, Thybulle’s path to adding value is avoiding mistakes and sinking open jumpers. He checked neither of those boxes in the preseason and sometimes seemed directionless, aware that he should stay away from high-risk gambles but unsure how to help otherwise. His defensive talents are unique, though, and perhaps that will allow him to be a key bench piece in his second season.
Maxey showed again he has a good sense for how to shield and bounce off defenders. His skills using ball screens, attacking downhill and hitting floaters over big men give him a chance to contribute right away as a second-unit spark plug, though the 20-year-old will undoubtedly have NBA growing pains.
It’s clear Bradley is the Sixers’ third-string center, not Vincent Poirier. The next question to answer is whether Poirier will be on the Sixers’ regular-season roster of 15 players. Not counting two-way players Paul Reed and Dakota Mathias and Exhibit 10 player Frank Mason, the Sixers are at 16, a number they’ll need to trim by one.
Rivers gave Simmons a call
In response to reports Thursday night that the Sixers are willing to include Simmons in trade packages for James Harden, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey told the Athletic’s Shams Charania the team is “not trading” the two-time All-Star.
Rivers addressed the situation with Simmons.
“I don’t get into all that,” Rivers said before the game. “I can tell you that, again, none of this is started from us. I gave Ben a call last night, but I’m not going to share what we said. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of our business, as you know. It is what it is.”
Rivers was asked whether he feels the need to reassure players whose names swirl around in these kinds of conversations about possible trades.
“I think it depends on the guy,” he said. “Ben’s young, sometimes you feel like you do. I’m sure there will be other times where you don’t feel like you need to. I always just call the player, check on him and read where he’s at. I felt very good about our conversation. Now we can just move forward from it.”