It doesn’t matter who’s out there, apparently. The Sixers just keep winning.
They built their streak to five straight Thursday night with a 109-98 victory over the Pistons in Detroit, improving to 7-2.
Seth Curry scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Tyrese Maxey posted 20 points, Shake Milton 16.
Joel Embiid totaled 19 points (6-for-15 shooting), nine rebounds and three assists.
Jerami Grant’s 27 points led Detroit, while No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The Sixers were missing a lengthy list of players, including Tobias Harris and Isaiah Joe (health and safety protocols), Danny Green (left hamstring tightness), Ben Simmons (personal reasons) and Furkan Korkmaz (right wrist soreness).
The team will face the Bulls again on Saturday, this time in Chicago. Here are observations on the Sixers' win over the Pistons:
The Sixers conceded size at every position besides center to begin the game, starting a lineup of Maxey, Curry, Milton, Matisse Thybulle and Embiid.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers then went about as big as he could without pairing Embiid and Andre Drummond. He used a lineup featuring Georges Niang, Paul Reed and Drummond in the frontcourt.
Much of Thursday’s experimentation was out of necessity — there’s not many options for a team with nine available players, one of whom was second-round rookie center Charles Bassey — but the early-season tinkering isn’t a bad thing. The Sixers have a long time before the postseason to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and to develop confident combinations.
“That’s kind of what we had to do — doing whatever it takes to get the win," Milton told reporters in Detroit. “And P-Reed is an amazing rebounder. So any time he’s in the game, he knows that’s kind of his calling and his way to earn more time. So he’s going to go out there and do his thing. We know that.
“As far as everybody else, we’re shorthanded, so we need to be interchangeable for it to work and for us to have a chance to win the game. And luckily, we’ve got guys who are just like that — myself, G, P-Reed, whoever — Matisse. Throw anybody in there and we can cover multiple positions, so it helps us.”
Reed (four points, nine rebounds) and Drummond (eight points, 10 boards) were a scrappy duo, providing energy and glass clearing on the second night of the 2021-22 Sixers’ first back-to-back. Perhaps that’s an avenue toward giving Reed more regular minutes when the Sixers are healthier.
The Sixers’ circumstances inevitably made defense difficult. They forced just two turnovers in the first half and allowed Grant to post 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting before halftime. The team was far better defensively in the second half, though, and Grant didn't come close to sustaining that pace.
Scoring punch from guard trio
Not for the first time this season, Curry was scorching in the opening period. He recorded 15 first-quarter points on 6-for-8 shooting.
In general, Curry’s persistence has impressed early this year. Whether it’s relocating after a defender denies his initial move or pump faking and then stepping into mid-range jumpers, Curry has been stellar about simply plugging away.
Milton had a strong first half overall, playing sturdy defense on 6-foot-8 Saddiq Bey — the highlight was a play where he stonewalled a Bey post-up and forced a jump ball — and scoring at all three levels. Bey finished with seven points and five rebounds, and Milton had a lot to do with his quiet evening.
On Thursday night, it was especially valuable that Milton’s got above-average size for a guard and a 7-foot wingspan. The pessimistic slant on his game is that he’s neither a true point guard nor an explosive driver, but Milton is able to defend a few positions effectively and has a rather well-rounded offensive package when his three-point shot is falling.
A background figure at times, Maxey surged into the spotlight in the third period. It’s natural that Maxey’s spent stretches hanging out off the ball when the Sixers run their offense through Curry, but he’s been good in third quarters at taking charge and pressuring defenses with his drives.
“It’s a grind," Maxey said. “It’s a process, too; day by day, trying to get better and better. I’m trying to do better. (Rivers) wants me to be more demanding. He feels like I defer too much. So it gets tough, but my teammates are trusting me more and more every single game. As long as I have their trust and they have my back, then it’s going to be all good.”
A 2-for-4 game from three-point range was also a plus for Maxey, raising his season percentage to 34.8.
Not all about Embiid
Embiid faced hard double teams, which often forced him to relinquish the ball. He committed one poor turnover dribbling into the path of Killian Hayes, who was helping at the “nail.”
Compared to Wednesday’s win over the Bulls, Embiid was significantly less active in the first half. The common thread was his ineffectiveness as a scorer. He was scoreless in the first quarter, attempting no shots of any kind, and didn’t get on the board until 5:43 remained in the second period.
Embiid was miffed by the lack of a foul call on at least three occasions before halftime. Whether or not he had credible arguments, those plays were emblematic of his first half.
Still, Rivers liked his approach throughout the game.
“I was really proud of Joel tonight because they trapped him every single time and instead of getting frustrated, he just kept passing the ball," Rivers said. “That was great. They knew we didn’t have a lot of our scorers and shooters, and they figured we couldn’t make enough shots with the other guys. And we did. So I’m very proud of him. Last year, don’t know if that happens and this year, that’s just such great progress.”
In truth, Thursday wasn't about Embiid. He didn't see a heavier load than usual — 30 minutes — and had the luxury of enjoying his teammates' success. (On his 21st birthday, Maxey got a whopping 45 minutes. Indeed, he's still very young.)
Practically every one of the Sixers' victories this season has fit the cliched "team win" label, and this game wasn't an exception. Five Sixers scored in double figures and each of the team's eight rotation players made positive contributions.