The Sixers took a small, initial step Saturday night to moving on from their mystifying and miserable play on the road during the 2019-20 season.
They beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 109-89, to move to 2-0 this season. Joel Embiid led the team with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
This weekend road back-to-back for the Sixers concludes Sunday night against the Cavs.
Here are observations on the team’s win Saturday:
Still feeding Embiid
As was the case in the fourth quarter of their opener Wednesday, the Sixers’ offense revolved around Embiid when he was on the floor. Embiid wasn’t quite as dominant but still scored 10 points on nine field goal attempts in his first stint, which lasted 10:24. Though some of the Embiid-centric possessions were deliberate, it’s a sustainable and sensible approach.
“This team has to learn how to work one set into the ground,” head coach Doc Rivers said Thursday, and one imagines that set will often feature an Embiid post-up.
The Sixers big man knew where his outlets were, only turned it over once and put the defense in uncomfortable positions simply by receiving the ball in the post and kicking it out when help shifted in his direction. When he faces single coverage, it’s clear Embiid is almost always going to have an advantage.
"I’m definitely more comfortable, even when it comes to passing out of double teams," Embiid said after the game. "One thing I’m trying to improve this year is not turning the ball over. I had I think one today, and it was at the end right before I got out. I was very disappointed. (The added shooting is) definitely making me comfortable, and it’s also helping my game because now if you want to double, I dare you, because we’re going to knock down those shots. And if you let me play 1-on-1, it’s either a bucket or a foul.”
Will Embiid play Sunday night? He said Wednesday that he wants to be able to play every game this season. Rivers was cagey on the subject pregame.
“No, we won’t share that anyway,” Rivers said. “I guess the answer is you’ll have to wait and see.”
Simmons stifles Barrett
It’s easy to take for granted when you’ve seen it for a few seasons, but Ben Simmons’ versatility, athleticism and elite defense can shift games. A good example Saturday night was Simmons slamming in a missed Tobias Harris layup and blocking an RJ Barrett corner three during a 14-0 Sixers run in the second quarter.
Barrett, Simmons’ primary defensive matchup, scored 10 points and shot 2 for 15 after posting 26 points in the Knicks’ season opener against the Pacers. Now that he’s cracked the All-Defensive First Team, there’s every reason to think a healthy Simmons can become a fixture. Simmons finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal.
Starters figuring it out
Harris broke a streak of 12 consecutive missed field goals by leaking down court after a Knicks miss and converting a first-quarter layup. He made his next attempt, too, pump faking a three-pointer from the top of the key and dipping in for a mid-range jumper.
His first stint was not a good one defensively. Harris’ assignment, Julius Randle, scored nine of the Knicks’ first 10 points. The 28-year-old later picked up two fouls in quick succession, as well. None of that is encouraging, though to Harris’ credit, he did play sharper defense after Randle’s opening spurt.
Offensively, we’re still seeing too many of what Rivers called Harris’ “bag of tricks.” If he’s not going to attack immediately, there’s nothing wrong with moving the ball to a teammate, relocating to the right spot for team spacing and being ready to fire when the next opportunity comes his way. That Harris still managed 17 points on 7-for-14 shooting is a reminder that woeful offensive nights are not his norm.
The Sixers’ starters aren’t near their best yet as a unit, but they looked excellent early in the third period, stretching a five-point halftime lead to 16 points. They forced the Knicks’ defense to work during that period, sharing the ball and probing for the best option. Seth Curry had a very nice game, scoring 17 points (6-for-8 shooting), dishing out three assists and avoiding any turnovers. Danny Green still hasn’t found his shooting stroke, but he did have four steals and seemed a bit more in rhythm with his teammates.
"I was thrilled to death with the first unit’s offense," Rivers said. "I thought they moved the ball and they played together. They made each other better tonight."
Maxey looks at home
Tyrese Maxey has a serious burst.
The rookie had two points, three assists and one turnover Saturday night in nine minutes — not eye-popping numbers. The way he accumulated those stats was impressive, though. Maxey’s basket came when he pump faked on an open three and whizzed in for a layup. Two of his assists were to Dwight Howard, including one where he drove and dumped it off to the backup center for an and-one. Through the preseason and the Sixers’ first two games, Maxey appears to be reading the action well and making smart decisions without hesitation.
“Well, he’s young,” Rivers said pregame when asked how Maxey stands out from other Sixers ball handlers. “And he has great speed. I think he’s probably, of that group, the more natural point guard — even though I don’ t think he’s a natural point guard. So we do see that in him. But his speed is a factor for us and we want to use it.”
Matisse Thybulle replaced Maxey in the rotation during the third quarter. Rivers evidently would like to keep Thybulle in the mix after he didn’t receive many preseason minutes with rotation players and only appeared as a late-game defensive substitute against the Wizards.
Moving forward, one wonders whether Furkan Korkmaz’s rotation spot might ever be at risk. Korkmaz, who hit 1 of 7 field goals Saturday, obviously plays the same position as Thybulle. Could Thybulle ultimately take some of his minutes instead of Maxey’s, especially when the Sixers need perimeter defense?
None of the above thoughts matter much for the time being. More than anything, Thybulle’s minutes seemed to be Rivers recognizing the Sixers had a double-digit lead and viewing that as a chance to give the second-year player some second-unit playing time.
A wardrobe snafu
The Knicks’ Reggie Bullock had to sub out of the game in the first quarter because of an issue with his City Edition uniform. While the front of Bullock’s jersey had his normal No. 25, the back said No. 23, the same as Mitchell Robinson. Whoops.
All publicity is good publicity for those new jerseys, perhaps. Bullock was allowed back in after he changed into a replacement uniform with proper numbering.