What a difference a few days — and a couple really good players — can make.
With Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris in the lineup, the Sixers beat the Raptors, 125-113, in their second preseason game Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers came with way more energy than they did on Monday at Scotiabank Arena. It didn’t hurt that their two best offensive players made their preseason debuts. They moved and shot the ball much better than they did up north.
Matisse Thybulle was a late scratch with right shoulder soreness. Thybulle will be re-evaluated in one week, per the team. Ben Simmons is still holding out and not with the team.
In addition to Embiid and Harris, Doc Rivers inserted Shake Milton into the starting lineup instead of Tyrese Maxey.
The Raptors were without Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher and Khem Birch.
Here are a few takeaways from the win.
Welcome back, Jo and Tobi
It was evident from the opening tip that Embiid and Harris’ presence made everything easier offensively for the Sixers. It also seemed to give them a little extra juice against a young and hungry Toronto team.
The main thing you want to see from your star players in the preseason is that they’re healthy. Both Embiid and Harris looked like themselves. Embiid saw his usual contingent of defenders on the block and looked comfortable dissecting things, even for his first game. Harris was also sharp, hunting his shots offensively and playing solid on-ball defense.
Perhaps the most impressive part of their stint was how they handled the Raptors sending multiple defenders their way — Harris had four assists and Embiid had three. Just as importantly, Seth Curry and Danny Green were both 3 of 6 from three in the first half. The Sixers are awfully tough to stop when the offense is working that way.
Shake gets the start
Forgive the pun, but Milton got off to a shaky start. He committed two early turnovers and struggled with ball pressure from rookie Scottie Barnes, who’s been impressive in two games for Toronto. The Sixers were forced to have other players bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
Milton’s second stint went much better. He made a nice driving layup to his left and an open three. He also found Curry for a pair of transition threes late in the second quarter. The second one was an off-hand skip pass to extend the Sixers’ lead to 18.
Definitely a much better end to the half from Shake there.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) October 8, 2021
He pushed the tempo pretty well to close the 2nd quarter, and this was a really nice driving skip pass to set up Curry for 3. https://t.co/h67PZ2pww9 pic.twitter.com/nXNzGJSzsn
The move to start Milton, who finished with five points and four assists, over Maxey was met with criticism. It’s understandable, but there is some logic behind it. With players like Embiid, Harris, Curry and Green on the floor, there is way less pressure on Milton to create and run the offense. For Maxey — who we’ll touch on more in a minute — it’s an opportunity to just ball with the second unit and not worry about having mouths to feed with the starters.
Second unit shines
While the starters were solid, it was really the second unit that took the game over. The lineup of Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond moved the ball exceptionally well and played great team defense. They even faced a zone and broke it fairly easily.
There were times when Maxey looked like the best player on the floor. He used his speed to get to the basket and looked much more confident than he did Monday. While Maxey impressed throughout the night, a nasty step-back three with the shot clock winding down was perhaps the highlight of the evening.
You don’t want to overreact to a pair of preseason games, but it appears the frontcourt of Georges Niang and Andre Drummond will represent a decent upgrade over what the Sixers had at the backup four and five last season. Niang was quiet on Monday, but poured in a team-high 16 points (4 of 7 from three) to go along with three assists Thursday. Drummond had 10 points and seven rebound in 20 minutes.
Isaiah Joe is coming for minutes
Speaking of the second unit, Joe took Thybulle’s spot in the rotation and did not look out of place. Since the moment Joe arrived last season as a second-round pick out of Arkansas, his defense has stood out just as much as his shooting. On Thursday, he did his best Thybulle impression, coming away with two steals and a block. Both his on- and off-ball instincts have been impressive — and seem to be improving.
Offensively, Joe continues to shoot the ball well (15 points, 3 of 4 from three) and is flashing a little more off the dribble. In the second quarter, he beat an overaggressive closeout by dipping inside the arc and draining a midrange two.
And he never lacks for confidence.
If Joe keeps this up, it’s going to be hard for Rivers not to find minutes for him.