After a disappointing 0-3 start to the regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers finally snagged their first win on Monday night, 120-106 over the Indiana Pacers. While strong efforts from James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris led the way, the victory probably wouldn’t have occurred without the production the team received from its second unit. The bench scored a combined 36 points on Monday, a substantial upgrade from the group’s total of 34 points across the first three games.
Georges Niang led the reserves in scoring Monday night with 13 points, powered by a 3-of-6 night from downtown. Niang spoke after the game about the keys to the bench’s offensive success:
“We were flying around out there. I think the bench unit most nights, you want to come in, bring energy and impact the game. That’s what we were able to do. We got to a couple of loose balls, closed out a couple of defensive possessions to get out and run. And when you make shots, the game’s a lot easier. I think that’s what we did coming off the bench.”
Head coach Doc Rivers had his own thoughts on what unlocked the bench scoring:
“They touched the ball. No, really — I said it before the game. Just moving it, swinging it, moving it, swinging. Now, when you get a shot, you’ve actually touched the ball. So we talked about that a lot. Twenty-five assists is a benchmark. We should get that every night if we move the ball.”
Rivers praised Niang’s play, and specifically mentioned his ability and that of Danuel House Jr. to excel alongside Harden in pick-and-rolls:
“Just his energy. Georges just knows how to play. Him and D-House, as far as playing with James in particular … they are really good at playing with James. They know how to slip out picks. D-House sets these flip picks. And that helps. And then the fact that they both can shoot.”
A lot of digital ink has been spilled about the new pieces brought in during the offseason and a possible adjustment period needed to coalesce the team’s chemistry. In addition to starter P.J. Tucker, three of the Sixers’ key reserves were not with the team last season. Maybe the initial three losses were a natural part of that feeling-out period, and Monday was the beginning of positive steps forward for the group. Postgame, Niang commented upon the process of adapting to the new pieces:
“I think like James said, it’s a process. We’re still trying to figure out each other — what spots guys like to be in and the spacing we need to get to be the most effective that we can be. … It’s going to be a process, but I think today was a step in the right direction. And when you’re making shots, life is a lot better.”
Of course, things are still a work-in-progress. Heading into the Pacers game, the coaching staff reconfigured the rotation and tried new lineup combinations. Additionally, Shake Milton made his season debut, playing six minutes. Rivers mentioned wanting to add another guy to the rotation, but it doesn’t seem crystal clear what he and the staff are looking for in deciding upon a 10th man:
“I don’t know yet. I really don’t. Between Matisse and Shake, Furk … we’re just going to feel it out. We really are. Going by camp and things, Shake is probably the guy ahead, because I thought he played the best. But that doesn’t mean (for) the games, that works out the same way.”
Although we hadn’t seen the on-court results before Monday, the Sixers do have more options with the bench unit than prior seasons. Niang may have been the high man off the pine against the Pacers, but De’Anthony Melton also scored a season-high 11 points and was a down-ballot Sixth Man of the Year finalist just a season ago. Montrezl Harrell actually has a Sixth Man of the Year award on his mantle, and Danuel House Jr. has a double-digit scoring season on his resume.
With Joel Embiid still ramping up his conditioning after dealing with plantar fasciitis over the offseason, and the possibility that the team might want to load manage James Harden a bit more to preserve his health, contributions from the second unit will be crucial. Fortunately, the Sixers objectively have too much talent coming off the bench to be as unproductive as we saw during the team’s 0-3 start. Let’s hope the victory over the Pacers is a sign of better days to come.