The Philadelphia 76ers deployed their big guns for the first half of a back-to-back versus the Toronto Raptors and were outworked and outclassed. Then, in the next game many felt they were outright forfeiting, they beat the first-place Miami Heat despite sneaking in a much-needed rest day for both Joel Embiid and James Harden. As Chris Berman says, and that’s why they play the games!
The Sixers are 2.5 games back from the top seed, they’re third in the East and have the seventh-best record overall.
Let’s get it.
1) Reserve bigs: vets Jordan & Millsap vs. young guns Reed & Bassey
Fans on Twitter suggested there would be a city-wide revolt if Doc Rivers coached a game versus the Miami Heat without Joel Embiid and still didn’t get so much as a look at either Paul Reed or Charles Bassey at the five.
Bassey was called up from the Blue Coats and available. It seemed like we might avoid having to take to the streets with our signs and megaphones. (Spoiler, CB-23 is already back with the Coats ahead of the 76ers three-game west coast road trip, boo).
But coach Rivers went with the veterans DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap for the entire game. (Well, Paul Reed got nearly three seconds). For three quarters, we painted furious and scathing “Please Get out of the Mud” and “Catch us a C-Bass” signs with pictures of muddy crocodiles and super mean fish.
It’s more than fair to wonder why Jordan (who isn’t anywhere near say Andre Drummond’s talent ballpark) has received almost all of the backup big minutes since arriving. And coach Rivers actually seems a tad defensive on the subject:
Doc Rivers was quick to say that DeAndre Jordan has been great (before @DerekBodnerNBA could finish his question), though he conceded that Jordan struggled tonight. Said they need Jordan as a roller.— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 15, 2022
So given all of our baggage we fans have, living through the minus-9 in two crushing Greg Monroe minutes, overcompensating with a $108M Al Horford, Dwight Howard, (a minus-37 combined in four losses, three at home versus ATL) fans are wondering how on earth could Morey risk signing Doc Rivers a guy that might effectively end all experimentation with these non-Embiid minutes, no matter how poorly things go?
But of course they won Monday. Millsap and Jordan combined for 48 minutes and Tyrese Maxey demonstrated his flair for the limelight. Caught up in our Maxey fever, we kicked all our freshly painted Mud signs under my bed.
What is your biggest concern with the Sixers? https://t.co/hdINLIqHA6— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) March 22, 2022
Jordan was on the floor when the Sixers made a monster run to absolutely bury Luka Dončić and company days ago. And they got themselves back into the race for a top seed with Jordan mostly on the floor in a huge upset over the fully loaded Heat.
Millsap and Jordan have played all the center minutes so far. Related question: At what point in this game would I be considered a political prisoner?— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) March 21, 2022
Maybe the veteran duo of Millsap and Jordan are better than many fans think. Millsap got the start and played some solid help defense. Jordan was a plus-7 in 25 minutes.
Defensively, one can sort of switch and one can protect the rim. Offensively, one can maybe space the floor for Harden and the other can roll for him.
And maybe Rivers feels validated and will continue to not experiment. If the Sixers never give the young guys a real chance, and then lose a winnable playoff series in the first or second round while getting trounced in the Jordan-Millsap minutes, the blame should start, but certainly not end, with Rivers.
The Sixers beating the Heat with Millsap & Jordan playing 48 minutes is a real “I’ve won but at what cost” situation— Francis Parker (@franciszomes) March 22, 2022
Despite the success of Team Vet, it still seems like an easy “see what you got and if it doesn’t work commence status quo” spot. But since they won, the revolt has resorted to Meetup.com seeking members. The new sign is “despite recent success of the veteran backup bigs, we the people still feel it’s worth experimenting with Young Paul and Big Charles.” Hopefully we get that down to seven words by the time we hit the streets.
2) A Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz renaissance? A Shake Furkanaissance?
Coach Rivers asked for big things out of Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz versus Miami and the duo stepped up in a big way. And it wasn’t just that they played so well that was a surprise, it’s that one of them even got a shot to begin with.
Doc Rivers says his assistant coaches were shocked when he called on Furkan Korkmaz as 1 of the guys off the bench tonight #Sixers— Ky Carlin (@Ky_Carlin) March 22, 2022
And that makes Korkmaz’s 18-point, six-rebound game against a top defense, in which he drained 4-of-7 from distance, even more impressive. It’s one thing to step on the court cold and deliver. Dude hadn’t even logged but one Furkan minute in the team’s prior five games. If Korkmaz can somehow get back to where he was at the beginning of this season, shooting around 40 percent from three, it would be so so major. Fans having long abandoned the idea, suddenly getting back another off-the-catch gunner to play with Harden would be massive.
With the Heat in a zone here, the Sixers force a second defender to help when Harris attacks Herro, which helps play a part in them creating an open 3 for Korkmaz: pic.twitter.com/rTQ9uhNZ7n— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) March 22, 2022
As for Shake Milton:
Doc Rivers to the rest of this staff watching Shake tonight: "SEE! I TOLD YOU ASSHOLES I WASN'T MAKING THAT 2020 GAME AGAINST US UP!"— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) March 22, 2022
Milton had 20 points, six dimes, and five boards. He came up clutch putting it right to Miami’s Tyler Herro, draining some clutch pull-up daggers after contact.
I’ll defend Herro just a little to say that many of these shots the Sixers were hitting against him were tough contested pull-ups Heat coach Erik Spoelstra probably lives with. But the Sixers were lights out, especially Maxey, who looks increasingly comfortable on that side-step triple lately:
Maxey's side-step 3 is becoming a really fun signature shot. That hesitation into the jump to his right. I watch a lot of League Pass and not sure I see that specific shot around the NBA.— Jimmy Harden (@_JimmyMcCormick) March 22, 2022
But a common thing has been for the Sixers starters to smash and for their bench to get massacred. You’ve seen those “the starters were plus-4 million and the bench was minus-9 million” tweets.
Maybe a big game out of Shake can get him going. He’s another guy like Maxey who can hit open spot-up threes, and attack a scrambling D when the ball gets rotated to the second-side.
3) Maximizing the Maxey minutes has mad merit man
I’m not sure the best way for the Sixers to stagger their lineups and rotations. I’m sort of confident that they should have at least one of Joel Embiid and James Harden on the floor at all times during close playoff games. But how best to distribute the combinations is still a complex jumble in my mind.
Last night’s game was a reminder of one thing we talked about a lot before the Harden-Ben Simmons trade: Maxey has played many of his best games with Embiid out of the lineup. Clearly, he can earmark those games when he knows he’s being relied upon to step up as a primary initiator. Clearly, he can get lost in the action at times when the MVP candidate is active.
Tyrese Maxey hits the go ahead layup as the Sixers beat the Grizzlies in OT without Joel Embiid— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) February 1, 2022
Despite Maxey’s brilliance in games Embiid sits, they’ve opted to mate most of Maxey’s minutes with Embiid’s. Maxey and Embiid average 32.4 mpg together since Harden’s debut. Harden and Harris average 30.2 mpg. This stuff has pretty much been great.
Maybe there’s some wiggle room to mix it up also, no?
A four-man combo of Harden, Embiid, Georges Niang and Danny Green makes sense. Harden thrives with shooters around him. The Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll is lethal. When surrounded with willing snipers like Green and Niang, it’s just too hard for a defense to help and not pay for their sins.
But that unit with the two stars and two barely-conscious bombers has only logged 30 possessions together. It seems like there should be more room for Green here as the games get bigger, hopefully his poor play recently is more saving-self for the playoffs than anything. I’ll be very curious to see if Green Ranger’s minutes begin to tick up here down the stretch.
The flip side there is that Maxey and Harris’ secondary creation ability aren’t mandatory when the Bonus Brothers are cooking. In other lineups, they’re more vital. And their relative reluctance to fire off the catch (when compared to Niang and Green) can sometimes detract from the Beard-Process two-man-action. Maybe there’s some “Manu Ginobli, sixth man but still logs starter/closer minutes” potential for Maxey? Maybe he can play more of those non-Embiid minutes with Beard and play some primary like he did versus Miami?
Always some great Sixers insight and thought experiments on the Cookies Hoops pod:
A scorching new (perfect) pod!!!— COOKIES HOOPS (@CookiesHoops) March 15, 2022
Eric Adams' weirdo NYC vision
Brooklyn rap parties
Special sauce secrets
A massive Wordle takedown
Jo vs Jokic
Sixers Doc #2: More Sixers Doc
Kyrie's drip on full display! https://t.co/ytWsuFsM3x
Perhaps the Sixers’ best two-way lineup might feature Embiid-Harden-Green-Thybulle, the team’s two best wing defenders alongside the top stars. That four-man unit has only played together five possessions total per Cleaningtheglass.com. Add Niang to the mix and it’s only appeared together for one single possession.
Last month our Sean Kennedy wondered if Harden could alleviate some of our backup center minute woes. On paper, the way to accentuate Beard’s strengths might be to surround him with catch-and-shoot weapons and either a spot-up big (small ball anyone) or a rolling, lob-threat big.
But Harden has only played nine possessions with all of Green, Niang, and Thybulle on the court when Embiid takes a blow. But what if that four-man unit just like...works? What if there’s a way to further unleash Maxey and also salvage non-Joel times. What if there’s an answer that exists in the many untried, but intuitive permutations and we never get to find out because they didn’t really try?
So here’s our central theme.
The Sixers’ coaching staff appears to have mostly predetermined how they want to play. But the highest upside way to go might be to frantically iterate, even if it means plowing through (and ruling out) some suboptimal lineups along the way. Sure, that’s a tall order when seeding may be a priority. But what if seeding isn’t a top priority?
I do wonder how a data junkie like Morey feels about having such paltry lineup samples to analyze. Does he trust Doc implicitly or does he feel there’s a separation between front office Church and coaching State he must begrudgingly respect? The rest games for Embiid and Harden ahead may represent the best litmus tests they’ll get since they appear to be set for times they’re at full strength.
Maybe the only true takeaway for us here from Monday is that the Sixers can afford to buy Embiid and Harden more rest nights while relying on Maxey and Harris to lead the way. But one thing I’m confident in is that they should be exploring a bit more than they are.
They’re once again on a surprisingly conventional fast track, hurtling towards Planet “we never tried it during the regular season how on Earth can we try it in the playoffs.” That got them the one seed last season, maybe it’ll “work” again. There were probably downsides to that strategy too. There’s eleven games to go, and a few kinks need ironing, but the key ingredients are in place.