Allen Iverson rose from his courtside seat during the break between the third and fourth quarters to toss T-shirts into the gleeful crowd seated in Wells Fargo Center’s Section 115.
The fans who caught them left with a physical souvenir that, until second-year big man Paul Reed went wild in that final period, was likely far more memorable than the game itself that they witnessed. The Sixers finished out the regular season with an ultimately inconsequential 118-106 win Sunday night and now look ahead to their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series that begins Saturday at 6 p.m. against the Toronto Raptors.
The game’s atmosphere and flow felt like a Game 82 with little-to-no stakes. The Sixers (51-31) rested stars Joel Embiid, who on Sunday clinched the NBA’s scoring title, and James Harden, allowing for non-rotation players such as Reed (25 points on 12-of-14 shooting, six rebounds, and four steals) to get the shine while chants of “BBall Paul!” broke out in the final minutes. The Pistons, whose 23-59 season is now over, did not play Rookie of the Year contender Cade Cunningham.
And the victory ultimately had no impact on the Sixers’ playoff seeding. The Boston Celtics’ 139-110 romp over a Memphis Grizzlies team resting most of its key players Sunday locked the Sixers into fourth place in the standings and a matchup against a Toronto team that won the regular-season series 3-1.
The Sixers must also now face reality that defensive ace Matisse Thybulle remains ineligible to travel to Canada — and, thus, unable to play in Games 3, 4, and 6 (if necessary) — because he is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Thybulle said after the game that he chose to get the first Pfizer shot months ago, but not the second to complete the series.
The Sixers led by as many as 15 points in the first half Sunday but were in a tight game entering the final period. They created distance with 10 consecutive points from Reed — including an alley-oop slam and steal and a bucket that got Iverson on his feet — to stretch their lead back out to 112-98 with about four minutes to play.
“I pointed at [Iverson], for sure,” Reed said with a grin. “I had to make sure he knew what time it was.”
Shake Milton totaled 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists and pleased Rivers with his continued ability to knock down the spot-up jumper. Tyrese Maxey added 25 points, including a slew of explosive finishes in the paint in the third quarter. The Sixers scored 27 points off 20 Pistons turnovers.
“Shoot, it didn’t matter for me who was playing,” Milton said. “Especially guys in my position, we talk about any time you see an opportunity, you see that door crack open just a little bit, it’s like you get eager to try to kick it down. For me, it was just about staying ready and trying to be aggressive.
“Hopefully, it gives me good rhythm going into the playoffs, because I feel like I’m going to be in that spot where you never really know what you’ll need and I’m going to be ready to provide whatever. For me, it’s just about being as prepared as possible and letting the chips fall where they may.”
Without Embiid and Harden, the Sixers trotted out an unconventional starting group of Maxey, Thybulle, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and DeAndre Jordan. All nine healthy, non-resting players got at least 20 minutes. Reserve forward Georges Niang (knee), veteran big man Paul Millsap (non-COVID illness), and rookie center Charles Bassey (shoulder) were also unavailable to play.
That created moments such as a slick Reed bounce pass to a cutting Thybulle for a dunk. Or Milton making a driving layup and a three-pointer from the top of the key in a span of 9 seconds. Or Jordan collecting his 3,000th career offensive rebound.
But those combinations also led to spurts of clunky play, preventing the Sixers from holding onto their double-digit first-half lead and forcing Rivers into an early third-quarter timeout when the Pistons began on a 7-0 run to seize a 67-62 advantage. The Pistons scored 16 points off the Sixers’ 11 turnovers.
Then, a lineup of Milton, Thybulle, Reed, Isaiah Joe, and Furkan Korkmaz finished the job in the fourth. All of Sunday’s bench players finished with a plus/minus of at least plus-21.
Reed, the former G League MVP who is already a fan favorite because of his energy and hustle, provided the biggest highlight reel by rebounding, running the floor, and finishing inside. And though Rivers said Reed could be in the rotation against Toronto’s undersized-but-long roster, the coach is “not going to go on the Paul Reed victory tour, so don’t start. We’re trying to win a world championship, man.”
“He’s had to earn [minutes], and he’s done that,” Rivers said. “There’s a lot of things we didn’t like that he was doing [earlier in the season]. He’ll tell you that. And he’s come around to playing the right way. I swear, coaching is hard, guys, and you have to get your guys to play the right way.
“You want to ask [the other] guys on the team what I’m talking about, they will confirm that. But you don’t see that. I do.”
The Sixers have five or six days off until Game 1 against the Raptors while the NBA holds its play-in tournaments for the seventh and eighth seeds in both conferences.
With limited practice time since the blockbuster Harden trade, Rivers plans to approach the week like a mini training camp. Monday will be a mandatory off day after the back-to-back, while Tuesday will be heavy on film, Rivers said.
“We need it probably as much as anyone,” Rivers said. " … Obviously, you’re not going as hard as you would in training camp. But it does give us an opportunity to get some continuity, to be able to run end-of-the game sets, to get some extra shots. This is a big week for us.”
Rivers identified rebounding, transition defense, and consistent offensive ball and body movement as the Sixers’ biggest areas to improve in the playoffs. The Sixers entered Sunday ranked 28th in the NBA in rebounding (42.3 per game) and 29th in fastbreak points allowed (15 per game).