For 48 minutes, it was all about the ties that bind us: basketball, competition, and the cultivation of emerging markets. In an exhibition game played against the backdrop of a diplomatic conflagration featuring the Chinese state-run propaganda apparatus, Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey, and an NBA league office yearning to expand its global footprint, the Sixers largely steered clear of controversy in a 144-86 win over the Guangzhou Loong-Lions on Tuesday night.
Here’s what we learned. . .
1) Ben Simmons has a flare for the dramatic. With the seconds rolling toward zero on the final possession of the first half and Simmons dribbling above the right break for the final shot, the Wells Fargo Center crowd swelled into a roar as everybody in the building yelled at the third-year All-Star to shoot. For a couple of ticks of the clock, it wasn’t clear how Simmons would react. But then it happened: a foot or so behind the three-point line -- in one smooth motion -- he picked up his dribble, planted his back foot, swiveled his hips, stepped into a shot that followed a perfect arc over the defense and dropped through the rim while touching nothing but net. The whole building exploded, not just in the seating bowl, but on the Sixers’ bench, with Joel Embiid chasing Simmons down and wrapping his arms around his midsection.
It was the sort of shot that Simmons needs to shoot this year, the sort of shot that sends a message: top of the half court offense, defense sagging off, ‘if you’re gonna give it to me, I’m gonna take it.’ Given the quality of the opponent, and the gravity of the stakes, we probably shouldn’t make too much of this. But as much as Simmons prefers to act like the shooting issue isn’t a thing, well, it is, and a moment like this matters, if only from a perspective of psychology: his, the home crowd’s, the media’s, etc.
One thing that might be worth nothing: earlier this week, as Simmons was shooting a series of catch-and-shoot 18-to-20-footers at the end of practice, he looked a lot more natural and comfortable shooting from the right side of the court than he did versus the left. It might have been nothing, but it was something that struck me. Take it for what it is worth.
2) Before we type ourselves out of breath detailing another impressive performance by Matisse Thybulle, we should note that the rookie first round draft pick was playing against an opponent that would have been overwhelmed and overmatched by any collection of NBA players, let alone a team that is hoping to push for 60 wins this season. The Lions’ starting unit featured a a former NBA reserve in Andrew Nicholson, who played in 285 games for the Magic, Wizards and Nets from 2012-17. As a whole, though, this was something less than G-League talent…There was a moment midway through the first quarter when Embiid faced up Lions big man Zhang Xiaolei and beat him with a first step so badly that the Lions big man was still getting out of his stance as Embiid rose up to dunk the ball and draw an and-1.
That being said, you can only play the opponent in front of you. And just as he did in an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, Thybulle played it well enough to give himself a big head of steam in the competition for bench minutes at the start of the regular season. On the defensive end, he was the same disruptive force we saw in the scrimmage, frustrating the Lions with his length all over the court. Shortly after he checked in, he helped force a turnover in the backcourt and then threw down an alley-oop lob from Al Horford off the ensuing loose ball. In the second quarter, he swatted a long range shot attempt out of the hands of Nicholson, which ignited a fast break. Later that period, he swatted a midrange jumpshot to spark another fast break.
But it was on the offensive end where Thybulle really bolstered his case. There were some questions about Thybulle’s three-point shot after he was drafted, but it has looked more than passable ever since summer league, and Tuesday night was no exception. Late in the first quarter, he knocked down a catch-and-shoot three from above the left break. In the third quarter, he knocked down a catch-and-shoot three after popping out from the low block.
Thybulle also showed plenty of athleticism and court smarts. In the first quarter, he took a flip from James Ennis and threw down a big two-handed dunk while drawing a foul. In the second quarter, he made a quick extra pass to hit an open Trey Burke for a knock-down three-pointer. A couple of possessions later, he passed out of a double-team to a cutting Ben Simmons on a play that resulted in a bucket.
It’s going to be really interesting to see how Thybulle looks when the Sixers get the NBA portion of the preseason underway on Thursday.
3) The Sixers spent much of the first quarter trapping full court on makes, which is one way they could look to utilize their prodigious length and athleticism this season. Again, it’s something to keep your eye on once the competition is NBA-caliber and not completely overwhelmed the way the Lions were when trying to dribble or pass out of the pressure.
4) Al Horford has had a ton of open looks from three-point range when sharing the court with Joel Embiid, both in Saturday’s scrimmage and on Tuesday night. A lot has been made about spacing concerns now that J.J. Redick is not around. But the ability of both Horford and Tobias Harris to draw bigger defenders away from the rim is going to create some interesting conundrums for opposing defenses as they try to contend with Embiid.
5) Zhaire Smith has his work cut out for him in the competition for bench minutes. The 2018 first-round draft pick did not make his first appearance until under three minutes remained in the third quarter, subbing in alongside Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton. He also came off the bench behind Thybulle and Ennis in the Sixers’ scrimmage. Brett Brown warned before the game not to read too much into his substitution patterns - the goal for this one was just to roll guys in and get minutes. But it’s at least worth noting that the first two guys off the bench were Thybulle and Ennis, who checked in for Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson. That effectively moved Tobias Harris to the four with Al Horford at center, Ennis at the three, Thybulle at the two, and Simmons at point. Trey Burke got all of the backup point guard minutes in the first half, Raul Neto in the second half.