DETROIT — With about nine minutes to play in the 76ers’ preseason game Friday night, a fan seated just behind the visitors’ bench hollered, “Where is Ben Simmons?!”
Simmons was not in the building, yet his possible upcoming return still loomed over the Sixers’ Friday stay in Detroit. That marked the first possible day Simmons could participate in team activities after clearing the NBA’s COVID-19 testing protocols, but the team announced a few hours before the game that he did not make the trip in order to continue “reconditioning.”
Still, the Sixers played a preseason basketball game at Little Caesars Arena. Their unexpectedly furious rally fell short in a 112-108 loss to the Pistons in their final tuneup before Wednesday’s regular-season opener at New Orleans. They finished exhibition play 2-2.
Five other Sixers rotation players were held out: starters Joel Embiid (rest), Tobias Harris (knee soreness) and Danny Green (rest) and reserves Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness) and Shake Milton (sprained ankle). That paved the way for Andre Drummond (17 points, seven rebounds and three assists) and Tyrese Maxey (16 points, five rebounds, three assists) to carry the offensive load, though many of the younger players who saw action because of that depleted roster struggled.
Though the Sixers collected 52 points in the paint, the Pistons got to the free throw line more frequently (29-of-35 vs. 18-of-24), scored 19 points off 12 Sixers turnovers and held a 47-38 rebounding edge. The Sixers also only scored two second-chance points. They trailed by as many as 22 points before that comeback attempt and allowed the Pistons to shoot 48.7% from the field.
Maxey starts fast at point guard
Maxey was sharp to start his final preseason appearance as the first-team point guard, thanks to an array of aggressive drives to the basket for tough finishes or playmaking opportunities.
He made five of his first six shots, including an off-the-dribble three-pointer. He closed the first half by using his speed to race down the floor to the basket to beat the buzzer. His three assists included an early alley-oop to Drummond. He finished 7-of-16 from the floor and 2-of-6 from three-point range.
“Trying to do what I do,” Maxey said of his performance. “Trying to get downhill. Coach has really been on me about getting to the paint, creating for myself and creating for others.”
Then teammate Isaiah Joe interjected: “That was his humble answer. Nobody can stay in front of him.”
Since struggling in the Sixers’ first preseason outing, Maxey has looked much more confident playing to his strengths.
Drummond ‘welcomed’ home
Sixers coach Doc Rivers may have joked that Little Caesars Arena was the “House that Drummond Built. But many of its local inhabitants clearly still feel a little salty toward the former Pistons big man who signed a minimum contract with the Sixers this past summer.
Fans booed Drummond every time he touched the ball, and jeered him whenever he missed a shot or free throw and when he picked up two early fouls.
But Drummond clearly did not mind the reception. He finished 7-of-11 from the floor in 21 minutes, regularly converting inside and getting to the free throw line. Two of his assists were nifty bounce passes from outside the paint to Shaquille Harrison for a reverse dunk and to Furkan Korkmaz for a slam.
“That [expletive] backfired,” Drummond said of the boos. “But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. The sports fans here ... they’re not gonna cheer for the opposing team. No love lost here. I still love Detroit. At the end of the day, I’m still gonna talk positively about the city. It doesn’t affect me in any way.”
And when Drummond finished a tough shot high off the glass late in the second quarter, he mugged toward the courtside crowd sitting near the Sixers bench.
Pistons center Isaiah Stewart was also a force Friday, finishing with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting and 12 rebounds.
Young players ignite rally
The Sixers’ rotation players spent much of the stretch run standing from the bench, watching their young teammates claw back from a big deficit to tie the game at 103 with less than four minutes to play. They made that push even as Detroit kept some of their rotation players on the floor for the final minutes.
It started with Joe, the second-year guard who has been a pleasant surprise of the preseason and caught fire again in the third quarter. He made three of his four shots in the period, including back-to-back three-pointers to rapidly cut the Pistons’ lead from 18 to 12, to propel him to finish the game with 14 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Then, the group of training camp invitee point guard Shaquille Harrison, rookie guard Jaden Springer, two-way wing Aaron Henry, second-year big man Paul Reed and rookie center Charles Bassey erased the Pistons’ nine-point deficit to start the fourth quarter.
Reed finished 5-of-7 from the floor for 15 points and seven rebounds to overcome picking up four fouls in 11 first-half minutes. Springer (four points), Henry (seven points, four rebounds, two assists) and Harrison (eight points) attempted a combined four shots until the fourth quarter, before Springer hit a pull-up jumper in the lane with less than 10 minutes as part of a 7-1 run to start the period.
Rookie center Charles Bassey did not play until the fourth quarter but finished with seven points, igniting the Sixers’ bench when his dunk sliced the Pistons’ lead to 101-100 with less than five minutes to play.
“That’s what they’re there for,” Rivers said of that group. “They play hard. They defend. One thing with that group, all of them, they’re tough. … and you can feel that in the game. Though [Detroit] had some starters on the floor, [our players] made it tough for them.”
The Sixers’ lack of depth meant they needed to go small early on, with Maxey, Korkmaz, Joe, Reed and Seth Curry playing a first-quarter stretch together. Pistons forward Jerami Grant feasted on that group, scoring 11 points in the period including spinning and dunking on Korkmaz and following with an and-1 finish.