Somebody once said that you should never trust a man with two first names, but that somebody was not Sixers head coach Doc Rivers. With five minutes left, you looked on the court and you saw a Sixers lineup that included Isaiah Joe, Dakota Mathias, and Terrance Ferguson. A few minutes later, the buzzer rang. Another sub tucked in his shirt. Paul Reed was joining the party.
It was Monday night, and the Hornets were in town, and things went about how you expected. By the end of the proceedings, Dwight Howard had taken his shirt off, Joel Embiid was smiling in his warm-ups, and the Sixers’ end of the court looked like the end of an AAU tournament as the final seconds ticked away in a 118-101 win.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, except that all of the vibes remain good for these Sixers. Each game, it seems, they offer a new wrinkle that makes you wonder just how high their potential could reach. On Monday night, the featured presentations were a couple of skill sets that haven’t exactly dominated the headlines of their respective players.
Let’s start with Joel Embiid, because that is where it always starts. Except, this time around, it started with his passing. On a night where the Hornets used a variety of defensive looks to keep Embiid from the rim, the big man reacted with a shrug and a skip.
“He’s really been utilizing himself as a point center on the block,” said teammate Tobias Harris, who celebrated his Eastern Conference player-of-the-week award with a 22-point outing.
Embiid was exactly that against the Hornets, passing out of double and triple teams faster than the defense could reset. He finished with four assists, and could have had a couple more had the shots fallen.
“I think it’s moreso that I’ve rekindled with the love of passing,” said Embiid, who attempted just 10 shots and finished with 14 points. “I might not get a lot of assists, but the whole goal of it is to get someone else open.”
Indeed, Embiid’s improvement doesn’t show in the raw box score. Heading into Monday night, he was averaging 2.8 assists per game, slightly below his career average. But box scores don’t measure things like reaction time, or cross-court vision, or command and control, or the first pass of a sequence that eventually finds an open shooter.
Speaking of shooters, the Sixers look like they might have the makings of another one in their rookie point guard out of Kentucky. When Tyrese Maxey fell into the Sixers’ lap at the end of the first round, the assumption was that there were questions about his shooting. But that sort of scouting report does not jibe with what we’ve seen through seven games. Though Maxey entered Monday with only one made three-pointer in seven attempts, he has certainly looked the part, with a natural rhythm and quick release and soft touch. Against the Hornets, he knocked down two shots from behind the arc, one a quick catch-and-release knockdown off a feed from Ben Simmons.
“There’s this narrative out there that he reason he went down in the draft was people didn’t think he could shoot,” Rivers said. “I haven’t seen a lick of that.”
What he has seen is a team that has embraced his messaging and become a heck of a fun team to watch. With 7:37 left in the second quarter, the Sixers were down five. A couple of minutes later, they were up ten, en route to a 27-7 run to end the first half. It started as it has throughout this season, on the defensive end of the court, with Embiid serving as a seven-foot chunk of kryptonite stationed around the goal. Simmons was again spectacular, Danny Green again solid, and the Sixers again defended like a special kind of unit.
The real test begins on Thursday, with a trip to Brooklyn that kicks off a five-game stretch against four of the more dynamic teams in the league. You would be wise to reserve any sweeping judgments until a couple of weeks from now.
Still, the Sixers are handling their business they way they should be handling it, and that counts for a lot in a season like this. At 6-1, they are off to their best seven-game start since the 2000-01 season, when Allen Iverson’s bunch won seven straight en route to their NBA Finals run. It’s far too early to say with any certainty how close these Sixers are to that level. But they are playing a fun brand of basketball.