Doc Rivers was most critical of these early-season 76ers following an Oct. 24 blowout loss at the New York Knicks.
The coach lamented how the Knicks had physically flustered the Sixers, preventing the ball and body movement their offensive system requires. When asked about individual player performances, Rivers shot back with “I don’t think anybody looked good.”
“They pushed us around the entire night,” Rivers said then. " … One-pass shot. Avoided physicality. No picks. No passing. That was as bad as I’ve seen us, and I didn’t like it. We’ll get it fixed.”
Indeed they have. Since that poor showing inside Madison Square Garden, the 8-2 Sixers have won six consecutive games despite constant roster shake-ups due to injuries, COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and the lingering Ben Simmons situation. In the process, Philly has become the NBA’s most efficient offense (115.4 points per 100 possessions) while also leading the league in field-goal percentage (49) and three-point field-goal percentage (39.4) entering Sunday’s games.
That productivity will be put to the test this week, starting with Monday’s rematch against the Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center. The following night, the Sixers will take on the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, whose defense has been middle-of-the-pack early in 2021-22, but ranked in the top 10 in efficiency in each of the previous three seasons. Thursday, the Sixers will meet the Toronto Raptors, whose length and athleticism bothered them during the preseason and who rank as a top-10 defensive unit so far.
Rivers constantly boasts that the Sixers play positionless basketball at every spot except center, allowing for lineup flexibility while running sets and “random” read-and-react possessions. They have reached this status even with a five-minute-plus stretch without a field goal in a late collapse against Brooklyn. They have also done this without Simmons, a terrific facilitator and pace-setter while pushing in transition, and with MVP contender Joel Embiid at times struggling with his shooting.
Embiid said he “finally” found his touch during Saturday’s 114-105 win over the Bulls, making nine of his 13 shots, including all four three-point attempts, after the first quarter en route to 30 points and 15 rebounds. Yet he has also made a concerted effort to distribute when he is swarmed by the defense.
“They’re not allowing me to put the ball on the floor, so I’ve got to get rid of it,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to find my guys. Part of the reason we’re the best offensive team in the league is because we move the ball so well and we’ve got a bunch of shooters all over the place. At times, that’s what I have to do.”
Many of Embiid’s teammates have been beneficiaries, as evidenced by Saturday’s win when seven of the eight players who saw the floor scored in double figures.
Seth Curry is off to a torrid start, shooting 60% from the field and 50% from three-point distance, while Furkan Korkmaz is capable of catching fire, as he did in Saturday’s 25-point performance on 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. New backup big man Georges Niang has also demonstrated he can shoot from long range and put the ball on the floor, while teammates regularly praise the way backup center Andre Drummond opens things up with hard screens and rolls. Tobias Harris has been steady when healthy (19.8 points on 54.3% shooting, 4.2 assists, and nine rebounds per game), especially while attacking with that first step.
Yet Tyrese Maxey’s continuous development at point guard has perhaps been the most important element. The Sixers have been running a slew of “double drag” screens to get the 21-year-old downhill and into the paint to either score or kick out to a teammate. He tied a career high with eight assists against the Bulls.
Shake Milton has also returned to form after recovering from a sprained ankle, giving Philly another capable ballhandler with the starting or second unit. Maxey and Milton have started together out of necessity the past two games, with starter Danny Green nursing hamstring tightness, Korkmaz missing one game with a wrist injury, and Matisse Thybulle in protocols due to contact tracing after Harris and Isaiah Joe tested positive for COVID-19.
The same night Rivers expressed so much frustration with his team’s offensive output against the Knicks, he also emphasized he would not overreact to one game. Embiid also sees plenty of areas for personal and team improvement.
The big man is confident he will return to his 2020-21 shooting efficiency. He was so upset with one of his six turnovers Saturday that he inadvertently made contact with Lonzo Ball’s face while throwing his arm in frustration. A Sixers defense that led the NBA in efficiency last season — and that ignites so much of their transition offense — so far ranks in the middle of the league’s pack.
Yet that all provides reason for optimism that the Sixers’ can continue to thrive, especially as the roster replenishes.
Harris, Thybulle, Joe out for Knicks game
Harris, Thybulle and Joe are all listed as out for Monday’s game against the Knicks while still in health and safety protocols, according to the NBA’s injury report released Sunday evening.
Additionally, Green is again listed as questionable to play against New York with left hamstring tightness. He sustained the injury during last Monday’s win over Portland and missed the three games since then.
Simmons (personal reasons) and Grant Riller (knee surgery recovery) also remain out.