Paul Reed has no idea what happened on what he called an “easy” dunk attempt. But when the 76ers’ second-year big man swiped a breakaway steal off an inbound pass Friday night against Oklahoma City and elevated for a fancy reverse, he did not power himself high enough to get the ball above the rim for an authoritative finish and instead fell to the ground.

Sixers coach Doc Rivers called it the “dumbest play of the night.” But he also did not pull Reed from the game as punishment. Reed’s play surrounding the miss was more telling, the coach said, and represented Reed’s renewed opportunity with the Sixers after backup center Andre Drummond was traded to the Brooklyn Nets as part of the deal that brought James Harden to Philly.

The man they call “BBall Paul” has contributed in the role the Sixers need in back-to-back wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers by “staying in his lane,” Rivers said, and rebounding, defending, running the floor, and setting picks and rolling in brief spurts while MVP contender Joel Embiid rests.

“You’ve got to show these guys or the front office that they shouldn’t go out there and get another backup because we lost our backup,” Embiid said he told Reed following the trade. “So this is your chance to come out and do whatever is necessary to show them that you deserve to be getting minutes.

“And that’s what he’s been doing. Charles [Bassey] also has an opportunity to do it, but Paul has the hot hand right now, so you got to stick with whatever makes you win games.”

Unprompted, Rivers said Friday and reiterated Saturday that the Sixers will explore the buyout market for a replacement for Drummond, who provided size, rebounding, and rim protection before becoming a late addition to Thursday’s deadline deal. But until then, Reed and Bassey — who has also flashed potential in limited action this season but did not play the past two games — are the Sixers’ internal options. When Reed was called up from the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats and pulled aside during Friday’s shootarond to learn he would get playing time that night against the Thunder, his reaction was a nonchalant “all right, cool.”

Added Rivers: “We really felt strongly about Paul Reed [Friday] night and where he could fit in.”

Reed “proved us right,” Rivers said. Shortly after entering the game late in the first quarter, he hit the deck for a steal and blocked a shot in the lane. He finished with six points on 3-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds (four offensive), two blocks, and two steals in 13 minutes. The next night against Cleveland, he totaled another six points on 3-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds (five offensive), and three steals in 15 minutes.

» READ MORE: Paul Reed gaining valuable experience during stint in Sixers’ rotation

During that outing against the Cavaliers, he primarily matched up against rookie of the year front-runner Evan Mobley, who has impressive length and athleticism. Reed also altered a shot attempt by All-Star Darius Garland at the first-quarter buzzer, converted a nice left-handed finish through the lane in the second period and pulled down an offensive board in between two Cavaliers. He opened the fourth quarter with a reverse dunk on a feed from Shake Milton. Later, he followed his own miss inside by battling to keep the ball alive, which ultimately led to a Furkan Korkmaz corner three-pointer.

“He just becomes an instigator with the way he plays,” Rivers said. “And I love that he’s fearless. He’s not gonna back down from anybody.”

The weekend outings were Reed’s first meaningful action with the Sixers since late December, when he was briefly in the rotation for two games while Drummond was in COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Earlier this season, Reed also utilized his enticing blend of a long 6-foot-9 frame and energetic style while defending All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Reed has spent much of his time in the G League, after Rivers strongly hinted that he needed to gain a better understanding of where he was supposed to be on the floor.

That’s where Reed’s quest to simplify began.

He can be a different beast at the G-League level, a double-double machine who won the MVP award for last year’s shortened season. But during this season’s stints with the Blue Coats, rather than allow Reed to veer away from the offensive system to freelance — aka “start Bballing,” as coach Coby Karl described — Karl tasked him with becoming a “Hall-of-Fame dribble-handoff player.”

“He’s so ambitious and he’s so driven and he’s willing to do whatever, that he wants it all now, like most of us do,” Karl told The Inquirer in late December. “He’s very excitable, so I think it gets in his way of that consistency, because he wants to do everything, not just one thing really, really well. …

“You need to play at a rhythm where your teammates can understand what you’re gonna do, how you’re gonna do it. I thought Paul really kind of started to understand the consistency of running the offense and not always breaking it off and doing the other stuff.”

Reed has always brought a workmanlike approach. While eating breakfast with the Blue Coats’ coaches and staff during the December G League Showcase, Reed shared how much he hated Las Vegas’ natural distractions and that he just wanted to play basketball. After returning to the Sixers a few days later, Reed was the last player on the practice floor at a small college in Newark the day before a Dec. 30 win at Brooklyn. Player development coach Brian Adams guided Reed through a rigorous shooting drill, during which he inched his way around the three-point arc with a goal of making 30 attempts without missing three in a row.

He accomplished that feat, drenched in sweat, with teammate Tyrese Maxey cheering him on from across the gym.

“We get free pizza if you start shooting right now!” Maxey yelled. “I know you!”

Reed acknowledged that going back and forth between Philly and Wilmington initially caused some confusion about his role on each team. But everything became clear during a “very helpful” conversation with Rivers before the Sixers’ Dec. 20 game at Boston.

“Now when I’m out there on the court, I’m very intentional about what I got to do for the team to help us win,” Reed said after that practice in Newark. “[Rivers is] not looking for me to go out there and score a lot of points. He’s looking for me to go out there and bring energy, dive on loose balls, get rebounds, set screens and just open up the court for my teammates. …

“It was just simplifying what he wants and just going out there and focusing all my energy on exactly that — nothing else.”

Still, Reed had to wait more than a month for his next true NBA opportunity. In early January, the Sixers guaranteed his contract for the rest of the season. Then, as a young player on a favorable deal, his name was floated as somebody who could be attached in a trade package to acquire Harden.

But in his most recent G League game before returning to Philly — when he totaled 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting and added 17 rebounds in a 129-117 win over the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — Reed said he “had the wrong mindset in the first half” and shifted to a defensive focus that naturally led to offensive success.

“I started doing a whole lot better,” Reed said. “It transitioned at the right time.”

Now back with the Sixers, Reed’s botched dunk attempt gave teammates and coaches a laugh during Saturday’s film session. But during pregame warm-ups the following night, Tobias Harris encouraged Reed to set up for the same dunk — which he threw down as teammates went wild — in a moment of redemption.

That the blooper now serves as an aberration — the one example of Reed trying to do too much during this renewed opportunity to play as the Sixers’ backup center — is evidence of his development via simplification.

“He’s had two games in a row where he’s just doing his job,” Rivers said.

Join The Inquirer’s Gina Mizell, Keith Pompey, and DeAntae Prince live from the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in Cleveland on Feb. 18 at 4:30 PM. They’ll discuss Joel Embiid’s role as an All-Star Game starter and Tyrese Maxey’s appearance in the Rising Stars Game, plus the latest forecast for the remainder of the season and updates from the league’s Feb. 10 trade deadline on Inquirer LIVE.

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