After the Raptors drubbed the 76ers in their 2020-21 preseason opener Monday night in Toronto, the Sixers returned the favor with a comfortable 125-113 victory in their first home preseason game Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers welcomed stars Joel Embiid (10 points, six rebounds, three assists in 20 minutes) and Tobias Harris (14 points, four rebounds, four assists in 24 minutes) back to the lineup after both players missed Monday’s game. Though they were missing key reserve wing Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness) Thursday, the more complete lineup helped the Sixers improve in several categories where they struggled Monday night.
They shot 54% overall and 18 of 37 from three-point range, including 12 of 22 in the first half, in a game they led by as many as 23 points. They were more aggressive and active on defense, leading to 14 steals, 32 points off turnovers, and 19 fastbreak points. Eight players finished in double figures led by Georges Niang’s 16 points. They got 70 bench points, including 52 while using normal rotations before both teams pulled their starters. They got stronger point-guard play overall.
Coach Doc Rivers said much of that success stemmed from a more concerted effort to get to the paint, which can lead to easy buckets and kick-outs for open three-pointers.
“Our feet barely touched the paint in the first game [against the Raptors], and we had all the opportunities to do it,” Rivers said. “I thought tonight we took those opportunities. And then when you get to the paint, you got to make a play, and I thought we did that well.”
Though a sloppy stretch to start the third quarter ignited a smattering of boos from the home crowd, there was much more to like from Thursday’s performance.
Embiid and Harris return
Embiid and Harris often looked like they were playing in their first preseason action, shooting a combined 9-of-19 from the floor, but contributing across the stat sheet while frequently playing with the ball in their hands.
Highlights from Embiid came when he hit an off-balance jumper early in the first quarter (and wanted the foul call) and then went up and under for a score just after the Raptors’ Precious Achiuwa drew an and-1 against Embiid in the second quarter. Harris was a sharp 2 for 2 from the floor with two assists in his second-quarter run.
Embiid later nailed a textbook turnaround jumper before exiting the game for good with about seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Harris drove the baseline hard and drew a foul, then hit a nice floater, before leaving at the 3:35 mark of the period.
“I thought Tobias needed the extra minutes,” Rivers said. “You could see he was kind of trying to find his way, and then late in the game, I thought he finally started catching his rhythm. That’s why I kept him out there a little longer. Joel looked just like Joel Embiid. Exactly like him.”
Added Embiid: “It is the type of game where I really focus on passing the ball and inviting double teams and kicking it out. That’s not the type of team where I’m gonna go out there and score 50, because they’re gonna double- and triple-team every possession. But it was good. My focus coming into the game, I told Tyrese [Maxey] I said I’m gonna have zero points and 10 assists.”
Toronto was undermanned inside, with centers Chris Boucher (finger), Khem Birch (COVID-19 protocols) and front-court teammates Pascal Siakam (shoulder) and Yuta Watanabe (calf) all out.
Point guard switch
Rivers switched up the point-guard pecking order, with Shake Milton getting the starting nod over Tyrese Maxey. When asked for his reasoning, Rivers said, “It’s a competition.”
Maxey thrived in the bench spark-plug role, scoring 10 of his 14 points in the first half and adding five assists against one turnover while primarily running a second unit also comprised of Niang, Isaiah Joe, Furkan Korkmaz, and Andre Drummond. He was a team-high plus-22 in the game.
Early in the second quarter, Maxey pushed the ball and dished a bounce pass to Drummond for the strong inside finish. He buried a three-pointer. Off another live-ball turnover, Maxey got all the way to the basket, but the layup rolled around and off the rim. Then, he hit a circus, sideways and-1 shot.
Milton, meanwhile, looked passive during his first-quarter stint (zero points on 0-for-1 shooting, zero rebounds and zero assists with two turnovers), but was sharper in his second-quarter stretch. He made both shot attempts and had three assists to help the Sixers stretch their lead to as many as 18 points. He finished with five points and four assists in 25 minutes.
“At the beginning of the game, he was trying to run the team,” Rivers said of Shake. “And then as the game went on, he just played and things started happening for him. Him and Tyrese, that’s what they’ll struggle with, when to be aggressive and when not to be. But they’ll get it. They both will get it.”
Milton and Maxey also played brief stretches together in both halves, before substitutions sent one to the bench.
Bassey’s first NBA action
Rookie center Charles Bassey got his long-awaited first NBA action, entering the game with 5:17 to play and playing alongside Paul Reed in the frontcourt.
After being drafted by the Sixers in the second round of the 2021 draft, Bassey did not play during summer league while contract talks between the team and his agent hit an impasse until the weekend before training camp. Then, the Nigerian-born Bassey was unable to play in the Sixers’ preseason opener in Toronto while the team finalized his visa. Bassey watched that game at home, and said he got a call from Rivers to reassure him, “You’re part of this team. … Just keep working and just keep proving to me that you earned your spot,” Bassey said.
Even during those stalled contract talks, Bassey spent much of the summer working out in Philadelphia behind the scenes. Because of that, he believes he does not feel as behind as one might think.
“I really wanted to show them I wanted to be with the team,” Bassey said after Thursday morning’s shootaround. “I really love the team. I love Philly. I want to be here with these guys and to win. They were really shocked. They didn’t think I was gonna come, but I did, and they’re really encouraged.”
Bassey expected the NBA pace to feel different in a game versus practice. But he has gotten a head start by going up against Embiid and observing the MVP contender’s habits during practice. When asked what it’s like partaking in that on-court matchup, Bassey flashed a wide grin and chuckled.
“It was tough,” Bassey said. “Someone like me, going against Joel, it’s good for me. That’s one of the best bigs in the league. … Sometimes in practice, he coaches me [from the sideline], just giving advice. Sometimes when we do drills and I make mistakes, he talks to me.”