I will not get carried away.
I will not … get carried away.
I will … throw myself in front of Doc Rivers’ car until he promises to play Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton 48 minutes per game!
Sorry, but it was that kind of night for the Sixers. For a couple of different reasons. First and foremost, their season-opening 113-107 win over the Wizards marked the arrival of player who could dramatically alter a lot of what we thought we knew about the shortcoming of this team. The alterer in question was a 20-year-old rookie who brought enough electricity to the Wells Fargo Center to qualify for a variety of government rebates.
From the moment Maxey stepped onto the court — or, rather, from the moment after he stepped out of bounds his first time touching the ball — the No. 21 overall pick in last month’s draft left you wondering how anybody who evaluates basketball for a living could identify 20 better players in this year’s crop of amateurs. The Sixers have been raving about their luck from the moment they selected him, and, by end of Wednesday night’s opener, you wouldn’t even have needed to know their recent history at his position to understand why. Maxey looked that good, easily driving to the bucket for a layup on his first full possession and then, on his second possession, hitting Furkan Korkmaz with a crosscourt pass for an open three. Active both on defense and the boards, Maxey’s preternatural feel for the game was on display throughout his two stints of action, in particular on a pick-and-roll assist where he spotted Mike Scott setting up in the weakside corner and skipped a pass to the veteran for a three.
If it seems slightly absurd to lead a column about an ostensible title contender by focusing on a backup point guard who logged a total of 11 minutes, you clearly did not spend your Christmas Eve Eve watching the Sixers’ starters attempt to play their first half of basketball together. They weren’t just bad. They were borderline incoherent. In their first seven minutes of action, they combined to score a grand total of 14 points, putting them on pace to break 100 by the middle of overtime. At halftime, all five starters were in the minus, ranging from Ben Simmons’ minus-7 to Danny Green’s minus-18. By the end of the night, Green was 1-for-6 from the field, 0-for-6 from three-point range, and minus-27 in the box score. He and fellow newcomer Seth Curry combined to miss eight of the nine long-range shots they attempted.
There are all kinds of reasons why we should be careful about interpreting Game 1 of who-knows-how-many as a harbinger of doom. The Sixers entered the season with a new coach, two new starters, two new bench players, and less than a month of practice to blend it all together into a digestible froth. Rivers acknowledged before the game that he wasn’t exactly sure whether his team was ready for prime time, pointing to the uneven performances in the previous night’s games between the Nets-Warriors and Lakers-Clippers.
“It’s really been tough to tell this preseason because honestly we haven’t seen a lot of them,” Rivers said. “We’ve played two games. We’ve not actually visually seen a lot of basketball.”
The trajectory of Wednesday night’s game offered some reason to think that time will heal much of what ailed Rivers’ team in their first go-round. After trailing by as many as 12 points midway through the third quarter, the Sixers rallied to tie the game at 88-88 with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter. They spent most of the rest of the night going bucket-for-bucket with the Wizards before ultimately giving themselves some breathing room down the stretch.
In doing so, the Sixers showed why Rivers and new team president Daryl Morey have spent much of the last couple of months publicly salivating at their newfound opportunity to steward a team built around Joel Embiid. After a relatively quiet first half, Embiid exploded for 15 points in the fourth quarter, and the rest of the first unit settled into place around him. The one exception was Green, who spent the final minutes of the game on the bench in favor of Shake Milton, who finished the night at plus-33, scoring 19 points in 30 minutes on 6-of-11 shooting.
Milton “was so good offensively, we needed to keep him on the floor,” said Rivers, who added that he will be patient with Green given his short layoff following the Lakers’ title run.
From a long-term perspective, the performances of Milton and Maxey off the bench were a big reason to reevaluate the perceived shortcomings of the current roster. With two young players who can create their own shots and provide offense off the bench, the Sixers suddenly look wise not to have wasted any resources on a veteran ball-handler to fill the void that has existed throughout much of the last three seasons.
The Sixers have a lot of improving to do before they arrive as that special sort of team that Rivers says he sees in them. But they also have a couple of young up-and-comers to dream on.