The beauty of back-to-backs is that there isn’t much time to dwell on an off night. And after the Sixers submitted their worst defensive performance of the season on Friday in New Orleans, they had their second-stingiest game in Oklahoma City on Saturday.
With the 115-96 win on New Year’s Eve, the 76ers finished their annual post-Christmas Disney on Ice road trip with a 2-2 record. When they return home, a visit from a Pelicans team that scored 127 points against them awaits on Monday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Until then though, here are some observations from the Sixers’ split in New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
With Tyrese Maxey and James Harden out of the lineup Saturday, it came as little surprise that Shake Milton was given a starting role. And it also comes as no surprise that Milton took that role and ran with it.
Milton finished with 18 points and 5 assists, getting most of that work done during a first half in which the Sixers built a 28-point working margin. Yet again, Milton did much of his damage attacking weaker defenders when he has a head of steam. If he only sees one player in front of him and likes that matchup, Milton is generally going to drive directly at that player and try to draw contact. And that can happen both in the halfcourt and transition.
The Oklahoma City game came on the heels of Tyrese Maxey’s return to the lineup Friday in New Orleans. Maxey is still working his way back and got the second night of the back-to-back off. The Sixers are whole again in the backcourt and the question remains if Milton can successfully shift into a smaller role. That wasn’t the case earlier in the season when the Oklahoma native was on the fringe of the rotation.
Milton has proved extremely capable as a fourth guard taking on a starter’s role, which is a luxury but not an everyday role. How Milton fits into the Sixers’ plans when everyone is healthy, as seems to be the case moving forward, is less clear.
Harden also did not play the second half of the back-to-back, with what the team described as injury management for the right foot strain that sidelined him for a month earlier in this season.
With that in mind, the short-handed Sixers had to play a bit of a funky lineup after Joel Embiid subbed out of the game: Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr., Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell. That group did enough to tread water on a night that the Sixers were in relative cruise control against a young, rebuilding Thunder team that essentially couldn’t get out of its own way.
The question moving forward is what Doc Rivers will do when he has Harden available. The night before against New Orleans, when Rivers had his full roster, the Sixers went with a unit of Milton, Maxey, P.J. Tucker, Niang and Harrell at the end of the first quarter. That group turned a tie game into a 10-point deficit (with the help of some Zion Williamson brilliance) in a matter of just a few minutes.
There could be some reasons for playing an all-bench unit, which that essentially was in Maxey’s first game back. Maximizing the time Harden and Embiid have on the floor together (+9.3 net rating in just under 1,000 possessions) is one of them. Allowing someone like Milton a chance to spread his wings is another.
But that group also has to produce. And with Harden, who had experience running the entire offense in Houston, there also is the option of employing a more aggressive stagger with him and Embiid. The all-bench groups are something Rivers did over the Sixers’ eight-game winning streak, which primarily occurred at home against poor competition. The past week, the all-bench unit the Sixers used in the loss to Washington reminded everyone of the danger of attempting to steal minutes with reserve units.
In New Orleans, Embiid played a lights-out first three quarters (35 points, 13-18 shooting) and then ran out of gas late (1 of 4 from the field, two turnovers). And there were good and bad elements of his play.
Embiid has become a heavy isolation player from the elbow. Here is an example of the good and bad of that strategy.
With Harden and Embiid, the Sixers have become a heavy isolation team. According to Synergy, they rank second in the NBA (behind only Luka Doncic and the Mavericks) in isolation frequency: 15 percent of their offensive possessions occur when they shoot or pass out of isolation. But they also rank first in efficiency, with 1.131 points per possession on those plays. That is an excellent number.
The Sixers lost by double digits in New Orleans despite shooting 56 percent as a team, which is tough to do. Some of that had to do with the team’s porous defense, against Williamson and CJ McCollum in particular. They also turned the ball over 18 times, leading in part to 30 Pelicans fast-break points.
Seven of those turnovers came from Harden, who struggled when New Orleans decided to switch the pick-and-roll with big man Jaxson Hayes. Switching is one of the potential areas of concern with Harden when he doesn’t play at the same time as Embiid.
When the Sixers take care of the ball, they are going to be tough to beat. Some of the turnovers were from sloppy passes, but others also came from what New Orleans was doing schematically.
In Oklahoma City, Embiid wasn’t particularly sharp and decided to keep things in relative cruise control since his teammates were in a groove. Even so, it was a pretty solid final line: 16 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, for his first triple-double of the season.
It’s worth appreciating what Embiid did in December: In 13 games, he finished with an average of 35.4 points on 64.4 percent true shooting to go with 9.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists. That is incredibly high-level basketball.
The Sixers, yet again, are getting MVP-level play out of their best players. More than ever, Embiid looks like the type of player who can serve as the fulcrum for a team’s offense come playoff time. It’s now up to the rest of the Sixers to prove that formula can work.
(Photo of 76ers guard Shake Milton driving against Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Alonzo Adams / USA Today)