3 observations after 7-man Sixers fall to Nuggets in odd game

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Noah Levick
·6 min read
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3 observations after 7-man Sixers fall to Nuggets in odd game originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Though a combination of health and safety protocols and injuries left the majority of the Sixers’ roster unavailable, the team played the Nuggets on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center.

The seven-man Sixers fell to Denver by a 115-103 score, dropping to 7-3 on the season. 

Below are observations on a strange game: 

Larger concerns 

A somewhat brief summary of why the Sixers only used seven players: Seth Curry tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday night, head coach Doc Rivers confirmed pregame. Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton and Vincent Poirier were out because of health and safety protocols; Rivers said it was his understanding that those players were sidelined because they were at a table with Curry during a team meal. It’s unclear how long they will be out. Furkan Korkmaz (left adductor strain) and Terrance Ferguson (personal reasons) were missing, too, and Rivers didn’t think Mike Scott was fit to play after the veteran forward missed the last four games with a left knee contusion. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were officially ruled out at 1:30 p.m. with left knee swelling and back tightness, respectively. Neither had appeared on any prior injury reports leading into the game. 

“Ben in the Brooklyn game had some knee stiffness,” Rivers said. “So we almost probably knew after the game that he wouldn’t play tonight. And then Joel started complaining about his back — started yesterday. And we didn’t know if he was playing or not but honestly, with the minutes we would have to ask, it would be insane to play him tonight.”

It’s an obvious point, but the most significant fact from Saturday’s game is that 10 Sixers weren’t available. That’s a massive number, and intuitively one substantial enough to merit a postponement. The Sixers were technically able to field the minimum of eight players, though, and so the NBA avoiding a pause was evidently a priority. To pretend this was business as usual, however, would be impossible. 

Rivers was concerned about his players heading into the game.

“I don’t think we should (play), but it’s not for me to express that,” he said. “I do worry about our (players’) health on the floor.”

Maxey shines

Four of the Sixers’ available players were rookies in Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe and two-way players Paul Reed and Dakota Mathias. 

“Some of these guys may help us later,” Rivers said. “They’re going to get a lot of time against a very quality opponent. It will be good for them, the ones who are playing, and so that’s the way I have to look at it. Tyrese Maxey’s going to get a ton of minutes tonight. He’s going to see what it’s like carrying a team in the NBA, and what’s it like where the defenses, now they’re focusing in on you. There’s a lot that you can learn and teach tonight. I will definitely be a teacher tonight more than thinking about the score.”

Each of the Sixers’ draft picks had bright moments, and Maxey remained the standout among the group. Maxey started at point guard, showed off his typical diverse package of floaters and didn’t seem at all perturbed by the challenge of running the team. He did make a couple of early defensive mistakes against Jamal Murray, biting on a pump fake and twice being beaten back door, though it would be harsh to criticize any aspect of his performance under these odd circumstances. Maxey was excellent overall, finishing with 39 points, seven rebounds and six assists. 

“I was really just trying to do whatever it took to win," Maxey said after the game. "I knew I was going to have to do a lot more than usual. That was just my main goal. We kept it competitive for a very long time and we couldn’t pull it off at the end, but it was fun.”

Joe drained three catch-and-shoot jumpers from three-point range in the first period, including two long, confident attempts from the right wing. The 21-year-old, who put up plenty of long-distance jumpers in his two seasons at Arkansas (548, to be exact), demonstrated in flashes why the Sixers were glad a pure shooter fell to them with the 49th pick. Joe went cold, scoring 13 points on 4-for-18 shooting in the game, but the statistics from his first (very) extended NBA minutes deserve no scrutiny. 

“Getting minutes is about learning," Joe said. "You learn the most when you’re actually thrown out there into the fire, and that’s what happened today. Today I just learned the pace, learned how to run different sets at game speed. ... To play alongside someone like Tyrese, Mathias, Tony Bradley — and we had two great veterans with Danny Green and Dwight Howard coaching us the whole way. They definitely had a lot of points to teach us through the whole game, and I think that’s the best way to learn throughout the season.” 

Reed, a 6-foot-9 forward from DePaul, grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a jump hook over Nikola Jokic on his first possession. He looked awkward and rushed at times, including on a corner three-point attempt that hit the top of the backboard, but hustled on both ends of the floor. His positional speed and defensive versatility are traits the Sixers hope will translate in the NBA.

With both Reed and Mathias, it’s notable that the Delaware Blue Coats are officially one of 18 teams who will participate in the 2020-21 G League season, which will begin next month and take place at Disney World. As two-way players, the pair can spend up to 50 games this season with the Sixers. 

Trying to fill defensive holes 

The Nuggets jumped out to a 12-2 lead and made their first six field goals. Clearly, playing exclusively man-to-man defense against one of the NBA’s top offenses wasn’t viable for the Sixers without Simmons and Embiid. The team turned to a zone defense after about four minutes.

"We put in the zone that we ran today during shootaround," Rivers said with a laugh. "We just felt like we needed to go to something to try to give them a different look, and actually, it worked for a little while."

Given they didn’t return to Philadelphia from New York until after midnight Saturday morning, the Sixers’ defensive effort was perfectly respectable. From a basketball perspective, though, are there any other strategies that might compensate for the team’s many absences moving forward? Are there wrinkles the Sixers could add to their zone to make life less comfortable for opponents? These are trivial questions, of course, in the context of the COVID-19-related absences. 

Much about the Sixers’ situation is uncertain, but perhaps they’ll at least have a little more notice as to who’s available for their next game. The team has a back-to-back scheduled for Monday against the Hawks and Tuesday vs. the Heat. 

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