3 observations after small-ball Sixers pick up third preseason win


At least in terms of record, the Sixers kept a perfect preseason intact Monday night in Cleveland.

The team took care of the Cavs with a 113-97 win and moved to 3-0 in exhibition play.

Tyrese Maxey fell one point shy of a third consecutive 20-point game, but his 19 still led the Sixers. 

Jarrett Allen had a 19-point, 12-rebound double-double. Darius Garland registered 17 points and seven assists. 

Joel Embiid had a planned night off and Montrezl Harrell sat out with an intercostal strain, per The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey. Kevin Love and Evan Mobley were among the sidelined Cavs. 

The Sixers' preseason finale is Wednesday night in Philadelphia against the Hornets. Here are observations on their latest win over Cleveland: 

Very nice start with small ball 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers promised Friday that P.J. Tucker would play at center before the preseason was over.

In a throwback to the 2020 Rockets, the 37-year-old started at the five Monday. The Sixers went with James Harden, Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris and Tucker to begin the game. 

One benefit of Tucker at center is putting other big men outside of their defensive comfort zone. Harris couldn’t take advantage of having Allen switched on to him early, missing a three-pointer, but drives must have looked more inviting for the Sixers’ guards with the All-Star big man far from the paint. 

Staying true to his brand, Tucker’s first made field goal as a Sixer was a corner three. The shot put the Sixers up 12-5 and was wide open thanks to Melton pushing the ball hard up the floor and deftly kicking it out. Melton (seven points, six rebounds, five assists) also accelerated the pace a couple of minutes later when he sprinted down the court following a Tucker defensive rebound and outlet pass, eventually drawing two free throws. 

When Tucker subbed out, the Sixers led 21-8. That sort of success won’t be typical with Embiid off the court, but the 6-foot-5 Tucker has often given his teams high-quality center minutes. While the sample size wasn't large at all (287 possessions outside of garbage time), the Heat had a plus-4.4 net rating with Tucker at the five last year, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Sixers didn’t have things as easy during Tucker’s second-quarter stint, although he hit another corner triple, halting a Cleveland run that had cut the Sixers’ edge to 53-47. Harden (11 points, six rebounds, four assists) drilled a three of his own on the Sixers' next trip. 

Defensive communication and precise execution throughout the entirety of possessions will be especially key when the Sixers turn to small ball. Outside of the initial switches and blitzes, they’ll ask their players to do lots of scrambling and spontaneous rotating when opponents aim to make the Sixers’ defense work. Instinctive, rangy defenders such as Melton are ideal in those lineups, but he’s a rare player. Less agile Sixers such as Georges Niang are clearly not suited as well for that defensive style. 

Melton’s connective passing should also be valuable in non-Embiid lineups. Surrounded by skilled shot creators, he’s generally good at getting the ball and knowing what to do with it — no hesitation required. 

That’s not to say he’s a world-class passer, but possessions have a real chance to work when the ball finds Melton late in the shot clock. Examples from Monday’s third quarter included a baseline drive and bounce pass to Harris in the opposite corner and a quick high post-to-corner feed to Tucker. 

Finally, a few Maxey misses 

Within the first half of the first quarter, Maxey scored 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting (3 of 3 from three-point range). One of those misfires was a mid-range jumper that went in and out. 

He capitalized on defensive breakdowns by the Cavs, but the bottom line is that an unguarded Maxey should now be a rather scary sight. In the Sixers’ opening two games of the preseason, he’d recorded 41 points on 15-for-19 shooting. 

Maxey’s impossibly hot start ended in the second period, though his one hoop in the quarter was a flashy reverse layup. He assisted a Matisse Thybulle corner three with 2.2 seconds left in the second. 

Thybulle was the Sixers' first sub and guarded both Donovan Mitchell and Garland. His evening as a shooter again began badly. After striking the side of the backboard with his first attempt last time out, Thybulle air-balled a three Monday night. He was long on his next try, which dropped him to 1 for 8 from three-point territory this preseason. 

“It’s a work in progress," Rivers said Saturday of Thybulle's offense. “All we can ask is he puts in the time, and I think he’s worked as hard as anybody. He put in a lot of time on his shot.

“But there’s so many things that go into it when you’re not a good shooter. Learning to be that; learning to ignore misses and now that you’ve put in the work, keep shooting. The problem is you miss a couple and then you start questioning, and you stop shooting. So far he’s not done that, and that’s what we want him to do.”

The fourth quarter represented a small, positive step in the right direction for Thybulle results-wise. He made both his threes in the period and finished with nine points and two steals. 

Reed keeps building 

The concept of Paul Reed's defensive talents meshing well with the Sixers' desire to play a more aggressive, switch-heavy style has materialized in the preseason. 

In 18 minutes, Reed racked up three steals and three blocks. He was impressive in other ways, too; the 23-year-old held his own against Garland on a few switches.

Offensively, the Sixers coaching staff is emphasizing a smoother, simpler approach to Reed. A basic dribble handoff with Melton on which Reed freed his teammate for a floater by screening off his defender was a perfect illustration of that broad idea. Reed is working to find the right balance — a play where he challenged Allen, pump faked a few times and then missed inside was a bit too ambitious — but he appears capable of giving Rivers what he's seeking on both ends of the floor. 

Furkan Korkmaz sure seems less likely to receive consistent minutes than Reed. He was the 11th Sixer to enter Monday, checking in midway through the third quarter and scoring six points on 1-for-3 shooting in his 11 minutes. 

Charles Bassey again didn't play as the Sixers used rookie Michael Foster Jr. at center in the fourth quarter. 

Isaiah Joe did get off the bench in the fourth, posting seven points on 3-for-5 shooting. 

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