With Sixers very light at guard, they're searching for unorthodox answers


Tyrese Maxey munched on a large bag of popcorn at his locker before the Sixers' matchup with the Timberwolves.

While Maxey had his usual can’t-miss smile when teammates and coaches stopped by to chat, life isn’t normal for him or the Sixers these days. He’s out with a small fracture in his left foot, James Harden is rehabbing a right foot tendon strain, and there’s seemingly a couple of new injury concerns to consider every night. 

By default, the Sixers now must rely on unorthodox lineups and juggle different schemes. A zone defense helped them storm back against Minnesota, but the Sixers ultimately dropped to 8-8 with a 112-109 loss.

Asked why the Sixers went to zone in the third quarter, head coach Doc Rivers said with a laugh, “Because we had given up 80. … We’re just going to keep throwing things out there and seeing what works for us.”

As long as Joel Embiid is available, the idea that some of Rivers’ experiments might be effective sounds reasonable. But the Sixers’ All-Star big man also had an injury scare in a second straight 32-point night. Embiid appeared to hurt his left ankle with 5:33 left in the fourth quarter when he tripped over Georges Niang and stayed down on the baseline in obvious pain. Rivers walked over soon after Sixers head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson, who’s been very busy lately. 

Embiid didn’t provide much detail on the injury after the game. He confirmed his left ankle was still in pain and said he hoped to feel better for the Sixers’ meeting with the Nets on Tuesday. 

Many of the significant Sixers items over the past week have been injury-related. Tobias Harris has missed the team’s last two games with left hip soreness, Furkan Korkmaz the last three with a left knee effusion. 

According to Rivers, P.J. Tucker did not begin the second half because he was “getting checked with an injury.” Rivers wasn't sure what that injury was, but Tucker did return and finished with 33 minutes. 

“It feels like the MASH unit, honestly,” Rivers said. “I was drawing up the play and I noticed Tuck wasn’t in the huddle; he was still in the back. So we’ll find out.”

Matisse Thybulle has been hindered by an ankle injury, and Rivers opted to pull the plug on his night after five first-quarter minutes. 

“I watched him move in the first half and I made a decision that when I took him out, that was the last he was playing that game,” he said. “It does no good for him. It just extends the injury longer. So I’m thinking we have two days off and (then) a game, let’s see if we can get him … we need bodies. And my thought was, why use him now and then we lose that body? So I made that decision at halftime and I told him, ‘Enjoy the game.’”

The fourth quarter was legitimately packed with joyful, exciting play from the Sixers. De’Anthony Melton nailed a season-high five three-pointers, exploded into passing lanes, poked away clutch steals, and made the Timberwolves sweat.

Following three consecutive games without a steal, Melton was perhaps due for an especially impactful defensive night. His 2.9 steal percentage is first among combo guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. 

Melton’s 47 deflections lead the Sixers. Harris and Embiid are tied for second with 23 apiece. 

“Defense and grit,” Melton said of the keys to the Sixers’ comeback. “Whoever’s on the floor, we understand that we can compete with anybody. We just want to lock in on defense. And on offense, just keep pushing. I feel like we were getting key stops, and on those stops we were getting out in transition and getting easy buckets.”

Melton fueled an early play-of-the-season candidate for the Sixers when he swiped the ball from Taurean Prince as the Timberwolves forward drove with the third quarter winding down. Melton fell to the floor but managed to pass to Paul Reed with around five seconds remaining in the period. Reed then pulled off a true jaw-dropper. He sprinted down the court, shook Kyle Anderson with an in-and-out dribble followed by a tricky between-the-legs move, and stopped himself from stumbling over in time to make a buzzer-beating layup. 

Both Rivers and Niang called the play “awesome.” Niang also took a good-natured jab at a young player he’s aimed to guide in the right directions. 

“I love that Paul Reed got that to go in,” Niang said, “because he is working all the time on stuff like that — along with stuff that he should be working on.

“I’m glad he got to see that one go through and work because stuff like that gives you confidence. I’m happy for him. That was a huge play, especially at the end of the third quarter.”

The Sixers would be thrilled to find more strange solutions during their time without Maxey and Harden, but improved half-court execution will be necessary. Despite Shake Milton’s 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting, the team had trouble sustaining consistent, smooth offense. Milton and Embiid each had six turnovers. 

Over their first nine games, the Sixers posted 103.4 points per 100 half-court plays, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranked third in the NBA. Since Harden’s been out, that figure has fallen to 91.7 per 100. That’s 23rd in the league. 

Losing Maxey is another bummer and another serious obstacle in a stretch that’s been packed with them, but the Sixers’ schedule won’t stop. 

“I just felt bad because we’ve got three of our best players (out) and Tyrese, someone that puts in so much work every single day … injuries, you can’t control them,” Embiid said. “They’re just unfortunate. I’ve had my share of them, especially freak injuries. ... So I just felt bad for him because he puts in so much work and he takes care of himself. Obviously missing James and Tobias being hurt, too, it does suck, but it’s next man up.”

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