Five Positives From The Sixers' Three-Game Losing Streak
It’s not all bad.
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We are very much in the dog days of the season, folks. In the midst of a brutal stretch in the schedule, the Sixers have now dropped three in a row, including two straight losses at Wells Fargo Center, which is the first time that’s happened since 2019. It’s an understandable yet frustrating dip in what’s been a successful and exciting season.
Yet despite this losing stretch, being the evergreen optimist that I am, I’m here to bring you some positives from the past few games. Thanks to injuries and matchups, we’ve gotten to see a different look at the rotation than we usually might, so here are some positive things that have caught my eye.
Matisse Thybulle is ascending to another level defensively
In his past four games, Matisse Thybulle has recorded eight steals and six blocks. He now leads all NBA players in steals per 100 possessions. He’s first in blocks per 100 possessions among guards by a mile. He leads all players (min. 200 minutes played) in deflections per 48 minutes with 7.4. The next closest is T.J. McConnell with 6.7.
The numbers are simply otherworldly. I am about ready to agree with Doc Rivers’ assessment that there aren’t 10 better defensive players in the entire league.
However, the biggest area of improvement for Thybulle this season compared to last season has been an area that isn’t as easily encapsulated by numbers -- his one-on-one man defense. As best evidenced by his performance against Devin Booker Wednesday night (in which he held Booker to 2-9 shooting during possessions in which the two were matched up), Thybulle has evolved into the rare wing defender who is elite both on and off the ball.
The vast majority of notorious defensive stoppers of the past decade are known far more for their on-ball skill rather than their off-ball exploits. Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, Andre Roberson, Patrick Beverly, et. al. are more so lockdown artists than back line help defenders. Thybulle is quickly becoming a player who has every bit of those players’ lockdown skills, with the added bonus of having Robert Covington’s off-ball read and react playmaking.
One stat that I do feel is an indication of his on-ball improvement is Thybulle’s decreased foul rate this season. He’s committing just 4.8 fouls per 100 possessions compared to 5.3 last season. Having that type of drop-off signifies to me that he has improved upon some of his gambling-based tendencies that often resulted in savvy scorers tricking him into reaching for the ball or falling for pump fakes. Thybulle is notably improving his discipline, and it’s helping him reach a level of defensive impact that very few players in the league can match.
Tyrese Maxey is capping off an excellent rookie year
With the injuries and the subpar play of Shake Milton (more on him in a bit), we’ve gotten to see a bit of a reemergence from Tyrese Maxey, which is a welcomed development not only because he’s been legitimately helpful but also because I think it could help boost his confidence heading into the offseason.
Maxey likely still finds himself on the outside looking into the playoff rotation, but I now think that he could have a moment here or there in a tough series. When the Sixers face tight defenses, they have a legitimate problem with their inability to create offense going north and south. When Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, or Shake Milton can’t get by their defenders and attack the rim, the offense simply becomes a revolving door of post-ups. Maxey is the one player on the roster who one can say with confidence that he has the quickness to blow by good defenders and get into the teeth of the defense. If and when the Sixers’ offense starts to look like a clogged toilet in the playoffs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Doc Rivers play Maxey.
Even if not, this recent resurgence should help Maxey going into the offseason, knowing that he most certainly belongs in the league. He is able to create off the dribble with ease, he simply needs to improve as a shooter to command more close-outs and thus generate more opportunities.
Shake Milton is already turning things around
Before breaking out with a 20 point performance against Milwaukee, it had been a rough few games for Shake. He’d shot just 6-24 dating back to the win over the Clippers, with nearly twice as many turnovers (11) as made baskets.
Between Maxey’s reemergence, George Hill’s arrival, and his own inconsistencies, I’m extremely unsure what exactly Shake’s role is in the playoffs. Presumably, he’ll still be the first guard off the bench, but Doc is such a believer in riding the hot hand that a few bad minutes from Shake and a few good minutes from Hill or Maxey could mean a game or two where Shake hardly plays. Even just a few weeks ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine Milton being on such rocky footing.
Still; one has to be encouraged by his performance against Milwaukee. It was a positive sign to see him drilling a couple of catch and shoot 3s, as well as create some offense out of the pick and roll. That Shake Milton is an essential piece of the playoff rotation. It’s difficult to make any sense out of why Shake oscillates regularly between the best and worst versions of himself, but the positive version of Shake -- the one we saw last night -- is one that can easily swing a playoff series in the Sixers’ favor.
George Hill is starting to get his sea legs
Yeesh, what a rough debut it was for George Hill. In fairness, having to guard a white hot Steph Curry in your first game in three months isn’t fair, but Hill simply looked lost on both ends against the Warriors.
Thankfully, though, Hill has started to bounce back. His performance against Phoenix was a perfect encapsulation of what he brings -- a tad bit of shot creation, stifling defense, and some spacing and playmaking within the team offense.
This play shows a small but important dynamic that Hill adds -- another player who is excellent at attacking close-outs, making the right pass, and helping the offense flow. These types of plays are especially necessary in the playoffs to help generate quality looks against a moving defense, and it’s the type of play that Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, and even Seth Curry might struggle with.
This was the most interesting play of the night from George Hill. The Sixers did not previously have anyone who would both command the closeout and make that pass. They very much need this. pic.twitter.com/pFUPTOtmat
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 20, 2021
I’m not sure exactly what percentage Hill is of his peak self -- 85-90? -- but regardless, the biggest positive takeaway from his first few games is that he’s definitely not cooked, and will have a role on this team. There is still much to learn about what he can bring, but the early returns are strong.
Each loss is easily explained away by schedule and injury complications
In the big picture, this losing streak is simply not a cause for concern. They were missing two starters in each of the first two games, and went to the wire against a white hot Steph Curry and a great Suns team, and were then forced to travel overnight to Milwaukee to play a team that had been resting since Monday.
It would certainly be a bummer to look back on this stretch and realize that it cost them the No. 1 seed, but it’s not as if each loss isn’t explained by highly reasonable and predictable factors. From here on in, the Sixers have the easiest schedule in the league, so the race for the No. 1 seed should still be considered theirs to lose.