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March 16, 2018

5 observations from the Joel Embiid birthday edition of Sixers vs. Nets

Even if No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament are going down in the first round for the first time ever, there's no excuse for the Sixers to lose to the Brooklyn Nets at any point. On the second night of a back-to-back and playing their third game in four nights, it certainly looked like Philadelphia didn't have their best stuff against the Nets.

But in the end, they did what good teams are supposed to do and found a way to win anyway. After flirting with disaster for most of four quarters, the Sixers finally seized the game in crunch time and hung on for a 120-116 victory. The five boroughs don't all have basketball teams, but that's at least two the Sixers have vanquished in less than a week.

So how did an ugly game turn in their favor? How kind of you to ask.

Joel Embiid had to find a way without his shot

There are a lot of memorable games throughout NBA history that have taken place on a player's birthday, and Embiid told Molly Sullivan after Thursday's game against the Knicks that a victory on Friday was the gift he wanted for his. He would get it, but nobody is going to put this game in the day of birth Hall of Fame.

Just 6/23 from the field, Embiid was downright awful on offense for most of the game, outside of a beautiful step-back jumper he hit to close the third quarter. With his pal Jahlil Okafor standing across from him, Embiid let the game devolve into one-on-one basketball far too much, especially considering Okafor's weaknesses elsewhere. I know everyone wants to please the birthday boy, but having him force the offense on post-ups instead of using him as a lob target was pretty silly.

Thankfully, Embiid did find a way to contribute to the game despite the rough night. He was an absolute menace on the glass against Brooklyn, setting a new career-high with 19 rebounds (12 defensive, 7 offensive) in the process. Offensive rebounding doesn't tend to be a real priority for Embiid, who is expected to get his butt back down the floor and help the Sixers set up on defense. He refocused his energy at the free-throw line, too, and he ended up a perfect 11/11 from the charity stripe.

According to the big man, he was just doing whatever he could to make a difference in the game.

"I felt like defensively I was pretty solid, and then rebounding the ball," said Embiid after the game. "When the shots are not falling, you gotta do something else. So I focused more on the rebounding and making my teammates better. I did my job, and everybody else did their job."

There was another very important stat to emerge from the win over Brooklyn: five turnovers. That was the total for Philadelphia on Friday night, and it's basically the only reason they were able to hang around despite Embiid's subpar effort. Embiid had just one of his own during the game, and his quick reads as a passer benefitted the team for the second straight night.

When the big man has that sort of night shooting the ball, it necessitates a special effort from the other guys on the floor. They got at least one out of his co-star.

Ben Simmons picked up the slack

Weirdly enough, the game in which Simmons did not pick up a triple-double was his best of the week. Falling just short of the feat in three straight games, Simmons put up 21 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists on 10/17 shooting against Brooklyn, and took the onus upon himself to spark the team to a win.

The most telling sequence of the night came early in the third quarter, with the Sixers still trailing Brooklyn coming out of the locker room. On the first two Sixers possessions of the second half, Simmons took the ball in his hands and forced the issue, scoring while getting fouled on each play. There was a physical side of Simmons we don't always see, and it emerged at just the right time.

Because Simmons was so good, so quickly, I think people have taken for granted his inexperience as an NBA player. He's skilled beyond his years on both ends of the floor, but he is still in the process of figuring out the flow of the game. When you're playing 82 games plus the playoffs, you don't have the luxury of playing at 100 miles per hour every minute of every game, and have to learn to pick your spots accordingly.

This goes double for a player in Simmons' mold, who is reliant on the transition game for a lot of his offense right now. If he tried to push the tempo on every single possession, he'd be worn down and ineffective sooner rather than later. He'd also piss off his running mate even if it was feasible to do that, because Embiid deserves and demands a steady stream of post touches.

From where I sit, Simmons is doing a pretty great job of figuring out how he can impact the game in spots where he's needed most. Crunch time is a struggle for a player with his skill set on offense, but instead of just acting as a passenger Simmons uses that extra oomph to fly around on defense and set hard screens to free up shooters.

And of course, he's still pretty nifty with his passing — and a terror in passing lanes — regardless of time and score.

Over his last 15 games, Simmons is settling more and more into that playmaking role. With 15.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game over that span, with an average of just 2.9 turnovers in the same window, it would be hard to control the team better than he has. Rookie playmakers just aren't capable of this, but he's no ordinary rookie.

Robert Covington never lost his belief

The best shooters and crunch-time players don't worry about what happened in the previous game, what their trends are over the last month, or even what happened on a jumper on the previous play. Shooters shoot, and they live with the results knowing they put in the work to feel confident each and every time.

For whatever flaws Covington has as a player, he does not lack moxie. He kept the team afloat in the early stages of the fourth quarter, and when winning time came in the final minute, a Dario Saric drive-and-kick eventually resulted in an open look for RoCo. Covington let it fly like he couldn't even consider missing the opportunity.

Perhaps that because he quite literally doesn't consider missing when he prepares to shoot. He admitted it was tough to get a rhythm going after picking up three fouls early in the first half, but insisted no big droughts or in-game struggles ever change his mindset.

"Every time I take a shot I got the confidence," said Covington after the game. "I've been doing a lot of things for this team, so my teammates believe in me, the city's behind me, so I just stepped up ... I've never lost confidence in my shot."

If Covington never did anything aside from play great defense and hit threes, the Sixers brain trust would feel they've gotten their money's worth from Covington. They know slumps are temporary and part of the game, and feel the impact he makes on defense more than they feel his down nights on offense.

So it feels like a bonus when the Sixers get even more than that from Covington. His handling opportunities are (rightfully) limited, but in small doses he can hurt other teams with drive-and-kicks, so long as he has a favorable matchup.

Covington is trending upward at the right time, and it has helped the Sixers stay afloat despite some erratic play up and down the roster.

Justin Anderson provides a spark off the bench

There has been plenty of debate about whether Richaun Holmes should get center minutes behind Embiid, and very little about Anderson's place in the team despite another gaping hole on the wing. Frankly, I think the dynamic should be reversed, because there's a pretty obvious path toward Anderson being a contributor and an important member of the supporting cast.

Unless you're counting Simmons as wing player, Anderson is the team's most athletic wing by a comfortable margin and a guy who can hang his hat on his defense. Although it has been nice to add players who space the floor in Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, it would be preferable if the Sixers could put people on the floor who could shoot and defend. A tall order, I know.

Anderson fit the bill on Friday night, despite what his plus/minus (-18) would tell you about his evening. The victim of some unfortunate lineup combinations in the first half, Anderson did his best to keep a sputtering second unit afloat, knocking down three triples in the first half alone.

There's no way of knowing how sustainable it is because he has only appeared in 29 games this year, but Anderson has taken a big leap as a shooter in his third season. He's up to 37.1 percent on 2.4 attempts per game this year, a leap roughly equal to the step forward Saric has taken. Whenever you're at the practice facility, you can see Anderson putting in work on improving his jumper, and so far the results look great.

In fact, Anderson sounded insulted by how the Nets were covering him when asked about his early barrage after the game.

"I hit the first one, and they were talking a little trash, they didn't respect it. So they continued to go under [screens]," said Anderson. "Just showing me they weren't disciplined in their scouting report, and I tried to take advantage of it. It's not like I'm shooting 20 percent from three. It was what it was, and I just wanted to take advantage of my opportunity."

Lackluster scouting reports aside, Anderson's biggest contribution of the game came in crunch time. Subbed in on an offense/defense change following Covington's huge three, Anderson was left on an island to cover Spencer Dinwiddie on the game's defining possession. He hung right with him and shielded him toward Embiid, who took care of the rest.

After finding out he was going to feature in Friday's game just 20 minutes before the game started, Anderson showed up ready to go, then jumped back into the mix after a long stretch on the bench and impacted the pivotal possession. It says a lot about him as a player and person that he rose to the challenge in the circumstances.

Let him tell it, though, and it's just part of what he's there to do.

"I want to hang my hat on knocking down open shots, being aggressive, and using my athleticism on offense, and then on defense just being a lockdown defender," said Anderson after the game. "Being an ultimate communicator, bringing my energy, my spark, my passion, and hang my hat on that. Just do my job."

And Brett Brown gets credit there, too

I don't think this was Brown's finest hour by any means, and it was a little perplexing that he stayed with Ilyasova so deep into the fourth quarter over Saric. However, late-game management has been an issue people have dinged him on in the past, so that late sub of Anderson deserves mention as both the right move and a potential sign of growth.

Because of their age relative to their players, coaches are viewed as static entities for the most part. They have their philosophies and their styles of management, and those are all they'll ever be. It's a reductionist way to think about their job, because the pressures and responsibilities of coaching are not the same from year-to-year, even if you're coaching for the same franchise.

It's impossible to know whether Brown is the guy who can take this team to the promised land, but he has the Sixers in damn good shape with 14 games remaining. They're 38-30, and just a one-game swing separates them from homecourt advantage in the first round. Their performances haven't blown anybody away lately, but they are improving in crunch time, and their turnovers continue to drop compared to early in the season.

The Sixers only have four road games in their final 13, and every single one is against a team outside the playoff picture. They have everything to play for down the stretch, which we haven't been able to say about the Sixers in at least six years. By any reasonable measure, Brown has done a good job getting this group where it needs to go.

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