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March 06, 2018

5 observations from Sixers' comfortable road win over Charlotte Hornets

We are in the part of the NBA calendar where every single game has high stakes, even if you're going up against a squad with no realistic chance at a playoff spot. 

A slip-up or two could mean dropping to the bottom of the playoff picture. Winning streaks can bring you closer to homecourt advantage.

There's still work to be done to make the latter a reality, but the Sixers are taking care of business in the midst of a soft closing schedule. 

Their 128-114 win over the Charlotte Hornets was a nice way to bounce back after a tough loss in Milwaukee, and it came without their best player playing well for most of the night.

The victory in Michael Jordan's house marked Philadelphia's 10th win in their last 13 games, and they are primed to continue climbing as we barrel toward April.

Ben Simmons plays and thinks like a point guard

What we end up labeling Simmons positionally is of little importance. On some level, it would be a shame to discuss him within "normal" basketball terms. He transcends expectations for a player his size in a way few ever have, which is why the comparisons to legends like LeBron James and Magic Johnson make sense.

But if we're strictly talking about how Simmons thinks about the game, he plays like our traditional expectation of what a point guard should be. What makes it so special is that he's doing it at 6'10", and that he's doing it during his first professional season at age 21.

It's impossible to track this with box-score stats, but Simmons pays a great deal of attention to which of his guys do and do not have it going, and he will reward the former by trying to keep their flame alight. 

After Robert Covington hit a three midway through the second quarter, Simmons was deliberate in getting up the floor and waiting out an opportunity for Covington to get another shot.

Covington would miss that one, but this is the sort of game intelligence you normally don't see from players Simmons' age. 

The best game for Simmons is one in which he flies up and down the court in transition, attacking opposing defenses before they can get set. But he is conscious of how much responsibility he has to help get everybody rolling.

Simmons' assist totals have been plenty impressive as it is, but they have probably undersold just how advanced he is as a playmaker. 

The Sixers needed him to shoulder a lot of responsibility with Joel Embiid sputtering for most of the game. Simmons is already equipped to handle that — he dropped 16 points on 8 of 9 shooting, and complimented that with 13 assists and eight rebounds, all in a night's work.

Just as Embiid directs traffic on the defensive end, Simmons often does it at the other end. He will move guys around on offense while posting up, hitting a teammate right in their shooting pocket when the opportunity arises.

When your team built around a ball-dominant center, it's not necessarily easy to find a player who is both talented enough to be a legitimate second star and built mentally to put others first. Time and time again, Simmons shows that's how he's wired, and it's why you almost have to be bullish on the future partnership.

Oh yeah, this stuff isn't too shabby, either:

Joel Embiid is learning to overcome the grind

Let's not sugarcoat this: Embiid was mostly bad for about two-thirds of this game, and that applied to both ends of the court. His shot wouldn't drop, his rotations weren't crisp on the defensive end and it just looked like it was not going to be his night.

This prompted a lot of discussion among fans and media alike about Embiid's recent play. On the heels of a seven-turnover disaster on Sunday, calls to rest him later in the week got louder and louder. 

Just when you least expected it, Embiid found that extra gear and was dominant for a spell in the fourth quarter, and that was all the Sixers needed to get them over the top. His teammates never stopped looking for him, and the big man paced the Sixers with eight points in the final quarter to knot up the victory.

If there is significant physical fatigue, the Sixers should, of course, err on the side of caution with Embiid, but I'm just not seeing that. 

What appears to be the issue from where I sit is a player who is perhaps not used to the mental grind of playing an 82-game campaign, or at least a guy whose focus can go in and out over the course of a season.

This is something all dominant players go through, whether for isolated games or stretches at a time. It's not always easy to get up for a game against the Charlotte Hornets when you know you'd have to completely crash and burn to miss the playoffs. Everyone has days at the office when they're not ready to go, and it was pretty apparent Tuesday night was one of those nights for Embiid. And that's okay! 

When you play at a consistently great level as he has, people will cut you some slack on your down nights, particularly when you come through in crunch time. Embiid did exactly that, getting some of his fourth-quarter points through nothing more than effort. He also continued to search for his teammates when appropriate, which is a tough mindset to maintain when you're trying to get into your own rhythm.

As long as he's physically OK — and again, this is a big qualifier — rest is the last thing Embiid needs right now. 

He is learning how to navigate the ebbs and flows of an NBA schedule, a mental skill which is just as critical as figuring out pain/health management on a nightly basis. There are going to be some games where he has to stave off the urge to rest on his laurels, just as he has to fight through soreness.

When all was said and done, he did what it took to win. That's the true mark of greatness.

Robert Covington is a big reason Sixers overcame Embiid's tough start

Of course, maybe the Sixers aren't in position for Embiid to close out the game if he didn't get a little help from his friends. 

Covington has been showing signs of life on offense over the last couple weeks, and he finally broke through with a big performance, scoring 22 points on 7 of 11 shooting (5 of 9 from three) when the Sixers badly needed it.

This I will say until I'm blue in the face: Offense is still only half the game. Long before he ever got it going from three-point territory, Covington was an agent of chaos on the other end of the floor.

He was an absolute terror on the defensive end against the Hornets, almost willing Kemba Walker into an awful night by himself. The Hornets don't need to do much for Walker to create separation, but Covington tracked Walker through multiple screens and never batted an eye, using his length and recovery speed to make up for it.

There are not many players in the league who can credibly defend from 1 through 4 in the lineup, but Covington does it routinely. In a different situation, Covington would probably end up sticking guys on the bigger end of that spectrum, as he's just about the perfect candidate to play stretch four in the modern NBA.

But, in order to fit Dario Saric and Simmons on the court at the same time — and to preserve the latter's legs for offensive purposes — Covington sometimes has to take on challenges like these. And when he has to go right back to the other end of the spectrum, Covington bothers bigger players and makes them work for every inch.

When Covington adds shooting to this package, he is a really, really good basketball player. Even without it, his value should be self-evident.

The synergy between Saric and Simmons is excellent

One of the great joys of watching the Sixers this season has been watching the partnership between Saric and Simmons grow before our very eyes. 

Saric has had to take a step back in raw usage this season, but the combined game awareness between the two players has made up for their overlapping skill sets.

Now that they've had extended minutes together, the pair just seems to understand where and when to go without a word needing to be said. Saric has ceded the responsibility of pushing the break — a skill at which he legitimately excelled overseas — in order to provide Simmons outlets on the break.

A sneaky great play from Tuesday's Hornets game came midway through the third quarter, with Simmons grabbing a defensive rebound and pushing the tempo. 

Instead of jogging up the floor and waiting to see if Simmons would attack, Saric noticed the attention turned toward his buddy and sprinted to offer him an outlet. In one fell swoop, Simmons delivered a behind-the-back pass out of his natural dribbling motion and set a de facto screen for his buddy. 

As ESPN announcer Mike Breen would say, "Bang!"

This is the perfect synergy of skill and intelligence, both of which these guys have in spades.

That Allen Iverson interview was really something

As someone who grew up damn near idolizing Allen Iverson, I'm OK with a gratuitous amount of AI before, during and after Sixers games. He gets a raucous ovation anytime he's spotted at the Wells Fargo Center, and he remains a great showman even though his playing days were over.

That said, he was, let's say, a little out there during an in-game interview on Tuesday night.

The man is living his best life, and I will never fault him for that.