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December 03, 2017

Sixers role players starred in battle between Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond

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The Sixers have won games this year using a simple formula: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are really good at basketball, and we think you can't match their production. Philadelphia's dynamic duo did not have their best stuff on Saturday night—or really anything close to it—but contributions from the supporting cast helped the Sixers pull out a 108-103 win at the Wells Fargo Center.

How did they get there? I'm so glad you asked.

Robert Covington got his groove back

The story of Philadelphia's win has to begin with Robert Covington. After a brutal week against a tough slate of Eastern Conference opponents, Covington finally got himself going again, knocking down 6/13 attempts from three and providing the volume shooting he'd made look so easy in the first month or so of the season.

He credited the return to form to getting himself right mentally. Covington lost a childhood friend to a shooting earlier in the week, and sorting out his feelings away from the game helped him lock in on offense.

"Played with a clear mind tonight, it felt good to see a couple early shots go in," said Covington. "It's very frustrating, but mentally I have to be here for my team. It's unfortunate I lost a friend, but my teammates need me just as much as my friend would need me. But he's watching over me, looking down — if he was here, he would want me to stay here and make sure I'm handling my business and not struggling the way I was."

That's easier said than done, but Covington lived up to his word on Saturday night. His shooting was the star of the show, but as usual, Covington's true value is always apparent at the defensive end. He dealt with a variety of assignments against the Pistons, switching onto big wings like Tobias Harris and spending time on point guard Reggie Jackson. As critical as the jumper is, his defensive versatility may be the most priceless piece of the arsenal.

You won't find a more Robert Covington play than this sequence in the second quarter, where he dogs Jackson through traffic, stays on his hip as he turns the corner, and then whacks the ball loose to send the Sixers the other way. And unlike the Covington of years past, he's gotten better at making reads in transition, which resulted in a JJ Redick jumper here.

There is no quit in Covington. That's why he continues to hoist jumpers through bad stretches, and why his intensity level rarely drops on the defensive end. A holdover from the team's darkest days of the rebuild, Covington feels as much ownership in the Sixers' program as anybody, and he stressed after the game that a week's worth of bricks will never change his mindset.

"I'm liable for a lot of things on the court defensive-wise, I'm one of the leaders on this team. I hold a lot, I carry myself that way," said Covington. "I got to make sure that I still have to do other things that are impactful for my team. Just because my shots weren't falling doesn't mean I can slack on other ends of the game."

He was Philadelphia's MVP of the night, and his return to form came when the Sixers desperately needed it.

The Embiid vs. Drummond matchup was quite fun to watch

The trash talk was flying before Joel Embiid's second matchup against Pistons center Andre Drummond. After calling out Andre Drummond's defense following a 30-point game earlier this season, the two exchanged barbs pre-game Saturday, setting the stage for a clash of the titans.

Then the game happened, and it didn't exactly go as planned. There was a palpable buzz in the first half, with Philadelphia's crowd booing Drummond's every touch and salivating every time Embiid was on the low block. Embiid's best stretch came in the first quarter, when the Sixers tossed a couple high-arcing passes into the big guy that led to easy layups. Embiid's size advantage to Drummond left the latter flummoxed, throwing his hands up in the air as if to say, "What am I supposed to do?"

He clearly figured that out in the second half. The Pistons changed their defensive strategy on Embiid, letting Drummond bang with him instead of attempting to front the taller Embiid. Drummond made Embiid fight for every inch, and by forcing Embiid to do more dribbling, Drummond was able to force him out of his comfort zone.

There were some downright ghastly turnovers for Embiid in the final two periods. On one particular play, he went to face up with the ball and Drummond just plucked it right out of his hands.

But Embiid continued to go to work, with the Sixers intent on feeding him on the block over and over again. The strategy may have been a reason they gave up an 18-point lead in the second half, but there was ultimately a payoff at the end. Embiid drew Drummond's sixth foul with 2:35 left to play, and they calmly closed out the game from there, a few miraculous Detroit threes aside.

There is a clear change in demeanor for Embiid when he goes up against the "true centers" of the NBA. They are matchups he takes personally, a litmus test for where he stands among the best at his position. This is a double-edged sword for the Sixers. They do get the guarantee of maximum focus from Embiid, but his desire to personally annihilate his peers can get him into trouble, playing with a little too much tunnel vision.

That said, at the end of it all he remained focused on the team goal. KYW's Jon Johnson asked him who he thought won the battle between he and Drummond, and Embiid's answer was simple.

"The Sixers."

Dario Saric, getting it done

What a strange season it has been for Saric. After struggling to get going early, his coach made the unique move to bring a struggling player from the bench to the starting lineup. The initial results were tremendous, but Saric's finishing from all three levels of the court has been erratic, to say the least.

That has started to change over the last week-and-a-half. His field-goal percentage on shots from five feet and in has climbed 20 full percentage points since November 3 and now rests at 53.6 percent, not far off his 55 percent mark from that area last season. While keeping in mind he still needs to be better there to be a key contributor, that is a major surge and a good sign moving forward. 

Things were always going to get tighter for him inside while playing with both Embiid and Simmons, who operate in the paint and drag extra traffic toward the rim. I asked Brett Brown if he saw anything in particular that has led to Saric's uptick, and he pointed out two keys to the progress.

"I think he is timing his cuts better, but what I see mostly is him not in a rush mode," said Brown. "He has to be smart with lots of head and shoulder [fakes] and at times multiple head and shoulders. And because he can go strong side, he can go weak side, he can go left hand, he can go right hand, there's almost like an incredibly deliberate poise, where he's not rushing things and he's letting people fly around. He finds a way to squeak it off a backboard and finish."

Saric's playstyle can sometimes make him look like a bull in a china shop—in the best way possible — so it's easy to forget the layers of finesse and subtlety in his game. After catching the ball on the fly midway through the second quarter, Saric unloaded his best move of the night, keeping his arms spread just wide enough to maintain space and use some pretty footwork to deposit a layup.

The young Croatian hasn't been able to spend as much time down low as he'd like to, but lately, he is making it work. The need to knock down threes does not mean he has to be a stationary player on the perimeter for all 24 seconds of the shot clock, and Saric has found a good balance of sinking into space and cutting toward the basket at just the right time.

There have been a lot of questions about how Saric fits into this team's future lately, and I think you're seeing his basketball character shine through. He is smart and skillful enough to adjust his game as long as you give him the time to figure it out. 

The Sixers got key minutes from Amir Johnson

You saw part of the Johnson sizzle reel on that above cut from Saric, but Johnson's game was not limited to a single dish to Saric. He continues to give Philadelphia solid minutes when Embiid hits the bench, and through sheer force of will, he creates a couple second-chance opportunities for the Sixers every night.

In the span of about 30 seconds during the first quarter, Johnson hit the big man effort trifecta, successfully contesting a perimeter jumper from Avery Bradley, grabbing an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession, and then drawing a charge the next time Detroit came down the floor.

Now that he has a better understanding of the team's defensive concepts and a chemistry base with his teammates, Johnson has looked considerably better defensively. Ever since he got torched in pick-and-rolls by the Rockets in their early-season matchup, Johnson has steadily improved, and now he looks a lot more like the defender the Sixers thought they were getting when they signed him.

I will admit to being a skeptic of the signing when it was made in the summer, and that intuition appeared correct during his early struggles. But Johnson's constant focus on doing the little things to win ball games has won me over. He frees guys with screens on out of bounds plays, tips missed shots several times until another teammate can join the fracas, and offers well-timed help at the rim fairly frequently. He is a details guy, and I appreciate that.

Ben Simmons was strikingly passive

We've seen a few games where Simmons simply couldn't get anything going, and those are to be expected. Saturday's game against the Pistons was a different story, where Simmons never seemed all that interested in going into attack mode.

Simmons is not wired to be a dominant scorer, but he took just six shots against the Pistons, walled off from the paint for most of the night. Detroit used well-timed switches to prevent him from getting any easy looks at the rim, but even still, it seemed like he turned down some looks otherwise that might have been there.

This one jumped out in person, and doesn't look a whole lot better on review. Simmons has Drummond one-on-one in the painted area, and is more than capable of initiating contact and getting a shot at the rim here. But his head never even looks up to consider it, and the turnover on a pass to Redick is sort of predictable.

Some of the chatter after the game centered once again on free throws, the implication being Simmons' fear of going to the line impacted his aggressiveness on offense. I'm not ready to make that leap, because I think more of what you're seeing is a natural adjustment from opponents to deal with his skill set. Teams are attempting to wall of the paint altogether, daring him to beat them without the threat of finishing or collapsing for a kick out.

What concerns me a tad more is Simmons' reluctance to play at a faster pace. He's not exactly walking the ball up the floor, but anecdotally he hasn't seemed to place the same priority on beating his opponent down the floor. Part of the reason he has been able to offset a non-existent jumper stems from getting his work done before defenses can get set.

On this night in particular, I think Detroit had a hand in that stylistic change. They're normally a team intent on hunting offensive rebounds—they sit 11th in the league as we speak—but they grabbed just seven of those Saturday, turning their focus on getting back in transition instead. That will naturally suppress any effort to score in transition.

Still, he can push the tempo more than we've seen him do it lately, and he is big and strong enough to rise toward the rim with authority, instead of uncertainty. Let's not call it a trend yet, but if he does the same against the lowly Suns this week, let's start a dialogue.