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November 23, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Blazers

Sixers NBA

For only the second time in Brett Brown's tenure, the Sixers are three games over .500. The margins of victory continue to climb for the boys from Philadelphia, and their 101-81 victory over Portland on Thanksgiving eve was about as convincing a victory as you're going to see. After jumping out to an early 16-0 lead, the Sixers never looked back.

Joel Embiid thrives despite foul trouble

With 2:26 remaining in the third quarter, Joel Embiid picked up his fourth foul of the game. Brett Brown has typically erred on the side of caution when it comes to his star players, pulling them from the game to avoid compounding the damage. But on this night, he decided to roll the dice and keep Embiid on the court.

The gamble paid off. In the final stretch of the third period, Embiid scored another six points and blocked two shots, including this hellacious swat of Damian Lillard to close the quarter.

There is an implicit trust between coach and player to make this sort of decision, particularly when there's such a small segment of the quarter left and not necessarily a huge reward for letting it ride. As Brown explained it, the stretch was important regardless of how much time was left in the quarter.

"I felt the game still wasn't where we wanted to be, and there's no right or wrong with that. It's a coach's gut feel," said Brown. "I felt he was playing with a pace and my gut feel like he was not going to foul. I felt comfortable that he was not going to foul, and I also felt comfortable that we needed him at that stage. The combination of the two it allowed us to grab onto a little bit of a lead."

With the way Embiid plays basketball, staying out of foul trouble may always be a bit of an issue. He never wants to let an opponent score, and his style of play in the post is built on a foundation of power, with brief glimpses of finesse. Learning to walk the line of physicality when he's at risk of fouling out is crucial, and there's no better time to learn than during a comfortable win.

Embiid showed a great understanding of the situation when the ball was put in his hands late in the game. Understanding that I just told you his game is built on power, Embiid made his mark by using his length to get shots near the basket without having to go through defenders. Shortly after picking up that fourth foul, Embiid used a soft hook to put a couple more points on the board.

The highlight of the night, however, came late in the fourth quarter with Embiid on five fouls, one wrong move away from being parked on the bench for the evening. Doing his best Kareem Abdul-Jabbar impression, he dropped a gorgeous skyhook in over Jusuf Nurkic, who had zero chance of getting anywhere near the shot.

There was no mind-blowing stretch of the game for Embiid on offense, but steady production brought him to an impressive 28 points and 12 rebounds for the evening. That's about what you expect from the big guy these days.

Team defense is rounding into form

More importantly, Embiid's constant presence in the lineup has the Sixers on the path to being a good defensive team. It has been a tough climb in the early weeks of the season with so many new pieces, but a mix of increased chemistry, effort, and personnel has them sitting pretty in the defensive metric rankings.

Following Wednesday's win against the Blazers, the Sixers have the 7th-best DEFRTG in the league at a crisp 101.8. It's too early to say they're on their way to being an elite defensive team, but when you sit directly behind the Golden State Warriors in a defensive metric, you're keeping pretty good company.

They are doing a much better job of picking each other up when screens or rotations pull them away from their assignment, and even when guys aren't technically making the play they're getting hands in awkward places. Amir Johnson has to impede Damian Lillard after he beats Jerryd Bayless, and he's aided by Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, the latter of whom rises up to meet Nurkic at the summit.

There are limitations of the lineups the Sixers have been using lately — asking Saric to cover someone in space is still a bad idea — but they have the size to bully teams at the rim and on the glass. Their starting lineup has earned headlines for possessing the best NETRTG in the league, and a big reason for that is their ability to end possessions. Their defensive rebounding percentage is 88.2, nearly four points better than any other group that has played 100+ minutes together.

Philadelphia's defensive prowess is often as simple as pointing at the man in the middle. When Embiid is on the court, their defense plays at a level that would make them the best defense in the entire league. He is acutely aware of how big an impact he can have on the game, and he is not shy about telling you about it, either.

"I think, not to be cocky, but I think I'm the best defensive player in the league right now. I just want to keep on going, I'm still getting better, my blocks are a little bit down but I'm a better rebounder this year. I do a lot of things to help the team win, and the guys around me do a lot of things to help me too," said Embiid. "Hopefully this year I can win Defensive Player of the Year."

Forget the numbers for a second, because his defense leaps off the page from the eye-test perspective. Embiid made life miserable for Lillard and CJ McCollum any time they turned the corner on offense, and despite Lillard finding a plunging Ed Davis here, Embiid has the recovery speed and length to force Davis into switching hands mid-air, throwing up a wild shot as a result.

I think it'll be tough for Embiid to win an award that tends to go to more established vets, but he has the talent and credentials to make it happen.

Ben Simmons' passing polish is beyond his years

Simmons was not as much of a menace in the paint against Portland as he was in the previous game vs. Utah, but his talent is still blinding even when shots don't fall. That much is obvious from looking at the box score — he effed around and put up 16-8-9—but let's hone in on his passing touch for a second.

Most players at his age are relying on a few staples as they develop their ability to hit teammates from all angles. But Simmons is a menace in both halfcourt and transition settings, picking teams apart regardless of context. Early in the first quarter, the ball was in his hands for barely a second following an Embiid rebound, and he hits Saric in stride on a 3/4 court pass.

That may look easy, but the touch to drop that in is remarkable for someone his size. What's more, he's able to translate what he can do against a stretched defense into a weapon against a set D. He hooked up with Saric again just a couple minutes later, dropping in a nice entry pass that earned his teammate a trip to the free-throw line.

And once more, later in the first quarter, Simmons shows the same bit of touch while in the air, hanging a pass up for Embiid, who unfortunately is unable to deposit it for two. I'll say this having watched that play from the media section behind that basket: Embiid's plea for a foul call here was not unwarranted.

In a manner similar to how fans can focus too much on blocked shots, there can also be too big an emphasis on assist totals. Simmons has had no problem piling up assists, but the true value of his passing extends far beyond what shows up in a box score.

Crashing the glass pays dividends

Teams often have to make a philosophical decision about how they approach attacking the offensive glass. If the priority is to prevent buckets in transition, some teams will be more conservative about going for rebounds on offense. Brett Brown places a pretty high premium on defense as a general rule, but the Sixers were still able to steal some second-chance points by hounding Portland for rebounds.

Through little more than effort, Amir Johnson gets a piece of the ball after Robert Covington misses a free throw. Covington, alert as soon as the ball leaves his hands, jumps into position to grab the loose ball, and then quickly fires it to JJ Redick on the perimeter. With Portland in scramble mode, he makes them pay.

That is the intrinsic value of an extra possession created by offensive rebounding. Players begin to leak up the court when they anticipate their team is about to get the ball back, which leaves guys out of position.

The perfect example of that phenomenon came earlier in the evening, when Embiid procured an offensive rebound of his own. You can see Portland's Pat Connaughton start sprinting up court after the shot comes off the rim, and he is in no man's land when the Sixers get the ball back. After Covington sets Redick free with a screen, Connaughton can do nothing but desperately flail at the three-point attempt.

Owning the glass should be a staple of this Sixers era with the personnel they have on hand. Having the shooters who can take advantage of the chaos is the cherry on top.

What I'm thankful for

While this is technically cheating and not an observation, I thought I should get in the spirit of Thanksgiving and express my gratitude. In lieu of traditional game stories, we have made these breakdown posts something of a nightly thing, which allows me to really focus on the games while I'm there and dive deeper into the video when I get home. I enjoy it a heck of a lot more than doing canned game stories, and so far, it seems those of you who read here enjoy them too.

So I'm thankful for that opportunity, and quite frankly, I'm thankful that this Sixers team is finally at a stage where it's worth breaking down their games like this. I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you'll continue to rock with me as the games continue to fly by.