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January 21, 2018

5 observations from Sixers vs. Bucks

On the eve of the biggest Eagles game in years, it was on the Sixers to keep momentum building and send the Philadelphia faithful home with a little extra pep in their step. The home team came through, earning a comfortable 116-94 victory in front of a sold-out crowd on Saturday night, and the big margin allowed fans to spend the last five minutes of the game belting out
E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!" chants.

The center of attention was — who else? — Joel Embiid, who dropped 29 points on Milwaukee and showed absolutely no signs of slowing down following his selection as an All-Star starter. Philadelphia's win was a big one, propelling them all the way up to No. 6 in the Eastern Conference. 

The month of January continues to be kind to them, with their only loss in 2018 coming during their weeklong trip to London. Their time for a legitimate push up the Eastern Conference standings is coming, and perhaps eventually we'll get to a point when people aren't falling all over themselves every time teams go on a run against them.

The difference in Joel Embiid's movement is significant

When Brett Brown opens training camp each year, he harps on a very specific directive for all his players: coming into the season with, "career-best fitness." The team plays at a fast pace, so guys need to be equipped to get up and down the floor and still get stops as the game winds down.

And while it's easy for most guys to handle the task of getting into and staying in shape, Embiid is a different case. He's not always a practice participant, he misses games for precautionary reasons and as a result he can't always be in the best possible shape. You can't build fitness if you don't play. So the big difference for Embiid lately has been the simple task of being able to suit up each and every day.

His numbers have been ridiculously good regardless of his fitness level, but you can see the difference it makes when you watch him move around. There is a lightness on his feet that wasn't necessarily there in the early parts of the season, which empowers him at both ends of the court. Being the defensive fetishist that I am, it pops the most when you watch him on that end, as he's able to track perimeter players without needing to give any sort of cushion to keep them in front.

I know Embiid tends to make this stuff routine, but I try to highlight what he does on a nightly basis because no one should ever take for granted what they are witnessing with this kid. He is a fiery competitor who wants the ball in his hands with games on the line, but one who also understands how big of a responsibility he has on defense. The latter part is even more noticeable in person, as you watch him bark orders at his guys or subtly guide them in the right direction as they head back in transition.

Even before you saw this version of Embiid in the game, his coach was raving about Embiid's mere availability, and his willingness to put in the work to max out his effectiveness.

"He's starting to do more and more and more," said Brown before the game. "He's with us. He's not a borrowed stud. And I can't tell the room what that means as a coach ... He is so committed to doing this, this isn't pulling teeth. He understands completely that his health and his fitness is everything. It's everything. That is tremendous leadership and that is tremendous professionalism, and this isn't a cheerleading coach. He is the master of his own ship, and he's headed in the right direction."

Embiid quite clearly has the talent and the drive to be great. The only component that appears to be up to chance is his health, and though that's a huge deal, it's probably the one quality of that trio you'd live with being up in the air.

Dario Saric's passing was unbelievable

Saric gets plenty of love as a passer, but I'm not we can always do justice to the sort of plays he's capable of making. The guy can slice teams up with a wild variety of dishes, from bounce passes through traffic to dump-offs near the rim.

You saw a little bit of everything against Milwaukee, and they're not necessarily the easiest team to pass the ball against. They put guys with length all over the floor, even if Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence hurt them on that front against the Sixers. They make it so you have smaller windows to hit guys in, yet Saric finds a way to do so anyway.

These sort of passes have a much higher degree of difficulty than it looks on first glance. Throw this one too low, and it probably evades Embiid's reach and bounces out for a turnover. Any higher, though, and John Henson is poking that away to send Milwaukee running the other way. It takes a gifted passer to make these plays routinely.

And that's one of my hang-ups with the Sixers' turnover problem. Yes, there are a good number of giveaways that are silly mistakes they can cut down on, but they are also a product of having players on your team who rightfully believe they can make tight-window throws. Sometimes the thought is proven wrong, but often times the Sixers end up with uncontested looks because of their collective passing talent.

Philosophically, I would always lean toward enabling your players' sense of belief as long as there is a reason to do so. Conservatism stifles offensive genius, and it is better to empower players like Saric to make risky passes than to beat out the risktaker in him altogether. 

Robert Covington was a terror on defense

Covington got back on track from the field against the Bucks, scoring 13 points on a crisp 5/8 shooting on Saturday night. It felt like the first time in a while he took a couple heat-check shots, pulling up early in the shot clock without any fear of missing.

That offense was important, no doubt, though it is still the defensive talent and buy-in that provides his true value to the team. We often marvel at Embiid's on/off splits, but they are just as dramatic for his counterpart on the wing. And when you see the variety of defensive plays he makes on a nightly basis, it's not hard to figure out why he grades out as such an impactful player.

The easiest place for a defender to be lazy is in transition after a turnover. When you watch one of your teammates cough it up and prepare to go the other way, that internal dialogue of, "Oh, damn it" is very real. Trying to run down sprinting opponents with a head start is exhausting just to watch.

Yet Covington's effort never drops on these sort of plays, and often times he's able to erase mistakes through sheer force of will.

This is one of those areas of the game where I think a player's character shines through. If you're the sort of guy who is going all out to hunt down an unlikely steal in transition, odds are your coaches and teammates will continue to believe in you when you're in the middle of an offensive slump. There is never any doubt in that locker room over Covington's value, and I wish we looked beyond his game-to-game shooting numbers to determine that sometimes. 

Ben Simmons was quietly dominant

What does it say about Philadelphia's performance that Simmons, with a 16-8-9 line on 8/13 shooting, was almost an afterthought? Perhaps that says something about the baseline expectation for Simmons around here, because I thought he put in some serious work on Saturday night.

As of late, the national dialogue about this year's rookie class has centered around "the race" for Rookie of the Year honors. There appears to be a lot of time invested in making this a thing.

Not a single one of these guys is bringing the sort of all-around contribution Simmons is. That's not a dig at anybody else in the class, because there are some really talented players doing their thing around the league. Simmons just has a different level of responsibility than the rest of these guys, acting as a driving force rather than a passenger.

One thing that should scare opposing teams moving forward is Simmons' work off the ball on offense, and just the sheer variety of uses he's had there in recent weeks. He's putting in work while backing guys down, cutting off screens, using give-and-gos and even taking the occasional pull-up jumper. Whenever Markelle Fultz returns, Simmons will have to get used to another well-regarded perimeter ballhandler sharing the floor with him. Allowing TJ McConnell, Saric, and other guys in the lineup to take control of the offense for stretches is good practice for that.

Any way you slice it, the kid is having a heck of a rookie season. 

TJ McConnell put Matthew Delevedova in the torture chamber

On the surface, McConnell and Delly get described with a lot of the same superlatives. Gritty! Tough! Defensive-minded! White! Seeing them go head-to-head was a fun test of who could actually live up to the various descriptors, but in the end there was a clear victor, and he was wearing red, white and blue.

Several times throughout the game, McConnell made his counterpart look absolutely foolish, and there was one occasion where he hammed it up a little bit in the aftermath.

It's really hard not to appreciate McConnell whether you're a fan or neutral observer. He is a consummate pain in the ass for opponents, and a guy who would run through a brick wall for his teammates. His underdog story resonates with the Philadelphia faithful, and he leans into their embrace constantly, feeding off the energy of the Wells Fargo Center.

For my money, the most TJ McConnell sequence of the season came with the game long since over and the Sixers just waiting for time to expire in the game's final minute. McConnell played defense for 3/4 of the court off Milwaukee's inbounds pass, and proceeded to get in guys chests and battle on switches like it was a tie game in the NBA Finals.

The guy simply doesn't have an off switch. That's how you go from undrafted free agent to rebuild afterthought to a legitimate rotation piece in the span of a few years. McConnell just has that dog in him, and it's something you can't teach.

(My sincerest apologies to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who had his best game of the season on Saturday and proved capable of stepping up into a bigger role. Perhaps he should have made the cut, but this isn't six observations from Sixers vs. Bucks, and others will spend more time telling his story today. Kudos all the same, and kudos to the French reporter who showed up for the game to chat with him. Talk about impeccable timing.)