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November 01, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Hawks

Cue up your best Will Ferrell impression, because the Sixers are going streaking. Atop the shoulders of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Sixers toppled the Atlanta Hawks 119-109, bringing their record on the season to 4-4 following a third straight victory.

The good times are rolling in Philadelphia, and you can see why the players were so optimistic about their playoff chances this past summer. 

The Sixers played like a playoff team, for better and for worse

With 5:15 remaining in the first quarter, it looked like the Sixers were on their way to their first blowout victory of the season. Up 25-8 on the visiting Hawks, the home squad had the Wells Fargo Center rocking, and could have easily killed the game off in the first quarter with some sharp execution.

It wouldn't be fair to say things went off the rails from there, because the offensive execution and ball movement was mostly good for all four quarters. But the Sixers did not bring the same intensity on defense in the second and third quarters, something their head coach was happy to point out after the game.

"We couldn't guard them in the middle two periods," said Brown. "I thought individually the "me and you" stuff, guarding the yard. Can you guard your man? We couldn't in the middle two periods. We started out really well and we ended really well but the middle two periods, I thought, as a group we were poor."

I don't think this was a matter of can, but rather a matter of will the Sixers guard people. They let Atlanta get some really easy buckets through lackadaisical play in the game's middle quarters. Look at Ben Simmons on this play, for example, as he just sort of hangs out by the rim instead of making any effort to box Dedmon out or chase the board.

Compare that to Simmons' effort to grab this offensive rebound late in the fourth quarter, with his team on the verge of wrapping up their third straight victory.

The intensity difference between the two plays is drastic. And there were plays of a similar nature with Embiid to compare/contrast against each other, with the franchise center's apathy for transition defense fairly clear in the middle of the game.

This is less a criticism of either of their performances than an acknowledgment that they carried themselves like playoff-caliber players. They punched the other team in the mouth to open the game, and sensing the talent gap between the Sixers and the Hawks, both guys took their foot off the gas a little bit. 

When that final quarter hit, however, it was go time. You will see few exclamation points as emphatic as this Simmons dunk.

We've been chatting about Simmons a lot in this space, so let's give his running mate more space this time. Just don't overlook how great Simmons was in a game where he wasn't always engaged; 19-13-9 and a near triple-double has somehow become ho-hum for him.

Joel Embiid was unguardable in crunch time

Remember just one week ago, when fans were irate Joel Embiid wasn't more involved in the team's offense during a crunch-time collapse against Houston? It appears he and his teammates got the message that the big man needs the ball more.

Embiid was flat-out dominant during the stretch run, turning it up on both ends of the floor. Neither he or Simmons are inherently selfish players, so it can be easy to forget that they are unstoppable when they put their minds to it. They are so big and skilled that they don't need a big window to be able to make things happen; Kent Bazemore fell asleep on Simmons for a half second, and the Atlanta defense had to scramble to prevent an open lane to the hoop for Simmons.

Turns out he wasn't worried about scoring, and he just threw the ball way up in the air, where only his guy was going to catch it.

When he wasn't being fed by Simmons, Embiid made mincemeat of the Hawks on his own. Occupying the space where he's usually content to take a jumper, Embiid used his scouting report against Dewayne Dedmon, getting his man in the air and ducking in for a nice layup.

Embiid scored 11 of his 21 points in the final frame, and all of those buckets came at the rim or the free-throw line. That's what Sixers fans want to see.

And Embiid was just as good as a passer

I've been hammering home this point in this space recently, but it deserves to be repeated again: Embiid is making real progress as a passer, and it's coming a lot faster than you might think it would.

Embiid had a career-high six assists tonight, and it was just as critical that he only turned the ball over two times. His coach believes those two things are connected, and was more enthused by the latter number from his young center.

"I'm going right to the turnovers right now, because I think it's all interconnected," said Brown. "He's getting double teamed because he's that good a lot, how he responds to the double team and him quarterbacking the gym, we can invite it and it can be the best play we ever have. Get it to Joel, and let him pick apart a gym... I thought he was doing better at that tonight."

We've seen Embiid throw some bullet passes to the corner in recent games, but he showed off a little more finesse out of double teams against Atlanta. With the Hawks drawing near midway through the fourth quarter, they sent two at Embiid in an effort to force a turnover. His lofted pass to Bayless arrived in just the right spot.

But the best pass for my money was one he threw early in the second quarter that unfortunately was not rewarded. Facing another double team, Embiid looked to the perimeter for an outlet. Rather than making the one-read play and firing it to the first guy he saw, Embiid baits Malcolm Delaney into lurching toward Dario Saric, then skips a pass to a wide-open Bayless in the corner.

That is next level compared to a lot of the passes he usually makes. In any case, sharing the ball and using passing as a weapon to avoid turnovers seems like a clear point of emphasis for Embiid, and it's making him an even more dangerous offensive player.

Robert Covington is in the role he was always meant to play

One key to Embiid's success in the paint tonight? The ball wasn't being force fed to him. Though it ended up being to their detriment on more than one occasion, the Sixers used gorgeous ball movement to keep everybody involved in the offense.

Robert Covington has never been a man afraid to shoot the basketball, and as a result of the improved team offense this year, he's off to the best start of his career, knocking down 48.2 percent of his triples through the team's first eight games. The looks are much cleaner than anything he dealt with in years past.

Embiid and Simmons garner a lot of attention on the offensive end, but the supporting cast is making a difference, too. JJ Redick couldn't get it going from deep against Atlanta, going 1/6 on the evening, but his coach acknowledged after the game that Redick's presence has a bleedover effect on the men around him.

"You're reminded no matter if he is making shots or he isn't, the attention that he receives is prominent," said Brown. "You see it and so it creates space it turns it into almost a four-on-four game."

Back to Covington: he has been one of the big beneficiaries of playing with Redick and in an offense with more ball movement than ever, in part because he is always looking to let it rip. As of right now, he's the only player in the NBA attempting at least seven threes per game and making at least 45 percent of them. He continues making a difference on the defensive end and is better than he's ever been on offense. A big money extension is on the horizon.

The bench got the job done

Amir Johnson struggled in his first few games as a Sixer, to the point that his coach had to openly confess to Jahlil Okafor not being in the rotation, silencing calls to put him in over Johnson.

Those early issues appear to be behind him. Johnson had his second straight solid game off the bench, doing the dirty work en route to 12 points and eight rebounds on the evening. Nothing about Johnson's game was pretty, even when he was putting the ball in the basket. He seems to defy all logic when he comes up with rebounds, because his vertical leap is roughly the same as mine at this stage of his career.

He somehow ends up with them in his hands anyway. So long as he sticks his nose in and makes life miserable for his opponent, that's all Brett Brown can ask out of his backup center. Embiid's minutes total continues to climb, and they simply need the bench to tread water until the starters reenter the game.

Jerryd Bayless deserves some love for his work off the bench tonight, after he was bumped from the starting lineup for a struggling Dario Saric. The move didn't help Saric at all, but Bayless continues to do exactly what he's on the floor to do: space the floor. His coach will take 2/5 from three every single night, and late in the game, Bayless even used his threat to shoot to feed his big man for a dunk.

The Sixers are the deepest they've been in a long time. Add that to some premium top-end talent, and you have the recipe for a lot of wins, health permitting.