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November 20, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Jazz

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With a couple of Philadelphia Eagles in the house on Monday, the Sixers decided they had to keep the winning ways going for the city. Against a Utah Jazz team missing lynchpin Rudy Gobert, the Sixers got in front early in the first quarter and never looked back, winning 107-86 in a near wire-to-wire victory.

Philadelphia's bench rose to the occasion

The first half of Monday night's game was one of the ugliest the Sixers have been involved in all year. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid missed a bunch of shots near the basket, which isn't exactly a recipe for success for this group.

In a bit of role reversal, it was the bench that carried Philadelphia to a double-digit lead in the first half. TJ McConnell scored eight points in the first quarter alone, hunting for his shot early and often. The Sixers desperately needed that with the way their starting unit was playing; Simmons, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick combined to shoot 3-19 from the field in the first half.

But the most important contribution of the night came from the man Embiid labeled the game's MVP: backup center Amir Johnson. The veteran big man played by far his best game as a member of the organization, and despite his uncertain role heading into each game, Johnson played his butt off against the Jazz.

As I noted in last week's mailbag, Johnson is generally a smarter defender than Richaun Holmes is, which is why Brett Brown chooses to go to him in certain matchups. What we saw against Utah was that attention to detail and that work paying off. The majority of the work here is done before he ever makes the block, and even though Covington can't dodge the screener, you can see Johnson trying to play traffic cop by yelling at him before the screen hits.

But Johnson's strength is not necessarily blocking shots so much as it is being in the best position possible to deter drivers. After a failed entry pass leaves him scrambling in transition, Johnson has to pick up Utah's Rodney Hood in transition. Matched up with the wing, Johnson does a great job of keeping Hood in front of him, and despite the forearm shove that earned Hood an offensive foul, Johnson uses his wingspan to keep his arm close enough to bother Hood without fouling him.

This is why you'll see Brown continue to turn to Johnson despite some protesting from segments of the fanbase. The head coach was effusive in his praise for Johnson and told a brief story after the game about calling players around the league to get a read on Johnson before the team signed him in the offseason.

"It was amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were. People skills, would work his butt off, could handle sitting and swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference, he's a good person and he's a pro," said Brown. "He's a perfect teammate. And tonight we saw a real presence defensively, and he came up with a few timely baskets."

It may not look like when you look at the large final margin, but the Sixers needed a performance like this badly, especially with Embiid nursing a sore knee.

Joel Embiid's defense empowers the defensive 'playmakers'

Sore knee or not, Embiid looked pretty good against the Jazz. He left some points on the board and admitted to pacing himself — some fans would love to see that more often! — but Embiid still cuts a towering figure on defense even when he's not at 100 percent.

Embiid's positioning is so good and his length so absurd that he really collects fewer blocked shots than he would if he was a worse defender. There are players who straight up refuse to challenge him at the summit, and those who do can end up on the wrong end of some trash talk if they attempt to climb Mt. Embiid and fail.

Embiid forces opposing drivers to make very difficult choices in the paint. Do you try to go straight at the guy whose wingspan seems to go on forever, or do you reset the offense and hope it earns you a better look? The latter may be the smart move, but it forces you to repeat the hard work of getting into the paint to begin with.

The indecisiveness caused by Embiid's stature forces wild passes from would-be scorers, and the athletes on the perimeter like Simmons and Covington are ready to pounce on the opportunities.

Even in transition, where Embiid is least equipped to help, Donovan Mitchell wanted to part of challenging Embiid at the rim on this play.

Credit certainly belongs to Simmons as well, because he sees where that play is headed and knows that he'll be in great position even if Mitchell is crazy enough to put up the shot. But the seeds for this kick out were planted during plays that took place earlier in the game, when Mitchell did have the nerve to try to finish over Embiid and was made all too aware of what the end result looks like.

This, for example, is a picture-perfect defensive possession from Embiid:

There is no wasted movement during the sequence. He crowds Ingles just enough without overplaying it, uses an outstretched arm to deny the entry to Derrick Favors, and then shepherds a pass into a covered Mitchell in the corner. When he has to put one up with the shot clock winding down, Embiid gives him absolutely no chance to put up a decent attempt.

The peace of mind offered to the perimeter players by Embiid can't be overstated. He is a one-man wrecking crew around the basket, and they're able to hug shooters and flash into passing lanes accordingly. 

Ben Simmons looks pretty good in attack mode

Simmons' touch (2/9 from the field, 1/4 from FT) was way off in the first half. His reputation as a playmaker first would have had you believe the poor shooting would prompt him to focus on finding other guys.

Instead, Simmons forced the issue early and often in the second half, and it was a big reason why Philadelphia dominated the points in the paint battle on Monday. What continues to be striking about Simmons attacking the paint is how he's able to do it even without the threat of the jumper. I noted after the Warriors game that he had the team moving at warp speed between possessions, but he still finds a way to up the tempo within the constrictions of a half-court set.

As he's waiting for the pass from McConnell here, you can see Simmons already revving the engine and preparing to hit max speed. Thabo Sefalosha, a legitimately good defender, can do nothing but reach as Simmons goes by, and the end result is a layup.

The most impressive part may be what comes right before the layup. After building up that speed, Simmons comes to a complete stop in the paint, freezes Favors with a quick fake, and just as quick as he stopped he's already going up for a layup. Simmons' straight-line speed is super impressive, but the ability to change speeds at his size is remarkable.

Each night will necessitate a different sort of performance from Simmons. That's life as a point guard in the NBA. This early, it's encouraging to see that he's able and willing to change his style to suit the evening, even when he has to fight through a tough start to get there. 

Robert Covington, a man who loves to cheat

Frankly, I could write about Covington's defense every night and never get tired of it. He stays involved on the defensive end in so many different ways, and the fact that he does it regardless of how it's going on offense is the biggest testament to his basketball character.

Where you felt his impact against the Jazz was with the damage he did as an off-ball defender. When Covington isn't chasing around a high-level wing a la Kevin Durant, he can wreak havoc by jumping into passing lanes and helping clean up mistakes by his teammates. You can see the gambler in him shine through when he spies an opportunity to help off a weakside shooter, timing his rotation so that he's only jumping in once the entry pass is inevitable.

Covington has stressed repeatedly that work in the film room laid the groundwork for his defensive improvement. He has natural gifts that aid him on the defensive side of the floor, but if every guy with lateral quickness and a large wingspan used their tools wisely, the NBA would have very few bad defenders. Covington gets the most out of what he has.

Just follow Covington here after he cheats off Rodney Hood during a crunch-time possession. Deep into the game when most players are fatigued and defend like it, Covington is still sinking back into an alert defensive stance. When Mitchell tries to fire a cross-court pass, he has no chance to get it through Covington's waiting arms.

It has become very rare to see Covington get caught off-guard on the defensive end. He'll get caught with his hand in the cookie jar every so often, chasing a steal he probably shouldn't have reached for. But his head is constantly on a swivel, his reactions are sharp, and his preparation is apparent.

Having a full rotation makes a big difference

What should scare teams around the NBA is that the Sixers have been able to such a good start despite a good deal of turmoil. Markelle Fultz has the shoulder ailment heard round the world, Richaun Holmes and Jerryd Bayless both missed time with wrist issues, and Justin Anderson—one of their only credible wing defenders—is now on the shelf for several weeks with shin splints.

The simple ability to play a nine-man rotation makes life so much easier for the Sixers. Role players can be just that, instead of being forced into minutes that outstrip their ability to produce. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was a case study for this over the last few days; he drew the ire of the fanbase for a rough performance across 24 minutes against the Warriors but was a much more effective player in 16 minutes against Utah. Quality of opponent matters too, but allowing a player to hone in on a smaller role is one way to empower them to be great.

When you have tentpole stars like Embiid and Simmons, the formula isn't too complicated. Brett Brown finally had some options available to him with Bayless back in the rotation Monday, and it led to a runaway victory.