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December 31, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Nuggets

Sixers NBA

Aided by the blessings of Lil B The Based God — if you have to ask, you'll never understand it — the Sixers pulled off a tight win in Denver without the services of one Joel Embiid. It took big performances from some of the team's most unreliable players, but they got it over the line and edged out Denver for a 107-102 victory.

How did they get there? Glad you asked.

Jerryd Bay-more

Jerryd Bayless has been what you could charitably call a punching bag in this digital space all season long. He was on track to be one again following a dreadful first half, in which he played only four minutes and launched a mid-range jumper that hit the side of the backboard. Philadelphia looked on its way to a typically dismal loss without Embiid.

Then something unexpected happened: Bayless had his best stretch of the season, helping power the Sixers to a ludicrous 25-5 run that stretched through most of the third quarter.

It all started with a sideline out of bounds lob to the undersized guard, a play the Sixers have found Bayless on again and again this year. He only needed to see the ball go in once to get himself going, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Bayless was in complete heat check mode. He made his first shot of the quarter, stumbled into a steal on a broken Denver inbounds play, and what the hell, shooters shoot.

It was that sort of second half for Bayless, who scored all 14 of his points in the half and gave the Sixers the boost off the bench they needed without Embiid in the lineup. His teammates were whooping and hollering on the sideline throughout his hot stretch, and it was a nice reminder for Philly fans of how fun it can be to watch a guard get on a scoring roll, because they haven't had a guy who could do so for a while.

On the few occasions Brett Brown has been asked to talk about Jerryd Bayless this year, he has always harped on his ability to get instant offense. We haven't seen a whole lot of that from Bayless, who has drawn the ire of the fans more than any player on the roster, and it would be great for the team if they could get nights like this out of him more often.

And really, Bayless' scoring wave in the second half is something the Sixers will hope to get out of Markelle Fultz on a consistent basis. Their defense without Embiid is a big reason behind their blown leads, but Philadelphia desperately needs a guy who can stem the tide as a scorer by himself. It's hard to rely on Embiid for that when he turns the ball over to the degree he does, and as a big man he obviously can't bring the ball up the floor and run the offense. 

But those are big picture thoughts, and Bayless deserves his moment after catching plenty of heat during his struggles.

A rough night for Ben Simmons

The Sixers got the win, but Simmons was nowhere near good enough on offense in an Embiid-less game. I actually think his assist total is much lower than it could or even should have been, and Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes missed a couple bunnies each that would have made his line look a little more respectable. But he had a weird offensive game that is representative of his limitations as a player at the moment.

With Denver desperate for a victory, they resorted to hacking Simmons at the 1:32 mark of the fourth quarter, hoping to send him to the free-throw line. He played without the ball in his hands the rest of the way, seeking the rock only when he had an opportunity to inbound pass to a teammate. This is a problem he has to overcome because there's no excuse for teams being able to completely take him out of the game offensively.

There were a lot of questions on social media about why Brown would leave him in the game if this is how Denver was playing it. For me, the answer is simple: he is one of the few players they have who can impact a game on defense, which was the best part of his game on Saturday night.

Simmons' recovery speed is striking for a guy his size, and even after running at less than full speed in transition, his final burst was enough to block a shot from Will Barton. There are only a few guys alive who are his size and can cover ground that quickly.

The Nuggets struggled to get out in transition against the Sixers, or perhaps it's more accurate to say they were not successful when they did. Simmons was a big part of that, taking charges in the open court and running guys down who otherwise had clean lanes to the basket. He did a lot of little things well that won't show up on the stat sheet.

That applies to the negatives too. I love that Simmons' instinct is to move the basketball and find open guys, but there are times when he should be bullying people near the basket. You could have easily missed something like this in real time, but Simmons went up for a rebound off a JJ Redick missed three late in the first half. With nobody between him and the rim as he gets a mitt on it, Simmons does not look to shoot and instead appears to be trying to tip a quick pass in Holmes' direction for a dunk.

I firmly believe it's a good thing to have a player who improvises like that on your team, and I think it helps build good culture when a team's best players are unselfish. But when you're 6'10" and hard to hold down near the basket, you have to go to the basket with reckless abandon. No one is going to begrudge you if you miss a putback, and Simmons needs to chase his own shots more often even if they don't drop.

The Johnson vs. Holmes battle continues

Debating Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes' minutes is one of the least productive things going on in Sixers land right now. The veteran is a better defender and the latter is better on offense, and the coaching staff seems to prioritize the former. It's not much more complicated than that from what I can tell.

The Denver game was a microcosm of that dynamic. Holmes and Simmons worked a lot of pick-and-roll action together and look insanely comfortable as partners on that play, but the young big struggled with defensive reads throughout the game. The Sixers frequently look like they have communication struggles with Holmes anchoring the defense, and his teammates guide their men toward help that never comes.

Johnson did a much better job of making Nuggets players work for their shots, despite the severe drop-off in athleticism from Holmes to Johnson. His defensive instincts are considerably better at this stage, and he makes teams work really hard to score points in the paint. He is a prime example of why blocked shots are not indicative of defensive aptitude because he was great on D without blocking a single Nuggets attempt.

The anger over Johnson getting the backup center minutes seems misplaced to me. Plays like the one above are fairly routine for him, and he's capable of both snuffing out a pick-and-roll before a ballhandler can get any steam going or using verticality to force awful shot attempts. What he does isn't always pretty, but it gets the job done more often than not.

Holmes needs to get more minutes without a doubt, and on nights where Johnson doesn't have it, I think Brown needs to recognize that and turn to his other big. But I think this is a healthy battle between two guys who have very different cases to play, and so long as Holmes continues to do his thing when he gets the call I don't mind the tug of war.

Ho hum, another versatile Dario Saric performance

If Embiid isn't playing, it has become almost inevitable for Saric to grab a large share of the offensive workload. A few tough misses around the basket brought his efficiency down, but he filled up the box score anyway with a crisp 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the evening.

It has to be a pain to deal with Saric on the scouting report if you're an opposing coach. He's definitely not a knockdown shooter, but he does well enough from deep that you need to respect his stroke. Combine that with some secondary handling and a unique passing gift at his size, and it's not hard to see why he's a tough cover.

On nights when Simmons can't leave his imprint on the game, the Sixers need Saric more than ever. Against the Nuggets, he delivered just that, offering shooting (3/7 from three), herky-jerk moves in the post, and the nifty interior passing that you've come to know and love.

He will turn your head with a pass on one possession and emerge from a crowd of bigger players with an offensive rebound on the next. "The Homie" never stops grinding, and his willingness to shapeshift into whatever the team needs on a given night is a delight.

Take care of the ball, and good things happen

Here's a development that will surprise absolutely no one: if you don't turn the ball over, it's a hell of a lot easier to win basketball games.

Despite five big turnovers from Simmons, a few of which were just bad giveaways, the Sixers coughed it up just 13 times against the Nuggets. That's far below their season average and much better than they've done throughout the month of December especially. And when the Sixers don't turn the ball over, they're able to leverage their strengths like rebounding and half-court defense a whole lot more.

Quiet as kept, the Sixers have slowly moved into the upper echelon of the NBA in defense. They currently sit seventh in defensive efficiency as the calendar moves toward 2018, which is not always apparent at the pace they play at. It's something they can build on as the team continues to gel, and it can win them games when they go cold from the field, as they did in the final minutes of Saturday's win against Denver.

If they don't give up freebies at a high rate, the Sixers are capable of making the playoff push they've been talking about for months. This is a very different team if they prove they can practice better ball security in 2018.