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February 10, 2018

5 observations from Sixers vs. Pelicans

When the Sixers aren't falling all over themselves giving their fans anxiety over the status of Markelle Fultz, it turns out they are a pretty enjoyable basketball team to watch. With the city still riding high in the afterglow of an Eagles Super Bowl, the Sixers came out and took care of business against the New Orleans Pelicans, cruising to a 100-82 win.

In reality, the game wasn't really that close. The Sixers were up by as much as 35 points in the second half, and with a back-to-back looming the next day, Brett Brown went with an all-bench lineup for nearly the entire fourth quarter. This was a thorough victory for Philadelphia and one that helps keep their momentum rolling as they approach the All-Star break.

It all starts with Joel Embiid, as usual

Relegated to a game-time decision due to right ankle soreness, Embiid was included in the lineup with about a half hour before the game was set to tip. Had you not known this prior to the game, you would never have guessed there was anything wrong, as Embiid closed the first quarter outscoring New Orleans' entire team, 16-14.

Embiid made shots early, but the encouraging thing about his offensive performance was how easy some of the buckets he got were. Too often the Sixers rely on Embiid not just to make shots, but to create them for himself. It's a recipe that produces far too many turnovers, though it's not necessarily avoidable given their personal problems.

That wasn't the case against the Pelicans, with the Sixers setting up Embiid with some easy layups and dunks on pick-and-rolls and transition opportunities. There was even a hysterical moment during their dominant run in the first half, when both Embiid and Robert Covington went up for the same lob pass, with the big guy getting the credit in the end and a whole bunch of laughs after the game.

"Does [Ben Simmons] get two assist [sic] or one?" joked Dario Saric after the game.

But what impressed me in this game beyond the usual Embiid highlights of scoring and defense was his rebounding. Embiid hauled in 16 rebounds in just 24 minutes of action, and his improvement on that end has been one of the most unsung stories of this season. Despite playing alongside a few guys you'd figure would depress his rebound totals, Embiid is actually rebounding the ball at a better rate than he did last season, both from a traditional and advanced perspective.

Brett Brown sees some of the same, and he credited Embiid's conditioning along with a level of assertiveness for the uptick in Embiid's rebounding.

"I think his mindset is influenced by his fatigue, I think he is a willing rebounder," said Brown. "I think that the growth on his offensive rebounding is almost more on my mind. To me, when he gets deeper catches when he's a roller after a pick-and-roll, that's the next phase. You hear me say all along, are you Shaquille O'Neal or are you Dirk [Nowitzki]? He can shoot a three, he can get deep catches, and if you can morph those two mindsets, then you've got it all."

Whether he plays against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night remains up for debate as of this writing. Regardless, it is fun to see that a guy who has grown as a player so quickly is still capable of adding new wrinkles and strengths to his game.

Dario Saric is one of the undersold stories of the NBA season

I'm not sure we are talking enough about the transformation Dario Saric has made in his second NBA season. Earlier in the year, I pointed out a pretty obvious thing: shooting is the difference between Saric being a useful role player and a potential sub-star player. All he has done since the beginning of the season is build off of some hot stretches, and he has become a legitimate weapon from downtown.

Through 51 games played, Saric is shooting 38.4 percent from three on exactly five attempts per game, which represents more than a seven-percent jump from where he finished last season. It's too deep into the year to say this is a sample-size fluke, and even if he settles in the mid-30's by year's end, this is a massive development for Saric personally and the Sixers as a whole.

By turning himself into an above-average shooter, Saric has helped tie together a starting lineup that ranks among the best five-man units in all of basketball. Used to playing with the ball in his hands during his rise to prominence overseas, and later as the key figure in the team's final stretch last season, Saric has figured out a way to impact the game on offense in several ways.

An exit meeting with Brown at the end of last season has a little something to do with that. Philadelphia's coach stressed to Saric that his future hinged on making shots from NBA three-point range, giving Saric a clear goal to work toward during the summer. But if a directive from a coach was all it took to make someone great, every guy in the NBA would be a capable shooter from deep.

It was on Saric to put in the reps and translate that into in-game progress, and he has crushed it this year. The addition of another ball-dominant player in Simmons has not slowed him down and has allowed him to take his game to the next level.

"I've been working, especially in Croatia with my coach of the national team, to stay after the practice," said Saric. "Even there, we have two practices a day, but I try to find time for myself to work on my game and improve."

Saric deserves a lot of credit for turning what could have been a critical weakness — particularly with this roster — into a legitimate strength in the span of one offseason. It is a testament to his drive and willingness to do what it takes to make the team better, and it bodes well for what else he can add to his game before he hangs up his sneakers.

Robert Covington, doing whatever it takes

The three-point shot continues to elude him. The ability to score in bunches nearly disappears along with it. Yet there may not be a better game to show why Covington has graded out as such an impactful player for Philadelphia, with his motor and instincts shining through on multiple occasions.

Covington's label as a very good defender sometimes comes with a downside. People see writers and analysts rave about him and think that means he should be a lockdown one-on-one guy, but that's never really been his strength. Instead, he makes his money through constantly making the right reads away from the ball, and maintaining good technique on difficult plays.

When players are in pursuit of chase-down blocks in transition, many times they will get overexuberant and end up fouling their opponent. But even in the midst of a scramble following a turnover, Covington has proven able to catch a streaking thief and contest a shot without fouling, using his length to turn a layup into a blocked shot.

These sort of plays add up during a game, and they sure as hell add up over time. His defensive versatility is excellent and gives the Sixers a ton of flexibility on how they attack teams defensively. Covington guarded everyone from Jrue Holiday to Nikola Mirotic, and the ability to go 1-4 on a given night is invaluable for a team low on impactful defenders. 

If the Sixers could add three Covington's to the team tomorrow, they would do it in a heartbeat. He helps this team tick, even if you have to live with some maddening cold spells.

No triple-double chasing for Ben Simmons

Simmons had a rough night from the field — which overshadowed a perfect 4/4 night from the charity stripe! — but he still ended up within a single rebound and two assists of a triple-double in just 25 minutes. New Orleans tried to throw pressure on him early, and his ability to bypass the first line of defense was a big reason the Sixers opened a large first-half lead.

But his coach did not have any interest in leaving Simmons out to hit a nice and rounded set of numbers and admitted as much following the game.

"I was aware of it all, and it's just not how I'm wired," said Brown. "I understand it, my answer is no. There wasn't any thought. It's not how I sort of see the world. I get it, but the risk/reward with anything happening and stuff, you just couldn't sleep at night. It's irresponsible."

You're damn right. Focus on the wins and the long-term, and the rest will come accordingly. 

Are we seeing Jerryd Bayless gradually fade out?

On nights when the Sixers are playing well enough to go up 30+ points on an opponent, you don't tend to think a whole lot about the guys that aren't playing. Save for a particularly loud fan pining for Richaun Holmes behind the media section, few people were worried about the guys on the bench.

So it was easy to forget Jerryd Bayless sat the bench for the first three quarters, only entering the game in garbage time. There have been more games like this lately than at any point this season, perhaps simply because the Sixers have better wing depth than they did earlier in the year.

That's something I'd personally like to see Brown lean into more, as it applies to Bayless and other guys on the depth chart. With Justin Anderson getting a chance to contribute, I'd like to see some more lineups where the Sixers trend smaller around Embiid, sliding guys like Covington or Anderson up to the four when Saric hits the bench. The Sixers do not weaponize athleticism enough for a team that likes to play at a fast pace offensively, and going small would be one way to do that.

By taking minutes away from a bad defensive fit in Bayless and a bit offensive fit in Booker, the Sixers could potentially get some of the best of both worlds. Maybe this would overextend some of the other guys in the rotation, but it's something worth exploring down the stretch because teams will punish a lack of lineup flexibility in the playoffs, should the Sixers get there.