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October 31, 2017

The Sixers already have two star players, and it makes a huge difference

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The Sixers were not about to suffer two heartbreaking losses at the hands of the Rockets in the span of a week. Playing like they had something to prove, the Sixers staved off the late-game yips and came up with a signature victory against Houston, winning 115-107 Monday night.

We'll dive into some minutiae, but first, a word on the two men that primarily made it happen.

You don't have to wait to say it: the Sixers already have two stars

There's a tendency for the public's player evaluation to either be overzealous or far too slow. I usually tend to avoid the former, but I'm going to make an exception here, because I think it's beyond clear that the Sixers have two stars right now, and the only question mark is whether Markelle Fultz will eventually get there.

Joel Embiid was the guy we knew could be this good already, but Ben Simmons has no real right to be as dominant as he has been in the early going. The only rookie you can compare him to historically through seven games went by the name of Oscar Robertson. No big deal, just one of the 10-15 greatest basketball players to ever live.

Frankly, Simmons has been the team's best player for large stretches of games, with foul trouble and turnover problems harshing Embiid's mellow. Even if you think you were prepared for Simmons to be this good already — and I think you're lying if you claim that — you certainly weren't prepared for him to look comfortable shooting jump shots yet. As recently as the preseason, Simmons showed little interest in pulling up and letting it fly.

Now he's doing this:

Simmons pulled up from around the free-throw line on several occasions, and just the act of doing so is very important for him. Teams respecting his ability and/or willingness to shoot will make him an even bigger nightmare to cover, and having to close out on him will open up passing lanes even wider for him.

That manifested almost immediately during the Houston game. Simmons gets Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the air with his first fake from the line here, then Mbah a Moute closes hard as Simmons moves to the other side. With his defender playing tight coverage instead of sagging back toward the rim—as we've already seen teams do against him—Simmons hits Saric with a bounce pass, and they get a bucket out of it.

Embiid's night felt a little more erratic because of foul trouble, but he was no less impactful. With each passing game, the Sixers are running more and more sets that guarantee the involvement of Embiid and Simmons, and they're both comfortable getting the other guy a good look. In this "HORNS" set, which the Sixers should run a lot more of, Simmons spots Embiid's mismatch as he rolls to the hoop, and poor Ryan Anderson never has a chance. 

These guys can also make things happen without the benefit of structured offense. The Sixers are walking into their possession when Embiid spots Simmons getting loose, and he threads a gorgeous pass through traffic to get a wide-open dunk for his buddy.

Passing isn't even a point of strength for Embiid, but he makes this look impossibly easy. Later in the game, he had a much smaller man on him in the post. Rather than try to bully his way through him for a bucket, which often ends up as an offensive foul on the bigger guy, Embiid puts one on a rope to TJ McConnell in the corner, and he does the rest.

That last play, in particular, should strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Embiid and Simmons possessing extraordinary gifts is one thing, but we were led to believe it wasn't quite time for these guys yet. Not this year, maybe they'll get there in a year or two. 

But these two seem to realize how their talent can bend games and defenses, and they're using it to their advantage. That's scary.

Joel Embiid is the only person who can stop Joel Embiid

One of the only problems for Embiid right now is his ability to get into foul trouble in a hurry. He played only 25 minutes against Houston, and he still ended up having to play with five fouls for the final four minutes of a game. Embiid had to walk the razor's edge between imposing his will on the game physically and leaving himself susceptible to a disqualification.

He shouldn't think for one moment to change his style of play, but he does need to focus on not picking up cheap ones. His third foul came toward the end of the first half, when he stuck his leg out just a little too far on a screen and got called for the offensive foul. There's no need to pick those up 30 feet from the basket.

Even on that low minutes total and in foul trouble, Embiid managed to put up 22 points, nine rebounds, and five assists on 9/12 shooting. Foul trouble can mess up a player's rhythm, but Embiid didn't miss a beat on Monday night. 

Good backup center minutes are pivotal

Amir Johnson can take a bow after his performance against the Rockets on Monday. He had a rough one against this same Houston team at home last week, with Clint Capela dusting him in the pick-and-roll on several consecutive plays at one point. Johnson would not allow it to happen again.

Instead of flashing out to James Harden on pick-and-rolls like he did too often in the first meeting, Johnson sat back and forced Harden to either hunt his shot or make a difficult pass to Capela. When Harden chose the latter, Johnson was in much better position to make a play.

Nothing fancy, right? That's sort of the point.

A lot of fans will focus on his night from the field—Johnson was 6/10 and snagged his first double-double of the season—but plays like these are much more important in my eyes. The Sixers don't need Johnson to be a go-to scorer or anything close to one, but if he's going to fight with Richaun Holmes for the backup center job, he needs to hound the boards and prevent easy looks at the rim. 

Embiid is good enough that the Sixers will be content as long as their second unit can play the opponent to a draw. This was Johnson's best game as a Sixer by some margin, and they'll need more nights like this to beat the better teams around the NBA.

The defense is starting to tighten up

Philadelphia has wildly outpaced expectations on offense, in part because Simmons is playing at an All-Star level on that end. And while their defense has lagged behind, there were signs in Monday night's game that point to the team getting their act together.

That all starts with Embiid. He hasn't been his usual self there to start the season and has been a little too impatient chasing blocked shots. The activity has been fine, but the overzealous effort has gotten him into trouble more often than not.

It was a different story against Houston. Trusting that his length would get the job done, Embiid hangs back on Capela with Eric Gordon driving, and he waits for Gordon to commit before he lurches forward. By just hanging in the air with him, Embiid catches Gordon in a period of indecisiveness, and an errant pass follows.

There was room for decisiveness in his game, too. As Harden tries to get the Rockets into their offense, Embiid shows hard and doubles the Houston guard with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. The play is totally blown up as a result, and Houston ends up having to settle for a wild Anderson shot at the end of the possession. It goes in, but this is about as good of a defensive possession as you can have without forcing a turnover.

Again, Embiid's length is a major weapon here. He crowds Harden, who has absolutely no idea what to do with the ball. You don't hear that said about Harden very often.

The dunks, hook shots, and threes matter a great deal for Embiid. The defense just so happens to matter more.

Clap for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

TLC has been as erratic as you might expect a second-year player to be, particularly one who missed a lot of the preseason. The Sixers got an excellent game out of him against Houston, in what was his best two-way performance of the young season.

With a couple high-usage stars at the center of their offense, and a third assumed to be on the way, the Sixers need players who can get their offense without having the ball in their hands. TLC fits that description perfectly.

Luwawu-Cabarrot was 2/3 from deep on the night, active defensively, and gave the Sixers a big boost off the bench with 17 points. The most impressive part of it all? He got to the charity stripe a bunch, and knocked down all seven of his free-throw attempts. TLC still lacks craft in his handle, but if he can generate more trips to the line with body control, he'll turn himself into a semi-dangerous player on offense.

Now if he could just stop taking silly fouls...