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November 20, 2018

Five big things from Sixers' win over the Phoenix Suns

For the second year in a row, the Sixers came out looking like a giant sack of horse manure in their lone home game of the year against the Suns. Like last year, a Monday night game against a bad team snuck up on them, and they went into the second quarter trailing by double digits.

That's where the Sixers, and more specifically Joel Embiid, drew their line in the sand. Despite some last-minute shenanigans that brought the final score to 119-114, the Sixers took control of the game for most of the second half and emerged with a win that saw a couple of their young stars doing exactly what they should be expected to do on a nightly basis.

Jimmy Butler may have been the hero Philadelphia needed on Saturday against the Hornets, but it was the core he joined that got the Sixers into winning position on Monday.

Joel Embiid takes over the game

Down 10 points after the first quarter ended and coming off a brutal final two minutes of that period, the Sixers badly needed a shot in the arm from somebody to open the second. There was no better candidate than Embiid, who Brett Brown acknowledged after the game turned into a different guy with the team in need of a lift.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah. You probably see and feel what I do," said Brown. "You want to try to get him the ball as much as you just want to know, what are people going to be doing around him? Is it a bucket or a turnover? But I loved his spirit, I really thought his spirt was great tonight. When he started having that body language you're talking about, you try to get him the ball."

Embiid doesn't really need any extra motivation to make the game personal when he's playing against another traditional center, but this three-play sequence from the first few minutes of the second quarter say everything you need to know:

It would take Philadelphia until the third quarter to really turn the corner, but this was where the game began to shift in their favor. Embiid would finish with 33 points and 17 rebounds, and his domination in the post put several guys in foul trouble, including Devin Booker, who tried to help on Embiid late in several possessions and ended up just flailing at his arms.

"That’s what the team needs me to do," Embiid said of his big numbers this season. "They need me to dominate and be a beast off the block, offensively and defensively. Like I always say, thanks to my teammates and my coaching staff, they put me in the best position to succeed. I just try to do my job. Obviously, the stats are going to come with it, but in the end, I think what matters are the wins. Lately, we’ve been getting a few and we’ve got to keep on going."

He also gave a surprisingly mature answer about missing a windmill dunk in the second quarter with the team trailing by double digits. Embiid had a few laughs about it when I asked what his teammates had to say, and told reporters he has to focus on making the right plays when the team is trailing like that.

"I got to do a better job of, especially in that position, we were down. It wasn't like we were up 20," said Embiid. "I'm still learning the game of basketball. In those situations, I got to just go for the easy two and help our team. If we're up by 20, that's when I can do that type of stuff."

It sure makes for a great lowlight, in any case.

Ben Simmons asserts himself inside

In the moments after the game, Simmons was asked by a reporter about an Australian concept called white-line fever. It refers to someone who is mild-mannered away from the game, but once they cross that white line onto a court or field, they turn into a different, aggressive sort of person. Simmons had never heard of it before but offered one of his more colorful quotes.

"Once I step on the court, I don't play that shit," said Simmons. "I'm with my team, whoever is on the other team doesn't matter. I'm not going to help you up. I'm going to hit you, and when I hit you it's going to be hard."

One of the biggest complaints you could make about Simmons is that at his worst, he doesn't get the value out of his body and athleticism that perhaps he should. He's a physical marvel, but comes up short around the basket for what feels like no real reason sometimes.

But Simmons has been more assertive by a mile over the last couple games, demanding the ball on the low block and going to work against smaller defenders.

Combine that with a different level of urgency in transition, where Simmons caught the Suns napping on at least a couple occasions Monday night, and you have a version of Simmons that looks much more like the promising edition we spotted last season.

He will have either a size or speed advantage on the majority of people who attempt to guard him. His success is as simple as exploiting it.

Mike Muscala gives Philly a huge lift off the bench

Regular readers know I've been banging this drum for weeks, but for goodness' sake, Muscala needs to be the guy playing all the backup center minutes. Salutations to Amir Johnson, who has carved out a long and productive career after making the leap from high school, but his best days are clearly behind him.

Muscala was terrific on Monday night, sliding between the frontcourt spots depending on the look Brown wanted. He had his best game in a Sixers uniform and earned the right to be called the team's "bell ringer," putting up 19 points and five rebounds with a whopping 11 attempts from the free-throw line against Phoenix.

Those attempts were a career high for Muscala, and they came through one very simple action: crashing the offensive glass. The Suns took at least four fouls on Muscala as he attempted to go for offensive rebounds Monday night. If you don't think those plays give the Sixers a lift, look at T.J. McConnell's reaction to Muscala earning an and-one opportunity in the third quarter.

The performance should give Brown some pause when constructing his rotation, if Johnson's work this season hasn't already done so.

Muscala's weaknesses at center are not really an issue against the majority of teams in the NBA these days. He's not going to hold up well against centers who excel at posting up, but he did just fine against Phoenix, who is building around one of the few guys left for whom that is an emphasis. The benefits of playing him at center far outweigh the negatives, particularly with the shooting deficiencies they need to make up for elsewhere.

The Sixers probably need a little more help on the wing to make this work full-time, as Muscala is still needed to play some backup four as well. But it's a no brainer.

The backup point guard conundrum

There was a moment at the end of the first half when Markelle Fultz was set to check into the game with :27 seconds on the clock. The young guard stood puzzled near midcourt, seemingly confused about who he was supposed to come in for, and even after being announced by PA announcer Matt Cord, Fultz was yanked back to the bench by an animated Brown. The coach instead sent T.J. McConnell in, and home crowd responded with thunderous applause.

On its own, perhaps not noteworthy. But Brown turned to McConnell once again for all of the backup point guard minutes in the second half, leaving Fultz in cold storage after a disappointing effort in seven first-half minutes. Naturally, this came up after the game.

Rather than shutting the door on McConnell playing more with a quip to the effect of, "We're committed to developing Markelle off the bench," Brown seemed to leave the job a bit open during his postgame availability.

The fans were certainly delighted about the McConnell minutes on Monday. The only guy who got a louder ovation than McConnell when he made his brief cameo in the first half was Allen Iverson, who took selfies on the baseline in a Superman hat with nearly every fan who asked him for one.

It's hard to tell whether this was a momentary blip or the start of something bigger. The fact that it was left open suggests this is a situation worth monitoring.

Wilson Chandler, playing inside out

One of the newest members of Philadelphia's starting group, Wilson Chandler was said to be on a restriction of 27 minutes (how's that for specificity?) when we talked to Brown pre-game. He ended up playing 31, and nothing about his line suggests he did much of note.

Look a little closer, and you can see why it's nice to have him around. Chandler did a lot of ugly work against Phoenix on Monday, including committing some "professional fouls" to force Suns players to the free-throw line after his teammates got beat on the perimeter. When you get your money's worth on these plays, the points here and there can add up, ultimately paying dividends at the end of games.

But I don't want to make him sound like a goon, and Chandler has shown some nice utility as a passer in Brown's offense so far. We usually talk about Chandler's versatility through the lens of his ability to switch on defense, but he can also make plays as a passer in different contexts. He hooked up with Simmons on a couple nice entry feeds, and then reversed roles and found Muscala for an above-the-break three in the fourth quarter.

I still think he's overextended as a starter and/or someone you need to count on in crunch time. Ideally, he's one of your primary wing backups off the bench and a critical component in unleashing small ball.

But so long as he's counted on in this role, I think there's plenty to work with until they can upgrade the rotation. His return from injury has undoubtedly helped the team.

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