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January 04, 2018

Five observations from Sixers vs. Spurs

Sixers NBA
010317-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and San Antonio Spurs guard Bryn Forbes (11) battle for a rebound during the third quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

The potential return of Markelle Fultz has stolen all the headlines this week, so it has been easy to forget the Sixers still have to actually go out and play games in the meantime. As they wait for the return of the No. 1 overall pick, the Sixers appear to be heading in the right direction to begin 2018, with a 112-106 victory over the San Antonio Spurs giving them their third-straight win and the first of the new year.

With one game left before their long trip to London, the Sixers are back within striking distance of a .500 record. They have a few primary figures to thank for the recent upswing, starting with their likely All-Star.

The curious case of Joel Embiid's hand

When reporters spoke to Brett Brown at his customary pre-game availability, the coach proclaimed his star center was, "very doubtful" to play in Wednesday night's game. In the middle of player availability, around 55 minutes before the Sixers would tip off, word came directly from Sixers PR: Embiid was officially out for the night's game.

And then just over 20 minutes before the game got going, following an intense warmup session in front of the adoring public, Embiid was active for the game. The man with a swollen, bruised hand and every excuse not to play against a depleted Spurs group decided he was okay to give it a go.

His coach went out of his way to praise the toughness of his young center after the game, wanting to remind the room of the personal sacrifice he made to be a part of the win.

There was nothing in my mind that suggested he was going to play. I think to Joel Embiid's complete credit, he came in and surprised me and actually made some shots. If you saw the swelling in his hand you wouldn't have thought that would be the impact. [You would expect] he would block shots, he would rebound, he would be physical defensively, but he actually still had some finesse and touch to his shot with his swollen right hand ... I give him a lot of credit for playing through complete pain, to play in front of the Philadelphia fans and help his teammates. That's a gutsy effort.

It takes a lot more than guts to have the game Embiid had against the Spurs. He came up with yet another double-double (21 points, 11 rebounds) and filled the stat sheet elsewhere, blocking four shots in the first quarter alone. There was a refusal on his part to play or act any different than normal, despite a hand that was clearly bothering him.

"At the start of the game, it was pretty warm. As the game was going after a few dunks and someone hit on it, it got pretty bad. Just got to ice it and hope that it gets better," said Embiid after the game.

That's not exactly how you want to hear a star player describe the situation, but there was a bit of a silver lining to the whole thing. Embiid did a lot less of his bull-in-a-china-shop routine throughout the game, slowly settling into the offense and picking his spots when he could. It helped limit his turnovers despite the difficulties presented by playing with a sore hand and should be a blueprint for how they use him on the offensive end moving forward.

Embiid's work off-the-ball reminded you of how potent the connection can be between he and Ben Simmons when they have it going. With a nice little screen from JJ Redick early in the third quarter, he got loose on his way toward the rim, and his buddy was never going to miss him with the pass.

If Embiid's hand forces the team to run an offense that relies less on his individual creation ability, it could end up being a blessing for their diversity.

Brett Brown finally gets over the hump against his mentor

The Sixers gave San Antonio some scares during the darkest times of the rebuild, but entering Wednesday's game they hadn't won a game against Brown's former team since he took the Philadelphia job. This was not a fact lost on the players he's responsible for, and when asked about what motivated him to go out and play through pain, Embiid made it clear Brown's Spurs losing streak played a part in stepping up.

"I love my team, I want to be right there with them and I don't want to quit on them," said Embiid. "And then I also wanted to get Coach [Brown] his first win against his former team, and we did that for him."

The X's and O's and rotations matter a great deal for a head coach, but if you pay any attention to the NBA coaching landscape, you'd be a fool to downplay the value of relationships in a coaching success or retention rate. In a league where stars have more power than they've ever had, trust between player and coach has never loomed larger.

There is no doubt of the bond shared between Embiid and his coach, before we even get to what the rest of the locker room thinks. Thanks to an inside peak from the Sixers, we can see how much it meant to the group to get Brown that big first win, and they let him ring the ceremonial bell the team uses after every win they collect this year.

The Sixers have had some bad losses and stretches already this year, but the fabric of that locker room has felt whole through it all. It may not be something you can yell at the TV about or ever have a firm grasp on, but it is a real and important thing to note. Brown is a coach whose players like and respect him, and as simple as it sounds it goes a long way.

Ben Simmons delivers at the free-throw line

As you can hear Brown say in that video above, the Sixers have challenged Ben Simmons to "go be LSU." Simmons, who shot nine free throws per game during his lone season in college, did everything in his power to make that a reality.

The total you saw at the end was a little inflated by the Spurs' insistence on hacking him in the game's final stretch, but even before Gregg Popovich made that call Simmons was thriving at the free-throw line. He was 6/10 from the charity stripe prior to Pop employing the strategy, and he went 4/5 the rest of the way to ice the game.

For Simmons, it's not as simple as just pointing to his percentage and saying whether it was good or bad on a given night. It's of course important for him to make a good percentage of his attempts, but he needs to be forcing his way to the line early and often, because elite players should have a decent portion of their offense coming from points at the stripe.

Over the last couple weeks, we've seen signs that Simmons is forcing the issue there (in a good way!) more often. It is easy to see on his drives to the basket, where the bulk of his scoring comes from. But there was a single play that stood out to me against the Spurs: forward Kyle Anderson tried to swipe for a steal with Simmons working on him in the post, and the Sixers' rookie rose up to shoot in an effort to draw free throws.

He didn't get the call — that's life as a rookie in the NBA — but the fact that he did this without hesitation is important because it's the sort of play stars around the league make on a routine basis. You can't see it on the broadcast angle, but he made sure to plead his case after the ball went out of bounds and the Sixers lost possession. Over time, Simmons will eventually earn the respect of the officials and be able to take advantage of those situations, so for now the important thing is playing with the proper mentality.

The Sixers are getting Simmons more involved off-the-ball

Another ancillary "benefit" of Embiid's hand issue was the style of offense Philadelphia played to start the game. Rather than getting their big man going with designed sets or post-ups, they relegated him to playmaking and floorspacing duties early on. It was an effort to limit his pain, but it was also part of a plan to get Simmons the ball close to the hoop.

Yes, he may be the nominal point guard on this team, but Simmons spent a good deal of his life playing small or power forward. They haven't been able to take advantage of this as much with Markelle Fultz on the shelf, because the Sixers simply can't afford to keep him away from the ball for too long. Slowly but surely, they are trying to strike a balance and make sure he's not always tasked with creating his own shot.

When you have a player who is every bit of 6'10" and a matchup nightmare, there are much worse ideas than throwing him entry passes deep in the post, assuming his teammates can get him the ball.

A more forgotten part of his game is the damage he can do diving to the basket, since he's the guy who usually has to set the table for everyone else. He drew one of the many fouls he took on such a play midway through the third quarter, and Dario Saric found Simmons after the latter used an Embiid screen to get free.

The more they can use him this way, the better he'll be and the more prepared he'll be to share the rock with Fultz.

Dario Saric pops up at all the right times

His nights can be understated and his box scores don't always jump off the screen, but you can count on Saric to battle from minute one through minute 48. Hustle plays count the same whether you're up 20 or tied in the game's closing minutes.

Late in their win against San Antonio, the Sixers were forced into a timeout and barely hanging on in a tie game. It felt like one back-breaking play could shift the momentum for good, and after Robert Covington missed a short jumper, another crushing late loss was on the horizon.

In came Saric, the Sixers' resident pain-in-the-ass on the offensive glass, there to keep the play alive and eventually earn a trip to the free-throw line.

Despite Gregg Popovich's insistence that +/- is a "bullshit" stat pre-game — and in fairness, it often is on a game-by-game basis — Saric's +19 felt indicative of the difference-making plays he makes. His game looks a lot prettier when the jumper is falling, and he continued his hot streak from outside with a 2/4 shooting night from deep. But there are plenty of guys who can make jumpers, and very few do it while also making the ugly plays in traffic Saric comes up with nightly.