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October 29, 2019

Five star review: Joel Embiid is learning how to be a four-quarter scorer for Sixers

15_Joel_Embiid_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers center Joel Embiid.

Everybody likes awards. Five Star Review is our way of catering to that, spotlighting key sequences and performances, in-game oddities, puzzling quotes, and everything in between from each Sixers game. This space offers a chance to reflect further on observations from the night before using video, quotes, and good old-fashioned logic.

You should all know how a five-star scale works: a five-star performance is the best of the best, a one-star performance is the worst of the worst. Mistakes take precedent in defeat, excellence takes precedent in a victory. You get the picture and are encouraged to submit your own set of stars in the comment section below.

Today's game: A tight victory over the Atlanta Hawks that pushed the Sixers to 3-0, Trae Young theatrics be damned. 

Joel Embiid, four-quarter scorer

Sometimes, I am happy to provide you with Brett Brown's detailed answers to help explain the story of a game. Other times, you only need a snippet. After Monday's win over Atlanta, he delivered a perfect one.

"Joel Embiid carried us tonight," Brown said after the game.

You would have never known his availability was in doubt before the game. The win over the Hawks was the first time this season where we saw Embiid just will his team to a victory, and while he won't always play a frontcourt as ill-equipped to stop him as Atlanta's, most of what he did to impact the game can be replicated moving forward.

Two plays stood out in particular. The first was the well-designed final play from Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who drew up a hi-lo look involving Al Horford to get Embiid the ball with a chance to win it. Horford is feared enough as a shooter to drag his defender out to the three-point line with him, and tall enough to throw passes over most guys who will defend him, which makes it easier to get the ball to the franchise player in the post.

The second one is not even really a "play" so much as it is Embiid getting down the floor to get in position to score:

In the past, riding Embiid in the fourth quarter would often lead to the big man tiring out and settling for bad shots or never establishing himself in the first place. To get the best out of him, they would often have to slow the game down and play methodically, which makes it hard to cut into any larger deficits and would end up being low-percentage offense anyway. That wasn't the case on Monday, where a combination of sub patterns designed to keep him fresh and the big man's improved conditioning prepared him to run and work right up until the final whistle. When you're as big as Embiid is, sometimes the mere act of getting down the floor is enough to produce offense.

Will the Sixers be able to trust Embiid in crunch-time situations over the long-term? That's more difficult to say, but the work has been done to make it viable, and Embiid understands it is both a privilege and a responsibility to be the guy your team turns to in the clutch.  

"That's something you work on all summer, you got to be ready for it, you got to be ready to be in that position," Embiid said when asked about being the crunch-time option after the game (shout out to Rich Hofmann of The Athletic for the audio/video here from the road.) "Especially after we lost Jimmy, who was our guy especially in the fourth. Someone else gotta step it up, and I feel like that's me."

Embiid has officially arrived for this season, and he has a must-see matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday night. Buckle up.

Defensive flexibility rules the day

In years past, the Sixers might have watched Trae Young put up 15 first-quarter points and responded by playing him exactly the same way the rest of the game. Conviction in a gameplan is not a bad trait to have, as it will see you through outliers, though it's frustrating to watch when it leads to one guy lighting you up all night.

What's important to note here is that the Sixers are mixing up coverages against all players, not just against players who are on an early heater. Their default defense on a standard 1-5 pick-and-roll is still to drop their bigs in "centerfield" coverage at the free-throw line and to funnel traffic toward them, but Brown and assistant coach Ime Udoka said throughout the preseason they wanted to make teams feel them on defense.

This is what "making teams feel them" looks like in practice.

Rather than being passive and seeing what develops from Atlanta's double drag screen, Simmons blitzes Kevin Huerter and takes control of the play himself, knowing Matisse Thybulle is there to help him create havoc and recover if necessary. Simmons flubs the transition opportunity that comes after, but it's ultimately a win for the defense.

This is where Philadelphia's change in personnel year-over-year helps. They simply have more guys who can play well in an aggressive defensive style, and it empowers their better perimeter defenders to make the most of their strengths. 

Matisse Thybulle disrupting on defense

We're running out of superlatives for this kid, and we're only three games into the season. Perhaps teams will realize they can't throw half-hearted passes in his direction at some point, but until that happens, he's just going to pile up steals like they're going out of style.

Even on plays where he's not getting a steal or forcing a turnover, Thybulle is making opponents second guess themselves. It has been awesome watching the fanbase embrace him in spite of a limited offensive game, which isn't always the easiest sell. When you're that good on defense, hard to find much to complain about. 

The backup wing picture

Brown has made the choice to go to Josh Richardson as the team's backup point guard early. It's not my favorite decision he's made, but it has its merits. This way, the Sixers can keep a size advantage against most opponents even when they're blending in second unit players, and grooming Richardson in this role is important for their long-term goals.

But there is one huge negative side effect of throwing out their backup guards. To search for a shooter to plug into the rotation, Brown has to go deeper into the wing rotation than he probably should, and the result is a hefty dose of Furkan Korkmaz through three games. His minutes haven't all been terrible, but remember, this is a guy who Philadelphia deemed unworthy of a third-year option last fall, who returned to the team as a bit of a surprise this past summer.

Even when other guys are getting minutes, a la Shake Milton, Richardson isn't the greatest option in the world to lead those groups. Richardson is at his best when he's making quick reads and either attacking closeouts or letting it fly, which is easier for him in an off-ball role. Most of their backup wings — like Matisse Thybulle, like James Ennis — need offense created for them, and while Richardson isn't a non-creator, he also isn't great at it.

We're still in the early days of this season and Brown likes to tinker up through about Christmas, so maybe we'll see some different looks in the coming months. 

Tobias Harris' shooting

There is no way to make this sound good. Harris has to be significantly better as a shooter to live up to the deal he was handed this summer.

My frustration with Harris is often that he plays too passively for someone with his scoring talent, but that's something you can live with on a team loaded with options. Understanding and filling a role can make a player super valuable in the right context, and his hot stretches showcase just how versatile he can be as a scorer.

The trouble is, the Sixers have carved out a fairly straightforward role for their $180 million man, and I'm not sure if it's a fit for him. Some of his misses from the Atlanta game on Monday, where he finished 1/9 from the three-point line, came on wide-open looks that he never even gave a chance to go in.

Harris tends to be at his best when he has the time and operating room to feel his way through the game as a scorer. He had that luxury in previous stops, particularly toward the end of his time in Los Angeles, where he had grown into a pseudo No. 1 option. This isn't unique to him — there are plenty of guys who would tell you they feel better and more confident when they have time and touches to settle in, rather than being asked to help in fits and starts.

But that's not the sort of team the Sixers have built. It's one that has mouths to feed and different matchups to exploit on a nightly basis, which means there are going to be a lot of nights where Harris has to wait for his number to be called. Does he have the shooting chops to excel in that role? We're going to find out.

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