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May 07, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers win nailbiter over Pelicans behind 37 from Joel Embiid

The Sixers nearly punted away what should have been an easy win, but they pulled it out of the fire to come up with a 109-107 win to move one game closer to locking up the No. 1 seed. Joel Embiid led the way for Philly with 37 points and 13 rebounds. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid sees young and/or undersized big man, Joel Embiid puts them in the torture chamber. Rinse, repeat, and you have the story of the season to some extent. It was never going to be any different against this version of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Willy Hernangomez and Jaxson Hayes need a steel chair and a straightjacket to slow down Embiid, to be kind to his primary defenders on Friday night. Anytime he had one of those guys in single coverage, it was almost guaranteed points, either at the free-throw line or on the dunk/layup Embiid was going to create beating them down in the post. Neither guy could find his footing, reaching hard to try to anticipate his moves and only causing their own downfall in the process.

New Orleans' best stretches of the game on defense were almost exclusively out of zone looks, where they were able to turn Embiid into a passer from the middle of the floor so he couldn't win as a scorer. Effective as that might have been as a counter, they couldn't get to it or execute it enough for it to matter. Embiid was not at his most active on defense to say the least, but he made a concerted effort to get down the floor and establish early position or seal off his man so his teammates had no choice but to get him the ball.

The MVP is almost certainly out of his reach at this point barring a voting movement I'm not aware of, but one of the only good things of this part of the season is getting to hear a Philly fan give him the chant he deserves to close out this terrific regular season. There has not been an individual Sixers season as good as this one in 20 years, and the hope has to be that this is the start of a new normal for one of the league's elite players.

• Somebody needs to tell Seth Curry to save a few makes for the playoffs, because he has been absolutely rolling lately. Not even an early bout with foul trouble could keep Curry down against the Pelicans.

Normally, we spend a lot of time focused on Curry's combination play with the big-name guys on the roster, specifically Embiid because of his history of pairing with shooters in sets. Lately, it hasn't really mattered what sets you put him in or who he's using to create separation. He's making pull-up jumpers, shots off-the-catch, stepbacks in the pick-and-roll, sidestep jumpers from three, he's got it all working right now. That's a scary sight for anyone who might meet the Sixers in a playoff series — if the Sixers have somehow coaxed Curry into pulling the trigger earlier and more often, they have eased a concern that has lingered for the offense all season.

I still wonder if his role changes at all in the playoffs to make a bit of room for George Hill in crunch time, but that's a discussion for another day.

• He didn't do a whole lot to fix the second unit on Friday night, but this was one of the best offensive games George Hill has had since joining the Sixers. Why he doesn't have more responsibility is mind-blowing to me — it's tough to watch Shake Milton drive this team as the point guard at times — but perhaps we will see the swap made when the playoffs begin.

Guard play is more important than it has ever been in the NBA, and Hill is the only one on the roster who you can say is capable in almost every single way. Solid defender, solid pick-and-roll guy, solid catch-and-shoot player, and a guy I'd feel even better about if he was slightly less important to their contention chances.

But that's not really his fault. Good game from him for the most part.

• I'm not really convinced this was a "good" game for Tobias Harris, who couldn't find his footing early and has needed some strong second-half performances to make his stat lines look better in recent weeks. But beggars can't be choosers, and with this game on the verge of sliding away in the fourth quarter, Harris came up with some big-time shots when they needed them most.

A fair question heading into the playoffs: is a team this reliant on Harris to be their crunch-time/second-half leader built to go on a long playoff run? As good as he has been this year, I think that's totally fair to wonder. For now, take the 'W' and don't think too hard about it. 

The Bad

• The downside of the Sixers playing so many non-competitive games lately is that they have not exactly been incentivized to play their best ball on defense. Whether that means anything for the future is up for you to decide — I tend to believe these games are meaningless beyond what they mean for the seeding race — but it has led to some downright ugly moments on defense that don't reflect the team we've all watched play this season.

You could say this is an "attention to detail" thing but that feels like overcomplicating the issue. They're simply not playing as hard on defense from the opening whistle to the end of the game. Guys are getting caught flat-footed, not closing out possessions with rebounds, and barely pretending to contest opponents at the rim if they get beat.

That was particularly evident for a stretch from the end of the first through most of the second quarter, with backup big Jaxson Hayes having a career-best half against Philly mostly through activity. The Sixers were putrid on the defensive glass in the first half, and Hayes is a pogo stick ready to flush any second-chance opportunities that come his way, so he quickly found 19 points before the halftime buzzer sounded.

They got it together for a spell to close the first half with Simmons absolutely bullying Lonzo Ball around midcourt. But it got worse again after halftime, with a lot of ball-watching, bad angles on-ball, and poor clean-up attempts from Embiid on the back end. The third quarter was such a trainwreck that the home crowd booed them back to the bench to close it out, an "honor" they deserved

Embiid's effort (or lack thereof) was maybe the most noteworthy part of it all. There were a lot of possessions where he simply did not even pretend to give a damn. Hayes was able to walk in for dunks on a couple of cuts and rolls, Hernangomez got offensive rebounds he never should have had a chance at, and you could see Embiid exerting minimal effort on some of his contests against drives, not exactly flying through the sky to prevent layups. 

 There's nothing wrong with saving a little wear-and-tear if you can get the victory easily, but it sucks to watch and this team isn't that good that they can expect to just throw away quarters and still win all of the time. The playoffs are going to be a major jolt, so hopefully, the brief layoff during the play-in games affords them time to rev it back up.

• Look, sometimes you get it right, sometimes you tweet things like this when the Sixers are up 16 and assume they won't vomit all over themselves.

Bad job by me. You can't be the smart guy all of the time.

But the fact that fans still watch the Sixers and go into it expecting for their big leads to disappear says a lot. The old head coach who took most of the blame for these collapses in the past is long gone, and no one seems to have picked a scapegoat yet.

Is it still the head coach? Rivers certainly hasn't helped them with some of his rotation choices and primarily the decision to go with all-bench groups even when they are very clearly not working. Putting Mike Scott back in the rotation is just absurd based on how bad he has been this year, especially when you consider how much better they've looked playing small lately. Not like Scott helped them with the rebounding problem. And here's another coaching-related note — they were absolutely horrific attacking zone defense against the Pelicans, something they certainly have been better with this year but was a constant talking point in the coach screaming in past years. 

Is it because it's a team built partially around Simmons? He's not a guy who is going to help you change the course of the game on the offensive end if the other team suddenly gets rolling. They don't have a dynamic, three-level guard the way most other contenders do, so they have to win with the Embiid sledgehammer or not at all, and even that means living on twos while other teams bomb away from three.

Is it because it's the NBA and teams go on monster runs all the time, especially when the gap in motivation can be so large on a moment-to-moment basis? Of course. But I reject that as an excuse for anything that happened on Friday night.

It has always been a combination of dozens of factors. If the noticeable upgrade that literally everybody has raved about has not prevented this problem, perhaps it should invite some reflection on what the source of the problem is, was, and will continue to be. Basketball is a sport of organized chaos. Get used to it.

• Look, at this point, you have to be imitating an ostrich to expect something different than what you're getting from Simmons on a nightly basis. He is a playmaker first, second, and third, and they are going to either have to win with him playing that way (and playing high-level defense, mind you) or move him for somebody who brings something different to the table. He is not going to randomly turn into a LeBron-type guy. It's a fairy tale. 

The sooner you come to grips with that, the easier it will be to make an assessment of his game that matters within the context of his team. 

• Anyone expecting Shake Milton to be a no-doubt contributor in the playoffs is absolutely fooling themselves, if you're asking me. If he's able to get in a good groove as a scorer, he can absolutely help this team. It's just as likely his inattentive defense, poor decisionmaking, and overall style of play are going to derail any chance he has to be a big-time player.

There have been a lot of head-scratching sequences from Milton this season. I think my least favorite type of play from Milton is the missed shot or terrible turnover that is immediately followed by complaining to the refs, throwing his arms up in exasperated fashion as the opponent runs the other way to score on the break.

• Hayes played what was probably the game of his life, but Dwight Howard was, to put it lightly, a big part of laying the foundation down for him. I'm not surprised when energy bigs give Embiid problems at times, partially because he lets his guard down on the defensive glass from time-to-time, but Howard was downright horrible against New Orleans. 

The Ugly

• Seriously, even I am getting sick of writing and talking about this, but could the Sixers get one game against a team with a halfway competent lineup before the season ends? I'm not asking for the Lineup of Death Warriors, the 1995-96 Bulls, or the Showtime Lakers, but this is just getting ridiculous. No Zion Williamson, no Brandon Ingram, no Steven Adams, no Josh Hart, no Nickeil Alexander-Walker, no interest from most of the Sixers fanbase who just wants to make sure they pile up a few more 'W's' to lock up the No. 1 seed.

Please, for the love of all things sacred, give us one compelling game!

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