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December 10, 2018

Instant observations: Joel Embiid is still Joel Embiid (and Ben Simmons is really good too) as Sixers beat Pistons

The Sixers are such a talented team, so chock-full of star power and potential that sometimes they can play just okay, or even badly, but still come away with a win.

Not an easy task in the NBA.

Monday night in their final of four season meetings with the Pistons, Philly took advantage of a Pistons team on the downslide — without their best player in Blake Griffin — en route to a 116-102 victory — their 19th of the season.

And though they didn't look dominant for the first, say, 40 minutes of so of this particular outing, they made quite a splash in the last few minutes. Here's what I saw in Philly's 'W' over Detroit:

The Good

• Ben Simmons really has the size (obvious at 6-foot-10, granted) and strength to play power forward. He plays a point guard role on the Sixers and he is deft at distributing the ball, as everyone knows, but his ability to exploit mismatches and occasionally turn them into offense down low is an underrated plus for Philly. Early Monday he was right at home in the paint, whether he was backing down an offender (like in the clip below) or driving inside for an and-one opportunity.

Simmons has really come on as he's meshed with Butler (and adorned a headband) and gotten rid of the bitter taste of the Celtics series last spring. Against Detroit he had three dunks early, 11 points in the first and and 18 points overall paired with 10 boards and seven assists.

According to @SixersStats, Simmons became the first player in the NBA this season with 400 points 200 rebounds and 200 assists in Monday's first quarter.

• Mike Muscala is, well, a really good three-point shooter. He made his first two attempts (both in the first quarter) the second of which resulted in a four-point play. Though not the conventional big man off the bench Philly was going for when re-signing Amir Johnson, he's really found his groove and role in this offense, and is a hustler on defense.

• Joel Embiid hasn't had the best week. In his last three games prior to Monday, the big man averaged just 13.7 points per game (after being among the NBA's top scorers with 28+ per game leading up to that). Since his "I suck" comments, and complaints about his usage alongside newcomer Butler, Embiid got his first night off of the year.

Back in action, he came to life in the second quarter following a drained three with a thunderous dunk to help Philadelphia build an early 15-point advantage. It was clear the big man was having plenty of fun dueling with rival Andre Drummond as he put up his typical numbers: 24 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks.

• Markelle Fultz who? The Sixers look fine at backup point guard — in T.J. they trust. The little guy went for 14 points and added six assists.

• We've also got to talk about Furkan Korkmaz for a second here. After starting the season as the holder of a fringe NBA roster spot, he's turned into quite the spark off the bench night after night. On this particular night, he made his first three attempts from downtown and provided 18 points.

• The bench overall was incredible in this one, with Landry Shamet adding 10, as the nine-man rotation (actually eight men with Butler out) was more than enough. In all a bench that averages just 34.3 points from their reserves saw the second unit players add 54 points (and shoot 11-for-21 from three). Eventually, Shake Milton and Amir Johnson did get some action, with Philly up 20.

• Philly has had issues closing out games this season, so it was nice to see them turn a diminishing five point lead into a big double digit win thanks to a strong push in the last few minutes.

The Bad

• Sometime after his first nine minutes in the ballgame Jimmy Butler was ruled out with a pulled groin injury — a strained groin — he had yet to score and had four boards and two assists. Against a short-handed Detroit team (Blake Griffin didn't play) it didn't wind up hurting much, but if the injury becomes a nagging one it's a potential problem going forward.

• A 15-point advantage was chipped away to just three points as the usual struggles returned in the second quarter. Nothing was falling, turnovers ran rampant and a 12-0 run saw even Embiid miss a pair of free throws during the cold spell. A McConnell lay-in on a drive to the hoops put an end to the run. Still, the Sixers scored just 18 points in the second (though a mini 6-0 spurt at the end had Philly up nine at the midpoint).

• Throughout the game Monday there were a lot of what I'm going to call "chemistry turnovers," essentially a good pass but one that was unexpected, a miscommunication, things like that. These are the kinds of things I expect to be cleaned up as the season moves along. The most troubling thing about them in this game, though, are that they mostly came after Butler's injury. These guys have been teammates many of them for two or three years now. Get on the same page.

• Drummond is a beast on the boards. Nothing new, just writing it down here because it was impressive. He had 17 of them and seemed to be in on every missed shot.

• Every game it seems a random player from the opposing team absolutely goes off. In this one is was Luke Kennard, who had five made threes and 28 points in the game. He averages 3.7 per game this year. Go figure.

• One more note on Embiid — I swear he's a wanna be wing-man in a gargantuan beast of a man's body. In today's NBA, I get the instinct to play at the top of the key, to stretch the floor offensively, but man, when he's on the low block he's unstoppable. Embiid needs to play more like Hakeem and less like Steph.

The Ugly

• This is ugly for the Pistons in the best possible way:

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