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November 03, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers hang on for tough win vs. Bulls

The Sixers hung on to win a tight-fisted affair against the Bulls on Wednesday night, surviving a scoring barrage from DeMar DeRozan in a 103-98 victory over Chicago. Seth Curry was the man for Philadelphia, scoring a team-high 22 points.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If Seth Curry continues to make almost every shot he takes inside the arc, it's not going to matter what else the Sixers do on the offensive end. Teams are throwing everything they can at Curry — switching on screens, trying to wear him down on defense, forcing the ball out of his hands — and he ends up punishing them anyway, slithering through traffic and hitting jumpers over outstretched arms every night.

I don't know how much there is to even analyze here. The Sixers can put him in basically any action, from dribble handoffs to Iverson cuts into pick-and-rolls, and the end result is the same. Curry finds a pocket of spaces, rises, and two-to-three points are on the board. He is living within the groove he discovered in the second-round series against Atlanta, carrying the Sixers offense in big moments and seemingly always hitting the big shot they need to kill off an opponent's run or stretch their lead in the big moment of the game.

That was exactly what Curry delivered in the final seconds of Wednesday's win, hitting the game-clincher with just over 10 seconds to go on a play that looked busted all the way through:

There has been some chatter about what happens to the offense when Curry finally cools off. I would agree there is some regression coming, but Curry is one of the best shooters in the history of the league, and certainly the current NBA. Why can't he continue to help carry this group on offense? 

(The Josh Richardson for Seth Curry deal was absolute highway robbery for Philly. It should be brought up more often.)

• Furkan Korkmaz's Sixers journey is going to be worth a mini-documentary one day. The team was ready to move on from him when they declined an option on his rookie contract years back, it looked like he might head back to Europe, and then they needed each other after all, with Korkmaz going through some ups and downs in the years since. Now? He looks like a certified rotation player, a legitimately useful guy on offense who continues to improve on defense each season.

A few years ago, Korkmaz holding his own defending DeMar Derozan in isolation would have been inconceivable, but he did just that in the first quarter on Wednesday night, blocking the Bulls' big offseason signing when DeRozan tried to take him down to the mid-post. And it's his reads away from the play where Korkmaz has been able to make a more consistent impact, making the timely rotation and putting out a fire before it leads to a bucket. 

And yes, I continue to love the pass-fake layups Korkmaz has turned into a regular occurrence.

• On a strategic level, the Sixers did an excellent job of sending help away from Chicago's least threatening shooters in order to slow down the big guns at the top of the roster. That manifested in very different ways depending on the matchup — Georges Niang had to help Joel Embiid deal with a driving Nikola Vucevic when he attacked closeouts, and their guards and wings were able to offer assistance when DeRozan and LaVine made cuts or created separation. In most instances, the Sixers were only helping off of guys who they'd be comfortable to let shoot, so they came into this one with a sound gameplan.

Wednesday's first half featured one of the defensive possessions of the season for the Sixers, a rotating, chaotic sequence that eventually forced the Bulls into a shot clock violation. Even as they have lost some of their best players, the Sixers have maintained the same competitive spirit and connectedness on both ends, and that's going to be enough to carry you through long stretches of the regular-season grind. 

• Speaking of Niang, what a revelation he has been. Doc Rivers said recently that getting a player from a good program like Utah's is something you always tend to benefit from, and he might have a point. Niang has been allowed to play with more freedom than he had with the Jazz, but every action is purposeful, and Niang has been the sort of instinctual, quick-moving player Rivers has coveted throughout his coaching career.

While some were surprised he didn't get the start against Chicago, leaving him with the second unit paid off for Philly, which had to match the firepower of DeRozan leading the second unit all night. Niang was a big part of that, providing floor spacing and dribble drives on top of savvy reads at the defensive end. With DeRozan absolutely cooking the Sixers to open the second quarter, Niang was a big part of helping them stop the bleeding, and he continued to look comfortable when he played some spot minutes next to Embiid when the starters began to return.

Niang has been able to add something to any five-man group he has played with so far this season. Their long pursuit of him looks like a masterstroke at the moment.

• I don't know how kind a rewatch is going to be to Matisse Thybulle, who had the unenviable task of chasing around Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan all night. Depending on the possession, he was liable to look silly because of something one of their two high-level scorers did. But it still felt like he left a huge imprint on this game, forcing LaVine to take a ton of tough shots while causing his usual havoc away from the play.

In the first half, the Bulls had to basically stop running some same-side actions because Thybulle was single-handedly blowing them up, helping off of his man and then recovering back into position before the Bulls ever had an opportunity to exploit the opening. Add the usual deflections and effort plays on top, and Thybulle had quite a few of those, and this is one of those games where the opponent's scoring output doesn't tell the whole story for me.

•The Embiid block on DeRozan to close this one out was an absolutely ridiculous play and it's a shame they had to review it to get the call correct, because it was a defensive effort that deserved a big pop from the arena.

• I know people are still not happy with Rivers after Philadelphia's second-round choke job, and I am not here to tell you he is the driving force behind Philly's start to the year. But when you consider the chaos surrounding this team, the constant lineup changes, the underperformance of the star player, and then look at the team's record and overall cohesiveness, you have to give the coach some credit. Rivers has this team bought into their style, and though it has gotten ugly in a few games (including in wins), he has managed to rally the troops in a strange start to the year. That counts for something, no matter what you think of him.

The Bad

• I love the unselfishness Embiid is playing with out of the post most of the time. Doubles are not bothering him the same way they have in the past, and the Sixers' offense is healthy as a result, with shooters getting clean looks as he sprays the ball around the floor out of the post. I love the way he continues to play on defense, where he isn't letting cold shooting nights impact how hard he commits to getting stops. They aren't the elite defensive team they've been in the past, but they are good enough to win games with their offense humming. His overall activity on the defensive end has been sensational.

But the big guy simply has to figure it out in the individual scoring department, where he can't seem to find the range or the rhythm as a scorer this year. He is far from the only star to go through a tough stretch out of the gate, and it's hard to say exactly why he can't get it going yet. It's exceedingly unlikely the Sixers will continue to win games if they aren't getting the best out of Embiid, who has to figure out a way to continue playmaking from the post as an addition to the high-level scoring we've grown accustomed to.

I'm as big of an advocate as there is for Embiid to let jumpers fly, and his face-up game was at the heart of his MVP campaign last season. Setting up shop on the left block and just shooting over flat-footed opponents helped him get into a rhythm each night, delivering the Sixers a lot of wins in the process. The face-up game just hasn't been there on a consistent basis this year, and he likely needs to get back to basics on the block.

(That starts with the early work. Embiid is not establishing deep position all that often this year, and whether it's a product of health or not, he knows that's critical to drawing fouls and scoring around the rim. Spending 15 seconds backing a guy down just isn't going to happen that often.)

A big reason the Bulls started to chip away at the lead early in the third quarter was a result of fruitless possessions going through the big guy. It's hard to call them ill-advised shots when they are shots he has made over and over and over throughout the years, so the demand here is simple — play better. It is certainly within him. And the tunnel vision he has played with in the past loomed large in crunch time, with the Sixers failing to get good shots because Embiid chose to force shots instead.

• Honestly, if you could simply put shooters around LaVine and DeRozan, those two are going to absolutely cook everything and everyone in front of them. There's a fine line to walk because both guys need defensive help to be their best selves, but man, they are absolute nightmares to deal with individually, let alone when they share the floor together. Elite bucket getters.

DeRozan was the danger man for the Bulls on Wednesday night, and it took too long for the Sixers to throw Thybulle at him, though it's hard to blame anyone for trying to make sure Zach LaVine is under wraps before moving onto the next guy. 

The Ugly

• This is anything but ugly: the Sixers are one admittedly hard to ignore meltdown against Brooklyn away from people talking about this team much differently. The Knicks game aside — and again, that loss was about one horrific quarter rather than an outright bad performance — the Sixers have gone out and taken care of business on a nightly basis, even as they've dealt with injuries and absences that change the lineup and mess with the rotation. They have looked like a cohesive unit on both sides of the floor, bought into the team concept and not worried about who is doing the heavy lifting on a given night. All the off-the-court chatter about team dinners and increased unity? It doesn't look bogus from this seat.

On top of that, we're still waiting for Embiid to round into form after a slow start on the offensive end. So for any caveats you want to make to account for shooting regression from their role players, you have to consider that they'll likely get a better version of their best player at some point. That they've been able to do keep winning in spite of all this says a lot about the group.

Coming into the season, "Are you worried the Ben Simmons situation will be a distraction?" was a fair and prominent question. This group looks like they have barely thought about their MIA teammate. And if they can beat good teams without him, why should they?

• Prayers up for the fan in attendance who was getting CPR in the corner of the arena on Wednesday night. Couldn't really tell what happened or what was going on, but obviously, the last thing you want to see at a sporting event. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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