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February 06, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers beat Bulls behind another 40 points from Joel Embiid

40 points from Joel Embiid pushed the Sixers to their third win over Chicago this season, with the 119-108 victory clinching the season series in Philadelphia's favor.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a matchup with Nikola Vucevic would test Embiid a little bit. Not because he's incapable of carving Vucevic up, but because Vucevic's ability to space out to three would stretch Philadelphia's defense and open up some things behind the big guy.

You didn't notice much of that in Sunday's game, mostly because Embiid absolutely handed Vucevic his ass on the other end. Embiid worked him like a speed bag in the game's opening minutes, scoring a quick 12 in the opening quarter on nearly-perfect shooting. There was a little bit of everything in that barrage — Euro steps in transition, a wing three, pull-up jumpers, it was a terrific display of everything Embiid has to offer at this point in his career.

When he hits threes and forces you to guard him out to the perimeter, I'm not exactly sure how you're supposed to guard him. Embiid punishes reaching defenders as well as anybody in the league, and he can blow by any center that hugs him too close to play the jumper, as he showed Vucevic several times on Sunday. Once he's by you, the choice is between conceding a layup/dunk or hacking the hell out of him, and neither is a great option with Embiid shooting better than 80 percent at the line.

Speaking of the line — the Bulls would have been better off just taping their hands to their sides while trying to defend him. Whether he was at a standstill or working on the move, Embiid drew eye rolls and complaints from any number of Bulls defenders, scoring on whoever they put in front of him. This season, it appears to my eye that Embiid has fewer plays where he's just flinging up crazy stuff at the rim in the hope that he can draw a foul. Even when there's obvious contact, he's trying to stay mechanically sound and keep his eyes on the rim, which has led to a lot of tough jumpers going down through contact.

(Honestly, this is part of the draw of trading for James Harden, even with my reservations about him moving forward. Other teams would absolutely hate playing these guys and dealing with the grifting.)

This game looked to be in jeopardy midway through the fourth, with the Bulls offering one last gasp as Rivers let Embiid stew on the bench. But as soon as No. 21 checked into the game, it was over, with Embiid saving one last stretch of dominance to close it out. By now, you should be getting used to Embiid simply taking over games and putting teams away as if he has been a closer for years and years. Another 40+ points and a road victory for the big man, who has absolutely hammered a very good Bulls team all year. Even without LaVine playing, it's clear the Sixers have the ultimate trump card in this matchup.

• Tyrese Maxey felt like he had almost perfect control of this game, picking his spots effectively while allowing Embiid and the rest of his teammates to have the touches and spotlight for most of the game. It doesn't hurt when you are near perfect on pull-up jumpers throughout a game, cashing in whenever your chance to score turns up.

Stop me if you've heard this before — Maxey's year-over-year growth as a pull-up shooter is absolutely remarkable, the second-year guard going from reluctant trigger man to lights out sniper. When he turns the corner after Embiid sets a screen for him, teams are starting to see that he is going to let it fly if they drop far enough against him, and he has good reason to let it go. He's shooting over 40 percent from three on pull-up threes alone, absolutely crushing on one of the highest-difficulty shots you can take.

Even if/when that number falls back to Earth, the fact that teams have to take him seriously out there is all that matters. Maxey can attack a closeout with speed and suddenly has multiple options in front of him, and he did a good job of picking between them Sunday, scoring inside the arc without losing sight of playmaking opportunities.

Defense has been a rollercoaster for Maxey this year, but I think he's beginning to find himself as an off-ball helper, which is probably the most realistic way he can be helpful as a small-ish guard. Maxey is timing his stunts toward the middle of the floor well, sending some soft doubles in the paint without losing sight of his man, and even making some plays in transition, even if he's just showing the effort to force a reset.

There are bigger and better things to come for this kid, and that's based on both feel and statistical evidence at this point.

• After the opening half of this game, Tobias Harris looked well on his way to a massive clunker, which wouldn't have been a shocker based on the season he has had to date. But there's absolutely no way they win this game without his big second half, with Harris starting to roll right as Philadelphia began to run out of solutions on offense.

Whether he should be asked to carry a bench-heavy group with no guard creators or not, Harris was immaculate (on offense) in that role for Philly on Sunday. Harris changed speeds effectively like a good relief pitcher, making some nice drives to the basket against closeouts and succeeding with his usual repertoire of midrange looks. With Embiid in the middle of an ugly collision late, the Sixers needed somebody else to wear the closer's cape, and Harris was game, not only getting his own buckets but creating the Georges Niang three that served as the dagger.

No matter how bad he looks when he's in a funk, I do think what he brings to this group is slightly undervalued. The Sixers only have so many guys who can actually go out and get their own shots, and even if you think he shouldn't stop the ball as much as he does — a sentiment his coach agrees with! — he's a credible option who can bail them out of some tough situations throughout the game. Certain teams are not going to have the right personnel to match up with his combination of size, speed, and shotmaking, and he needs to absolutely bury those teams when he has the chance. Mission accomplished in this game.

(He contributes to creating some of the tough situations they find themselves in, but still!)

• Andre Drummond's bad games are often pretty loud, which I think has probably masked the fact that he has been pretty damn good in his role this year. The occasional insane pass or shot attempt aside, he has bought into the role Doc Rivers has asked him to play and served as an effective backup to Embiid. You rarely see him miss an opportunity to set a screen and free up one of their ballhandlers, even if that means having to do so two, three, or four times on a single possession. Each and every reset of the offense, Drummond is getting out to the perimeter and throwing his weight around.

Unfortunately, you have to actually play guards next to him for him to have real utility, so perhaps Rivers should focus on constructing lineups that do that in both halves of the game.

• The Sixers shot the hell out of the ball on Sunday, which is the No. 1 reason they won this game. It doesn't really matter how bad your defense is when you basically can't miss from deep. 

The Bad

• I don't think you can really blame anybody on the Sixers for DeMar DeRozan cooking them throughout this game. Matisse Thybulle getting scratched with a shoulder issue left them without a guy to take on top assignments, which left a collection of guys to take on the matchup by committee. It went as poorly as you'd expect.

Danny Green is the guy Doc Rivers wanted to check DeRozan, but as we saw before he was knocked out of the Atlanta series due to injury, Green is simply not the guy to take top assignments anymore. Best used as an off-ball helper and expert in rotations, Green being left out there to die was a big reason DeRozan went off in the first half, and dovetails with what we've seen the rest of this season. Green can still be a helpful piece in a solid team defense, but you can't have him on the DeRozan types of the league.

Where does that leave you in this one, though? Other guys took turns, including Furkan Korkmaz and Tobias Harris, and Harris was at least able to get some good contests in on DeRozan, using his size effectively if nothing else. And it's a good thing Harris offered some form of resistance on-ball, because he was often a headless chicken away from it — Harris got blown past by cutters, messed up in his role as the low man when Embiid showed high to get the ball out of DeRozan's hands, and had a handful of possessions where he literally and figuratively fell all over himself trying to help the Sixers get stops.

(There were exceptions, to be fair. Harris' off-ball theft and score helped put the cherry on top of an excellent fourth-quarter open for Philly, so I don't want to make it sound like he was a complete disaster or not bought in. But Scottie Pippen he was not.)

This was a teamwide problem. Forcing the ball out of DeRozan's hands didn't help them much, either, because once Embiid and DeRozan's defender came up high to trap, the players behind them couldn't figure out how to defend the ensuing four-on-three. Vucevic didn't do a whole lot in this game, but most of his output came in these exact scenarios.

If the Sixers don't end up getting the big Ben Simmons trade done at the deadline, they should still be looking to make a deal that improves their defense and athleticism if possible. Even when Thybulle is healthy, they are short on the personnel they need to defend teams with multiple perimeter threats.

• The brief attempt to play zone defense against DeRozan on the final possession of the third quarter was absolutely hysterical. While Maxey and Korkmaz were trying to figure out what was supposed to happen behind them, DeRozan just went full steam ahead and nearly split them clean as they sorted things out. Against all odds, they actually got the stop.

• Maxey has been a great corner shooter this year. But if you're just going to have him stand in the corner for long stretches on offense, you might as well sub him out early to stagger him with Embiid so that one of those guys is on the floor at all times. It's a waste of his ability to be relegated to spot-up duty.

Seriously, I can't for the life of me understand Rivers' aversion to staggering. When he has done it, it has often led to some of Philadelphia's best team performances. It feels like doing the bare minimum tactically could make a difference for this group, and even if I'm less harsh on the job Rivers has done than many of you, this one drives me a little loony.

There's no need to run a lineup with zero real guards on the floor when Maxey and Curry are healthy.

• Seeing Seth Curry pass up open threes is one of the most maddening things I can remember in many years of watching the Sixers. They've had maybe two guys who shoot as well as he does in my lifetime, and he's the only one who needs a gentle nudge to remember he's one of the best marksmen watching the planet.

The Ugly

• After the tilted rim fiasco in Friday night's game, we somehow managed to have another game's worth of broken equipment in Philly's Sunday matinee. The Bulls' normal shot clocks were not working, so they had to resort to sticking shot clocks on the ground in the corner with the PA announcer counting down the seconds late in the clock. Perhaps the Sixers will have a functional set of basketball equipment in the arena when they return to Philadelphia, but bad things are supposed to come in threes, I guess.

• If you're going to spend the entire broadcast complaining about the officials, it would be helpful to know what is being called on any given play. There was a 45-second breakdown on this broadcast of Nikola Vucevic reaching in on an Embiid jumper, with everyone involved apparently unaware of the blatant three-second call and convinced Embiid was getting two at the line. When that didn't happen and the game moved onto the next possession, everyone pretended that didn't just happen. I get that you're not going to get them all (I certainly don't!), but sheesh.

On the same front, I can't say I understood the flagrant call on Georges Niang early in the fourth. But I will also say the suggestion on the broadcast that the Sixers had to "beat eight" instead of five was absolutely insane. Come on, man. We're approaching CCTV. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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