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May 04, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers squander lead, pull away late for win over Bulls

The Sixers squandered almost all of a big lead to open the fourth quarter, but a return from the starters allowed them to leave Chicago with a 106-94 win over the Bulls.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Playing the second half of a back-to-back after a tough overtime game and a long flight from San Antonio was a recipe for potential disaster. If the Sixers were not ready mentally or physically for this game, it would have been apparent right away. Good news: the Sixers showed up to Chicago ready to roll, with the entire starting lineup eager to put this one to bed early after playing with their food too long the previous night.

Their best work was done on the defensive end of the floor, where all it took to bounce back from a shaky night against the Spurs was improved effort. Save for Joel Embiid, who load managed his way through a few possessions in the first half, the Sixers had crisp rotations, active communication, and disruptive possessions to spare, meeting the Bulls with violence at the rim and on the perimeter.

Even when they didn't get stops, the Sixers made a pointed effort to try to hurt Chicago with early offense, a teamwide effort that didn't totally rely on Ben Simmons for once. From Tobias Harris calling his own number to Embiid beating everyone down the floor for a dunk before Chicago could get set, you wouldn't have guessed that they were the team at a rest disadvantage, which allowed the talent discrepancy to win out rather easily.

To me, this game shows some of the difference between the group this season compared to last. Even if they were fortunate enough to pull out tough wins like that Spurs game, last year's group likely would have showed up for this one ready to sleepwalk, likely taking a loss while many excused it for obvious (but not necessarily acceptable) reasons. This group knows they have business to take care of in the dying days of the regular season, which I personally appreciate.

• It is a great time for Seth Curry to be in a groove, both because they are nearing the playoffs and because their top-end stars have not exactly been rolling at 100% lately. Philadelphia's offense was a mixed bag in the first half in spite of the numbers — a lot of possessions came down to creation late in the shot clock — and Curry was one of the guys shaking them out of their stupor when they needed something to happen late in the clock.

You wouldn't say this about a lot of guys, but Curry is a player who you're actually happy to see take some heat checks and contested jumpers throughout the course of a game. It's a sign of improved confidence from the younger Curry brother, and that manifests in a bunch of other ways, too, as it did with Curry attacking the Bulls at the rim once the pull-up jumpers began to fall.

With the Bulls unable to leave him alone basically at all, there was a lot of open real estate inside the arc for Philadelphia to attack throughout the night. He looks much closer to the player he was to start the year prior to his bout with COVID, so perhaps this is just a sign that he's finally approaching full fitness again.

• When the Sixers weren't junking up the clock with iso-heavy possessions and overdribbling, they rediscovered some of the ball movement that dominated the opening part of the season. It has not always been a treat to watch this group run offense this year, so it was great to see the ball ping around the floor out of different sets, different spots on the floor, and out of the hands of different players.

Danny Green, as he has so often been this season, was one of the primary beneficiaries of that unselfish attitude. He has never met an open corner three he hasn't liked, and with the Bulls stretched thin trying to pressure Embiid and make sure Curry could not get free, Green was all too happy to get busy when the ball came his way. And his night featured more ingenuity then we typically see from the vet wing — Green sprinkled in some pull-up jumpers and nifty passing in traffic, with his entry passing a beautiful thing to watch after a 2019-20 filled with terrible attempts to get Embiid the ball.

Anecdotally (and don't check the numbers on this because I am just going by feel), Green has struggled in back-to-back situations this season. It's pretty understandable for a guy who has been on as many deep playoff journeys as Green, so it was good to see him looking fresh in spite of the suboptimal schedule.

• The one thing I thought Embiid did really well on offense on Monday: passing into the space Chicago had vacated to pressure him. That's not to say he was perfect making reads out of doubles, but Embiid's ability to hit the cross-court pass and thread passes into traffic continues to improve, which is an important long-term development even if playoff-caliber defenses show it's not quite as contention-ready as it looks right now.

Over the course of this season, Embiid has shown he is a changed man when doubles come from his strong side. Weakside doubles still have a chance to disrupt and disarm him, and it's critical that he's able to make teams pay for even thinking about sending a second defender while he's trying to operate from the block. 

• Matisse Thybulle's first possession of the game featured a come-from-behind block that Lauri Markkanen briefly recovered, and then a steal on the pass that immediately followed said recovery. There are maybe five guys in the league who could make a play like this, and he does it in a situation where he should theoretically be easing his way into the game:

I mean, come on! What a ridiculous play to make at any point against any opponent. If you don't take any joy watching this kid defend, it may not be the sport for you.

• Tobias Harris looked off the pace in this game to the point that some were convinced he is being held back by health issues at the moment. A driving slam and a putback dunk later, Harris was off to the races, and he was a big reason they were eventually able to kill this game off in spite of their best effort to let it out of their grasp.

I'm not sure Harris has gotten enough credit for his ability to take the team home in second halves this season. Embiid has been the more dominant overall performer, no question, but a lot of his best work has happened in the first halves of games, with things tightening up as the Sixers grow closer to the finish line. Harris' ability to create his own shot married with his shooting touch makes him a tough cover in the guts of the game, and he was nearly perfect from the field in the final 24 minutes. They needed every last make.

• Would have loved to see some more bully ball from Simmons on the offensive end of the floor, but his defensive work in the fourth quarter was absolutely sensational and continues to be a driving force behind a lot of their close/close-ish wins this season. Right when the Sixers need it most, Simmons always seems to find the right matchup, the right timing in passing lanes, the right everything. He's no one's idea of a closer in the traditional sense of the word, but he has been absolutely essential when things have gotten dicey this season.

The Bad

• You live by the all-bench look, you die by the all-bench look. Some nights, it makes Rivers look like a genius when they sustain or build a lead in spite of protests from fans that they're on the floor in the first place. Other nights, the understandable assumption that it isn't going to work is proven correct, and the concerns about Rivers' inflexibility in the upcoming playoffs bubble over.

All indications suggest Doc Rivers will continue going to this group when the playoffs arrive, and the head coach said as much during a recent media availability. It's a unit he trusts, and admittedly they have looked pretty damn competent a lot of the time. But it's a bad idea on paper that is only occasionally rewarded through the results, so I struggle to see why we are still having the conversation.

On a player-to-player level, Rivers also made some strange choices even within that all-bench group. Mike Scott made an appearance in the rotation for some inexplicable reason in the second half, and the Sixers pretty much immediately cratered. Rather than subbing the guy out who has been actively bad all year and trying to stabilize things, Rivers stuck with Scott and subbed rookie Tyrese Maxey in for George Hill, the guy who is ostensibly here to settle that group down. The 18-5 run in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter makes a lot of sense when you consider what Philadelphia did and didn't do to stop it.

To be clear, the bench wasn't the only reason the Bulls continued to make headway in the fourth quarter. A starting group that probably thought they were done for the night had to jump back into the mix with the lead dwindling, and though they would eventually stabilize things, they were clearly checked out when they first took the floor, playing some absolutely horrific transition defense that allowed Denzel Valentine some free looks at the rim from deep.

• This was, admittedly, not a very good game for Embiid on offense. There are plenty of worthwhile caveats — no back-to-back games in the playoffs, he was one of their only standouts the night before — but he pretty obviously was not dialed in for this one, which he got away with thanks to the overall team effort.

If Embiid had played even a B-level game by his standards, either with his effort or his efficiency, this one is a laugher that even the all-bench group couldn't screw up. As he has been fired up to tell people all season, he has a responsibility as the leader of this team to see things through and set an example the rest of his team can follow. There were shades of seasons past in this Embiid performance, and they don't need that guy to come back right as the playoffs are about to start.

The Ugly

• Yet again, I must point out how brutal this end to the regular season is from an entertainment perspective. It's tough to call any fourth-quarter stretch "garbage time" because there are so many periods earlier in games where borderline NBA players are playing real minutes. The end of the regular season almost always sucks, but this one is especially brutal.

The league is never going to do it for financial reasons, but a schedule where everyone plays each opponent twice with a more spread out slate is what I would personally prefer to see. Make the games matter more or keep running the risk of awful games and stretches to close out the year.

• Furkan Korkmaz had to leave Monday's game due to an ankle issue, a worrying sign after he tweaked the ankle during a previous game in Philadelphia. Here's hoping it's nothing serious. 

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