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April 16, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers withstand Clippers shooting barrage to hold on for win

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The Sixers gave back all of the early cushion the Clippers allowed them to build, but the home team was able to buckle down late to earn a 106-103 win. Joel Embiid led the way for Philadelphia with 36 points and another MVP-level performance. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It's going to be hard for Embiid to overcome the "games played" hurdle in his quest for MVP. But he is doing his best to make voters think about giving him the award despite the time he has missed this year, and there isn't a guy in the league imposing their will more forcefully than Embiid is this season.

On Friday night, L.A.'s bigs were the latest victim of the Embiid hit parade. After Tyronn Lue spent part of his pregame talk mentioning the need to stay out of foul trouble against him, starting center Ivica Zubac went ahead and picked up three fouls in the first half anyway. Embiid, much like he did in the previous game against Brooklyn, routinely passed up open threes in order to wait out possessions and find his time to attack. Combine that with him running down the floor in transition to suck the Clippers in, and you have the recipe for yet another dominant half.

It's just absurd watching this guy go to work right now. He is calmly knocking down one-legged stepbacks, bullying smaller players on the block, and he's moving remarkably well despite lugging a hefty knee brace that he doesn't like up and down the floor.

Embiid will tell you he's a defense-first player — true despite his nearly 30 points per game — and it's a joy to watch him go to work on that end, too. Serving as the color commentator for the broadcast, former NBA player Vince Carter spent a lot of time highlighting Embiid's coverage on the other side of the floor, where the big fella showed high against pick-and-rolls fairly often against the Clippers.

It was an important observation from Carter and one we've spotlighted here all year. Embiid's work in pick-and-roll coverage has showcased his improved fitness, prevented teams from walking into open jumpers, and forced the rest of the team to buy in and sharpen their rotations behind their MVP candidate. And when he's guarding something other than a basic pick-and-roll, Embiid's court awareness remains as big of an asset as his physical gifts:

I don't think he ends up in that final mix for DPOY contention, but if you're asking me, he remains the most important defensive piece on the team. 

(Embiid's passing won't be the focus of any recap about this game, but I thought he was excellent as a decisionmaker against a Clippers team that constantly hit him with pressure from all over the floor. He was not rewarded for most of his best passes.)

• Ben Simmons (and a lot of other people, to be fair) would push back on that assertion. And that's more than fair, because when you're capable of putting together possessions like these, you've earned the right to puff out your chest and talk yourself up a bit..

(Shout out to my guy Jackson for being a clip machine, by the way.)

Outside of a matchup with Brooklyn, where the Sixers will likely run short of bodies to throw at their top options, Rivers is going to have the opportunity to use Simmons as a chaos creator, throwing him at different players from different angles and even in different schemes. As we've seen at times this season, that isn't limited to man-to-man, and a 2-3 zone with Simmons and Matisse Thybulle at the top could be a devastating curveball to throw at a team in a tough spot in May, June, and even July.

That said, I have a gripe from this game you've heard many times over — why was Simmons not on Paul George for more of this game? Danny Green wasn't exactly terrible in his coverage of George in the first half (I'll have to watch again but thought PG got going against their bench mob), but that was a switch that should have been made sooner as George got rolling. Not Simmons' fault, obviously.

• Tyrese Maxey had his issues on the defensive end of the floor as he has for most of the season, but he showed more confidence on the offensive end of the floor than we have seen in months. Seeing the rookie step into a deep transition three in the first half was a beautiful sight, made even prettier because he canned it on top of that.

If he can find his touch from beyond the arc, he certainly has some in-between funkiness to be a helpful player off of the bench. He probably won't be in the playoff mix if everybody is healthy, but I remain confident in his chances to be a contributor long-term.

• That was not a terrible debut for new addition Anthony Tolliver, who couldn't buy one on offense but ultimately looked plenty competent on the defensive end of the floor. In the eyes of this writer, that's a nice surprise — Tolliver is the oldest current player on the roster and was not exactly Scottie Pippen even when he was at his peak, but he executed the scheme well and appeared to be everywhere he was supposed to be exactly when the Sixers needed him.

The shots will probably fall at some point, and Tolliver did create an open look or two for teammates by taking one dribble around closeouts and firing a swing pass to the next man on the perimeter. He certainly knows who/what he is at this stage of his career, and there is value in that.

The Bad

• Every time I think we're out of the woods with the lack of staggering from Rivers, ugly lineups return to remind everyone that it could be a sore subject in the playoffs. Philadelphia's lineup to open the second quarter was really something — I can't imagine Rivers went into the game expecting to play a Maxey-Milton-Thybulle-Scott-Tolliver lineup, but he ended up in that place anyway (with Tobias Harris, Dwight Howard and Seth Curry all out in this one).

Alright, so maybe that's giving Rivers too much credit, because that same frontcourt ended up on the floor together to open the fourth quarter. It seems strange that they could have arrived there given that Scott has been the de facto third center in recent weeks, only for Rivers to start him against the Clippers and set the stage for the lineup weirdness that eventually came.

It has been easy to ignore their issues with staggering while the Sixers are winning, and it's not like they've beaten up on minnows and lost to every good team they've gone up against. But this feels like it's going to come back to bite them at some point if there's no adjustment made.

• While we're on the subject of Scott, he is absolutely brutal to watch and the rope he has been given seems unfathomable. There are games like Friday night where it feels like he's just out there getting a sweat in, running three-point line to three-point line and not coming close to connecting when he lets one of his many open threes go.

It got particularly bad against the Clippers, with L.A. basically daring him to shoot by tilting coverage toward the paint and baiting kick-outs to the veteran forward. Scott rewarded that choice, going 2/9 from deep through the early third quarter before Rivers finally had enough and pulled him in favor of the 10-day man Tolliver.

I would rather see Scott keep putting them up if he's going to be on the floor, because three-point shooting is the one thing you can actually trust him to do at a passable level on offense. But his role has to be more situational than it has been even when they're a little shorthanded.

(And to be fair to Rivers, Scott's role was situational in the second half. He was pulled a little more than two minutes into the fourth to make way for Simmons, with Rivers ultimately trusting new addition Tolliver to hold down the fort.)

• The Sixers ended up on the wrong side of the three-point shooting battle. And it wasn't for lack of trying — the Sixers put up 29 three-point attempts in the first half alone, less than an attempt under their average for full games this season. Philadelphia generated open three after open three, either from Embiid post-ups or drive-and-kicks, and they could not cash in at a rate comparable to their opponent.

L.A. shot 50 percent or better from three for a large chunk of Friday night's game, which is hard to combat even when you have a huge lead to open the game like the Sixers did. If this were a case of a team simply catching fire and making tough looks, I'd be happy to just dismiss it and move on. But as Rivers noted on the broadcast between the third and fourth quarters, they lost track of guys too often in the third quarter, allowing a team that was already rolling to get even hotter. Patrick Patterson was stepping into wide-open threes basically all night, which is the only thing he's on the floor to do for L.A.

To some extent, this was a product of the style clash, and one limitation of Embiid's defensive prowess. L.A. decided to go small instead of matching like-for-like with the big guy, and Embiid's speed to close out (or lack thereof) often resulted in the Clips getting an open look by making one extra pass. They haven't had an especially big problem punishing small looks for opponents this year, but they handled L.A.'s poorly.

• Shake Milton has done a heck of a job showing exactly why the Sixers went out and got George Hill at the trade deadline, assuming he is eventually able to play at some point. Their bench decision-making is just ghastly at times, and Milton is the ringleader of that group more often than not.

On both ends, Milton played out-of-control basketball against the Clippers. He took a ridiculous foul on an inbounds pass late in the third, coughed up a crucial turnover on a fast break in the fourth quarter, and squandered multiple opportunities in the open floor by losing track of where he and his opponent were on the floor.

So of course, he was the guy to hit a huge three with the game on a see-saw late in the fourth quarter. Never in doubt.

• Matisse Thybulle's defensive decision-making in crunch time was, well, bad. Not sure how to dress it up any better than that.

• The Sixers desperately missed Tobias Harris in this game. His importance to their success hasn't exactly been a secret, but his ability to attack smaller players and find mismatches would have been particularly useful with how L.A. chose to line up in this one.

The Ugly

• Nobody has been a bigger advocate for Paul Reed on the Sixers beat than I have. I continue to believe he deserves a chance to get some burn with backup units, especially if the Sixers continue to experiment with small-ball looks down the stretch.

Good luck convincing Rivers of that after his performance on Friday night. Reed was all over the place on both ends during a wild first-half stretch, so much so that he pulled the plug and went with an Anthony Tolliver/Mike Scott frontcourt to open the second quarter. Would not be surprised to see Reed stuck on the bench for a while.

• DeMarcus Cousins was an offensive weapon at his peak, but if he's getting his shot blocked by Mike Scott on post-ups in 2021, it might be time for him to hang 'em up. The man can barely move at this point.

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