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February 24, 2020

Instant observations: Joel Embiid drops 49 in Sixers' win over Hawks

Sixers NBA
Joel-Embiid-Sixers-76ers-Hawks_022520 Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid had his best game of the season against the Hawks.

The Philadelphia Police Athletic League had their annual game at halftime of Sixers-Hawks, and it would have been hard to tell the difference between the players in that game and the defenders Atlanta sent at Joel Embiid on Monday night. Embiid rolled to 49 points, and the Sixers rolled to a 129-112 win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Sometimes basketball is a very simple sport, and you throw the ball to the biggest guy on the floor and watch as he gets bucket after bucket. Embiid was the biggest guy on the floor on Monday night, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that he had his way with an awful Atlanta frontline.

With better spacing around him than he usually has, Embiid went to work early and quickly put Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon in foul trouble, forcing the Hawks to shuffle through a series of uninspiring options on him in the paint. Bruno Fernando? Good luck. John Collins? He's giving up too much height and weight to offer real resistance. And asking Vince Carter to guard him during his retirement tour seems like a very rude send-off the league's elder statesman.

The thing is, Embiid has had chances to do the same thing to Atlanta's frontcourt before, and whether by design or his own apathy, the Sixers failed to properly attack those mismatches. But Embiid made it impossible to do anything but play through him early, running the floor to establish early position and demand the ball. That engagement level carried over to the defensive end, where Embiid completely walled off the paint early in the game and helped the Sixers get off and running.

Honestly, the only thing this game did was make the second half of the last meeting between these two teams even more inexcusable. In that one, the Sixers stopped even attempting to get the big man the ball despite Embiid having constant mismatches. It appears the Sixers learned their lesson after that one, and by the fourth quarter, Atlanta found it impossible to slow him down, with Embiid willing himself to the free-throw line and putting the game out of reach.

49 points later, Embiid was getting the loudest MVP chants we have heard in Philly's home arena all season and the self-proclaimed best player in the world had everyone forgetting about the team's recent misfortunes, even if only for a couple of hours.

Everything looks different for this team when Embiid is locked in from the opening tip and stays at that level throughout the game. He's not going to be able to have this sort of performance every night, but it's always good to see him taking care of business against the teams he should dominate.

• If there is anything Tobias Harris can be counted on to do, it's to crush the spirit of bad teams around the league. The Hawks have guys who are theoretically supposed to be good wing defenders in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, but neither guy did well trying to check Harris on Monday night, who often found himself with easy looks all over the floor.

The thing is, Harris is getting quality looks from three pretty much every night on this team. He's not going to make outside looks every night at the same clip he did Monday, but he can certainly manage better than he has for most of the season. Perhaps his early touches had something to do with it — Harris had a chance to get some touches in pick-and-rolls and away from the arc early, and that may be what he needs in order to get himself going. 

He will have plenty of opportunities to establish himself early with Simmons out of the lineup, so perhaps the Sixers will learn a little more about how to make the most of their $180 million man. 

• The Sixers were fortunate to get a bad Hawks team at home after losing Ben Simmons to injury the game prior, but this wasn't a game where they just out-talented the Hawks and called it a night. They toyed with some different things schematically throughout the game, at least getting looks at things they might need down the road.

Between sprinkling in some zone defense, running Harris-Embiid pick-and-rolls, and giving Shake Milton some room to operate as a lead initiator, there was some decent developmental work done on a night where they could afford to do so.

And after looking completely out of sorts rotationally in the previous two games, the group that took the floor against the Hawks made a lot more sense. Milton gives you a bit of pick-and-roll ability with the starters, Burks was minimized to a smaller role, and Neto was back to being out of the rotation. They had a solid nine guys, and that's the group to draw from moving forward.

• Thought that was a nice bounce back game for Furkan Korkmaz after a tough stretch once his role and the rotation changed. The pump fake was in full effect against the Hawks, freeing Korkmaz for some open threes and even some drives to the basket that put him on the foul line.

The Bad

• It's not often you can say a team's worst quality is their consistency, but it's true for the Sixers, who somehow manage to turn every game into an adventure, no matter how big of a lead they get and no matter how bad the opponent is. But they manage to stumble into these chaotic games in a variety of ways, which is the truly remarkable part about it.

This is not a one-man or one-unit problem. In the opening minute of the third quarter, Josh Richardson missed Embiid for an easy post-up, and then the Sixers blew a rotation on defense on the ensuing defensive possession, leading to a Collins three and a Brett Brown timeout. Out of that timeout, Embiid got stripped, fouled Hunter on the other end, and two possessions later committed a travel. It was on from there, and as the offensive drought continued, the Hawks slowly but surely worked themselves back into the game.

NBA teams don't need a lot of daylight to get back into games these days, especially teams that want to get up threes and run like the Hawks. Philadelphia's inability to step on teams necks and kill a game early is unmatched.

• In spite of the fact that I thought we saw some of Al Horford's best play alongside Embiid in this one, it's hard to understand why some of the shots he used to hit with ease have turned into such a tough task for him. 

I think there are reasons that he has been so ineffective from three, predominantly because he is spending stretches as a stationary target instead of getting involved in the flow of the offense. But that doesn't explain why he has been so much worse as a pick-and-pop player from all over the floor, why he's struggling to score over smaller players in the post, and why his flashes of athleticism are scarcer than they've ever been.

This could just be an anecdotal thing for me, but it felt like every time Al Horford had an opportunity to hit a run-stopping or game-clinching three against the Sixers over the years, he always hit it. This season, I could probably count on one hand the number of these shots he has hit in a Sixers uniform, and I'd have a finger or two leftover.

• A summary of Richardson's performance on Monday night:

Everybody has down nights, but Richardson's can be downright puzzling. It's not just that his shots stop dropping, he just completely loses all sense of place on the court. He'll miss the extra pass to an open shooter in lieu of a tightly-contested shot, he'll blow a rotation completely on the other end, and he'll make you completely forget he's capable of 25+ point games.

The Sixers are going to need him to be one of their primary ball-handlers with Simmons on the shelf, and they simply can't absorb these game-to-game swings when they have better quality competition than the Hawks.

• It feels to me like fans are going to love Alec Burks when he is hitting shots and be driven nuts by him at any other time. He is not exactly hunting that hard to get looks for teammates once the ball is in his hands, so his effectiveness is going to swing wildly based on his field goal percentage.

The Ugly

• The mood around Philadelphia when this Sixers team plays. It's a strange thing because this team has been the best home team in the league this year and yet the animosity feels totally warranted. Nothing comes easy, and while that keeps the entertainment level high deep into the game, I'm sure the fans would be happier to go home having watched a blowout win for their home favorites.

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