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March 03, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers win instant classic vs. Jazz behind another Joel Embiid masterpiece

The Sixers dug deep for arguably their best win of the season on Wednesday night, riding into the All-Star break on the strength of a 131-123 win over the Utah Jazz. Joel Embiid led the way once again with another 40 point night, but it took the full supporting cast to get an instant classic victory in overtime.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Let's start with this — you never know if a team is going to actually show up for the last game before the All-Star break. It's the professional expectation and it's annoying that it has to be thought about, but there are a lot of guys who are thinking about their time off instead of closing out the pre-break schedule. It happens.

So consider us all fortunate that both teams came out throwing haymakers in the first quarter, making tough shots and digging in on defense in spite of the motivational forces that sometimes ruin these games. This one deserved to be a high-level game, and they gave it every chance to be one. We even got an ejection out of anger from one of the players on Utah. How's that for playoff-level intensity?

• Embiid has had good games against the Utah Jazz, but rarely a "burning down the nets, throwing bodies through the rim" type of performance — particularly with Rudy Gobert on the floor. As we discussed prior to the game, both guys have had their moments in previous meetings.

It was finally time for him to have a rip-roaring evening against the guy he believes is a false DPOY winner. Philadelphia's MVP candidate came out ready to roll in this one. 

Embiid had million-dollar moves let down by 10 cent finishes at times, but he hit Gobert and backup Derrick Favors with the full assortment of moves — one-legged stepback jumpers, spin moves, floaters, face-up jumpers, and some old-fashioned bully ball around the basket, jumping out to 20 points by halftime against perhaps the best interior defense in the league.

The pace slowed considerably after halftime, but he remained the central figure for Philadelphia when it mattered most. He made some absolutely hellacious plays at the rim on defense, stuffing Donovan Mitchell on drives and tossing away lobs to Gobert, and he absolutely bodied Gobert on the other end of the floor, sending him dancing in multiple directions with jukes, pump fakes, and grown man strength. 

Embiid looked like a guy who was out to prove a point against a player who is routinely in awards discussions with and ahead of him. And just when you thought it was all going to be for naught — the Sixers sputtered through their final possession of regulation in a big way — Embiid just casually stepped out beyond the three-point line and canned a three with a guy right in his grill, earning his team a shot to win in overtime.

What a player and what a season he is having. Dropping 40 on this team is something special.

• I thought Philadelphia's defense was a good bit better than the results of the game showed early on. On a number of occasions, they made inch-perfect rotations to stay in front of drivers and recover to shooters for 23 seconds of the shot clock, only for a Jazz player to hit a contested jumper and wipe away all the hard work done up to that point.

That's how the game goes sometimes, but it's encouraging that the Sixers were able to throw different looks at the Jazz dependent on personnel and look competent in all of them. They showed and dropped vs. pick-and-rolls, switched on some players and avoided it against others, and with a few rare exceptions, they communicated and executed brilliantly.

(Okay, so some of this changed in the second half, but stick with me.)

In a mid-March game leading into the All-Star break, I care a lot more about the process behind the defense than the opponent's shotmaking. There is significant defensive potential here, the Sixers simply need to tap into it.

• I was all ready to absolutely skewer Doc Rivers for his decision to use an all-bench lineup in this game. They did everything possible to make him look silly for choosing to run it out against a Conley-Gobert led lineup for the Jazz in the first half, and it has rarely worked against any good team the Sixers have played this season.

But Rivers stuck to his guns and was rewarded in the stretch spanning the end of the third and beginning of the fourth, with a scrappy bunch bringing the Sixers to a 92-92 tie with Utah and 10 minutes remaining in the game.

Even during the miserable run in the first half, there were signs that they were better than the scoreline suggested. There were better than they should be expected to be defensively and had some unlucky breaks go Utah's way. Mike Scott has continued to play some of the best help defense of his career, and these guys looked determined to make this one a game by any means necessary, even though they couldn't create a lick of dribble penetration.

(Seriously, what has gotten into Mike Scott on the defensive end of the floor? He has put in some thoroughly impressive work as a help defender over the last couple of weeks, and this may have been his best game of the bunch, with Scott up on his toes and barking at teammates like a mad man as the Sixers executed switches.)

On what seemed like pure energy, they found a way to break through in the second half. Dwight Howard played inspired basketball on both ends, dominating on the glass and even hitting a rare three at one point. I don't think he has leaped higher or harder all season than he did at the start of that fourth quarter, coming up with some absolutely preposterous plays above the rim (even if one was a potential goaltend).

• The first half was littered with performances from Philadelphia's secondary players that did not live up to their end of the bargain. Two turned at important moments in the game — Seth Curry was a major part of Philadelphia's run in the third and fourth quarters, and Tobias Harris was the guy who largely carried the Sixers in overtime, shaking off rust from a brief layoff to get the Sixers closer to the finish line. 

Harris' crunch-time heroics seemed miraculous as they were happening, snapping to that you never could have predicted from watching the first 48 minutes of the game play out. But there he was when it mattered most, going through and around the Jazz in the post after everyone had expended their last burst of energy for the night. 

• Speaking of second-half and crunch-time heroics, I didn't think this was Ben Simmons' best or worst game of the season, but once again he managed to dial up the intensity and shut down the opponent's best perimeter player when it was all on the line. When the Sixers weren't playing drop coverage, Simmons was all over his semi-rival, shutting down opportunities before they opened up and getting into Mitchell's grill to force a boatload of awful attempts in the closing moments.

Rivers advocated for him as the Defensive Player of the Year before the game. He definitely has a point.

The Bad

• One of the major storylines coming out of the first loss to Utah was the discrepancy in threes attempted (and made) between the two teams. The story of Utah's leap this season has largely been about a change in offensive style — they fire away earlier and more often, and they are reaping the benefits.

The Sixers, on the other hand, live in the midrange far more frequently. It's one thing for Embiid, who has been an absolute terror from those spots this season, but there's almost no one else you want to see shooting at a high volume from low-value spots on the floor. 

A lot of the guys who end up doing so (Seth Curry, Tobias Harris) are more than capable shooters to boot, so it makes it doubly frustrating that it feels like there are so many possessions designed to end with them shooting from those areas.

I do think some of this can be rectified with potential pickups ahead of the deadline (we'll get to that in a story later this week) but there has to be a greater push from the sidelines to focus on these shots. The bottom line is you don't want to lose because of a math problem.

• While we're on the subject of tactics and strategy, I can't for the life of me understand why the Sixers played as much drop coverage as they did against Utah in pick-and-roll in the second half of this game. 

In the first half, they were a bit more selective with who and how they utilized it, doing it almost exclusively when Favors was on the floor and trying to live with the results. It seemed a whole lot less organized in the second half unless the plan was to try to let Mitchell either shoot Utah in or out of the game — they had some trouble containing Mitchell off of the dribble even before they decided to make the switch, but that's no reason to let him just walk into open jumpers.

Even when it wasn't Mitchell who was getting those shots, it felt like there was little benefit to the Sixers remaining in that style for as long as they did. The Jazz were able to create some open shots elsewhere on the floor as a result of how Philadelphia set up, and I look forward to giving this one a second watch.

• Danny Green is one of the most hot and cold players I think I have ever seen play basketball, and I spent the better part of five years watching Robert Covington shoot threes without a care in the world for how many he'd made or missed prior to that moment. When Green's shot is off on a given night, it feels like he's never going to make a shot again, and there are attempts that don't even come close to the basket.

This was one of those bad nights. Not a good opponent for that to happen against.

The Ugly

• I wouldn't usually roast the guy who carried the team all half for one silly play, but Embiid's foul to close out the first half is one of the dumbest plays he has made in his career. One of the dumbest plays any Sixers player has made during that time period, for that matter. The Jazz were all set to run out the half and the big guy put Royce O'Neale on the line with a foul 94 feet from the hoop. 

Absolutely inexcusable, and he's lucky he only gifted them a single point instead of two. Even still, that ended up being a vital point in a game that went right down to the wire.

• The two-minute report for this game is going to be quite an adventure. That's all I have to say about the officiating from this one.

• Embiid is constantly, and I mean constantly working the officials, and it paid off for him when they called a tech on Mitchell in overtime that the refs seemed like they were going to let go. Add that to the list of his many accomplishments this season.

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