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January 30, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers squeak past Kings thanks to Joel Embiid's big second half

The Kings were a buzzer-beater away from an improbable victory in Philadelphia, but the Sixers escaped with a 103-101 victory thanks to another big performance from Joel Embiid.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Rarely have we seen Embiid as frustrated as he was early in this game. Sacramentos all-hands-on-deck approach to defending him no matter where he was on the floor caused some turnovers, messed with his jumper, and forced him into some really rough positions throughout the game. It didn't help that Philadelphia played at a glacial pace around him — after dawdling for the first 19 seconds of the shot clock, there were many possessions where Embiid ended up with the hot potato and little time to work with.

The longer the game wore on, though, the more he grew in stature. His defense lagged behind in the second quarter, but Embiid marched to the free-throw line over and over again, making up for an absent jumper by using rip-throughs and rim power to get some points on the board. In the third quarter, it was an increase in speed that appeared to help Embiid, who took it upon himself to attack Kings players off of the dribble from the perimeter. That ended up being a relatively effective approach, with Embiid's improved ballhandling helping him navigate through traffic to score through contact.

We have talked a lot about Embiid's improved playmaking, the dribbling, and his ability to lead the Sixers on the break, but probably not enough about him leaving some in the tank so that he can take over games in the second half. Admittedly, it's an approach that has led to some lackluster defensive performances in first halves of games, but there were many games in the past where Embiid threw an absolute haymaker in the opening 24 minutes and then had much less left to offer as teams whittled down leads and made the Sixers sweat in the second half. Now, he's the picture people have in their heads of a franchise player, a guy who turns it up in the second half and ultimately leads his team to victories.

Every single night, Embiid seems to be operating on a different level from the rest of the guys on the floor, seeing exactly where things are headed, what he needs to do, and how to make it happen so the Sixers are in a position to win games. He's at a level of stardom that few guys are able to reach in their careers, where the tough stuff looks easy and even the bad team performances don't feel insurmountable.

(The smallest, "but..." to follow up that write-up: the Sixers could use a more engaged Embiid on defense in the first half of games. They likely wouldn't be going down to the wire in a lot of these games if they simply stepped on the neck of some of these uninspiring opponents, but Embiid has been treating first halves as sort of a runway to the dramatic and dominant finish. Wins are wins, and perhaps they'd just blow early leads if he unloaded the clip in first halves, but I think he's capable of giving just slightly more on defense out of the gate.)

• It was obvious within the first two minutes of the game that the Kings did not want to let Embiid beat them as a scorer. The MVP candidate faced double and even triple teams throughout the opening period, forcing the Sixers to look elsewhere for scoring.

With the mood Tobias Harris has been in recently, it turned out not to be a huge deal. Harris continued the stellar run of play he has been on in recent weeks, starting off on the right foot and sustaining that deep into the evening. Though there was a time or two that Harris looked off a shooting opportunity, he started off the night as a willing shooter from outside, and his touch was on point in the painted area, with Harris picking up some nice floater buckets with Kings players draped all over him.

Right when the Sixers needed Harris to cede control of this game to Embiid, he got out of the way and did more damage as an off-ball threat, with Embiid playing jumbo point guard to get his partner some easy looks around the basket. I'm not sure the direct chemistry between Harris and Embiid has ever been better than it has looked recently, and while it's easy to look like you have great on-court chemistry when a guy shoots like Harris is right now, they're also involved in more actions together. Embiid has embraced the hi-lo passing and serving as a screener for his frontcourt partner, and it is making a huge difference. When Harris scored a big and-one bucket late in the fourth, it was Embiid who had the most visceral reaction, dramatically pumping his fist after the shot fell.

After months of the game looking extraordinarily difficult for Harris, each positive decision and action seems to flow into another. The guy who has looked like a Swiss army knife for Philly at his best is in that sort of mood right now, and with Embiid and Harris playing well, the Sixers become a much more dangerous team.

• The most important lineup change of the second half was a rotation decision from Doc Rivers. After an all-bench group got buried early in the second quarter to send the Sixers spiraling, Rivers ended up leaving both Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry in the game to open the fourth quarter, trusting them to lead Philadelphia in a time of need.

It was young Maxey who did a lot of the heavy lifting in that moment, putting together a great two-way stretch after starting miserably on both ends early on. The Sixers badly needed an injection of pace after a slow and deliberate start to this game, and it felt like they were at warp speed in that first half of the first quarter. It was a group effort to make that happen — Andre Drummond's hands and rim protection made a huge difference — with Maxey serving as the tip of the sword in the stretch that ultimately won Philadelphia the game.

As we've said many times throughout the year, Maxey's ability to come alive and stay with a game after tough starts is pretty unique for a young role player. 

• Seeing Curry back in the lineup was nice, even if his play sometimes wasn't.

The Bad

• Turnovers were the story of the first half, inspiring some memories I thought I'd repressed of the Process Sixers years. Back in those days, it was normal to see the Sixers leading the league in giveaways per game, but the Sixers have taken care of the ball a lot better as they've distanced themselves from the tanking, with Philadelphia ranking second in fewest turnovers per game coming into the Kings meeting.

This started with Embiid and flowed right on down through the rest of the roster. With the Kings successfully disrupting Embiid's early offense in the first half, other decision makers were forced to play more prominent roles in the offense, and the Sixers slowed to a crawl, which led to a ton of bad shots late in the clock even when they didn't turn the ball over.

A big chunk of the blame, however, lies with the coaching decisions. With Curry back in the lineup, the Sixers had at least some guard talent to spread around the lineup, with either Maxey or Curry serving as logical options to lead second-unit groups without Embiid. Instead, Doc Rivers went back to bench-heavy lineups that featured Furkan Korkmaz as the pseudo point guard, and they went terribly for Philadelphia in the first half. The Kings opened up a double-digit lead early in the second quarter thanks in large part to that group being a slow, disorganized mess on offense, leading to lots of easy buckets for the Kings.

Even though I'm sort of a believer in Korkmaz the playmaker/point, there's no reason to use him in that capacity without at least a secondary ballhandler, which is especially true when you have outright superior options to run the offense in the lineup. They didn't need to overextend anybody to make the sort of rotation choices that basically every other team in the league does.

Are people still getting mad about this, or do you just expect the silly all-bench looks from Rivers at this point? At a certain point you probably either have to dig your heels in and be the angry, yelling fan or simply accept that this is how Rivers is going to approach his rotation. Given that he made the right choice in the second half, playing both of his starting guards alongside a Green-Niang-Drummond trio, he's absolutely capable of doing the right thing.

Anyway, the turnover problem would eventually fade from view as the Sixers got their act together, but it was a pretty embarrassing display. 13 turnovers in a single half is just ugly.

• You're not going to see many defensive halves worse than the one the Sixers' starting backcourt had in the first half of Saturday's game. Curry and Maxey were about as bad as it gets checking Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell, making a boatload of mistakes despite the Kings having a fairly straightforward approach. They cheated too far from catch-and-shoot opportunities, got eaten alive by screens, overhelped in unnecessary situations, and simply got blown by in certain situations. When that happens, there's only so much you can do to overcome it.

Although neither guy is equipped to guard anyone other than a guard, starting Curry on Haliburton is a decision I don't really understand. He's the most dangerous guy in the lineup coming into the game, yet the Sixers put perhaps the worst defender on the team on him out of the chute, and they allowed Haliburton to get rolling with little resistance. He didn't have to sacrifice playmaking, either, with Haliburton walking into halftime with 16 points and six assists after getting to the lane whenever he wanted.

I just don't really understand how you can do such a terrible job in a game against one of the worst teams in the league. It wasn't as though the rest of these guys draped themselves in glory, either, but those two stood out as the worst of the bunch.

• Korkmaz is probably going to need a seat on the bench when this group gets healthy. Have to look at some other options.

The Ugly

• A day after the Kings reportedly pulled out of trade discussions for Ben Simmons, two of the guys who might have featured in a potential Simmons package (Haliburton and Harrison Barnes) looked pretty damn good against the Sixers. You can either consider that a fork in the eye from the Kings or a desperate plea to Daryl Morey to find out a way to get a deal done. Up to you to decide, I suppose.

• I need somebody to report back on these milkshakes they are now selling at Wells Fargo Center. Have to assume they are delicious and about seven million calories:

Perhaps we should send our resident food critic Jimmy Kempski to check these out.

• Not sure whether to question the officials for what looked like a very quick five-second violation or make fun of the Sixers for managing to pick up a five-second violation out of a timeout. Little bit of both I guess.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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