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April 19, 2021

Instant observations: Steph Curry lights up Sixers to hand Philly home loss

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The Sixers were the latest victims of the traveling Steph Curry show, falling to the Warriors 107-96 on Monday night. Curry piled up 49 points in a bonkers performance at Wells Fargo Center. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Warriors were determined to make Joel Embiid beat them in some way other than scoring. From the opening whistle, Golden State sent weakside help toward the big guy, incentivizing him to face up to attack instead of bunkering down in the post.

To his credit, Embiid saw what the defense was giving him and made the most of it. He sprayed passes all over the floor in the first half, giving his shooters open shot after open shot through direct feeds and swing passes alike, and that was a big part of Philadelphia getting out to an early lead.

It was more of a feel-out process as a scorer, but it will surprise no one to learn Embiid figured that out over time. He seemed to relish the opportunity to do battle with Draymond Green, an oft-celebrated defensive player, and you can throw Green's name on the list of guys who could not get through a half without fouling the big fella. Embiid wore down the Warriors like he has so many other teams, and as they started to fear foul calls, he used up fakes and shoulder shrugs to deke around them in the paint, setting up open layups on his way to 17 first-half points.

The Sixers needed more from their MVP candidate as a scorer, and his inefficiency from the field and the line were marks against him. But you'd be hard-pressed to find many plays where he made the wrong decision or missed the read he should have made. His processing speed is at an all-time high right now, with Embiid posting and re-posting whenever he feels danger or passing to an open shooter otherwise.

• For the opening stretch of the game, Seth Curry had a brief window where he could call himself the superior Curry brother. It certainly didn't last the whole game — big bro is in the midst of an MVP-level stretch right now — but it gave the Sixers a needed boost on a night where they were shorthanded.

All those years doing battle with his brother at home must have paid off, because Curry was part of a relatively successful effort to slow down Steph Curry early. Philly showed high against pick-and-rolls and recovered well on the back end, taking away open looks and closing passing windows quicker than expected. If only that had held the rest of the night...

The offensive end, of course, is where his money was and will be made. Curry has shown the after-effects of his bout with COVID-19 at times this season, but the good news for Philadelphia is that it hasn't had much of an impact on his chemistry with Embiid. Those two have come to a great understanding on the floor, working pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs at an expert level most of this season. Curry isn't thought of as a true "point guard" but he was more than serviceable setting the table for Embiid and the rest of the gang in the absence of Ben Simmons. 

We always mention his shooting when discussing how hard it will be for someone (namely George Hill) to supplant him on the floor when things get tight in the playoffs, but this factor looms almost as large.

• It was basically a necessity down Harris and Simmons, but it was good to see Rivers embrace a smaller, sleeker look around Embiid. Better yet, there were adjustments made on the fly based on the nights guys were having that felt in tune with what was needed or appropriate at the time.

While I was a little higher on Mike Scott's evening than most of the crowd — he made some legitimately helpful rotations and shows in pick-and-roll defense to prevent Steph Curry from going even more nuclear — Rivers recognized early in the second half that the Warriors were basically ignoring him at all times on offense to double Embiid. Instead of leaving Scott on the floor for floor spacing he wasn't actually offering, Rivers subbed Thybulle in, hoping to get some impact defense if his shooter was going to be ignored anyway.

• Tyrese Maxey got some burn over Shake Milton in the fourth quarter, and the rookie had earned the right to help lead the second unit at that point. I don't think he's trustworthy enough on defense to play him when the games really start to matter, but there was a noticeable difference in the separation he created off-the-dribble compared to the other guys tasked with running the second unit on Monday. 

It sounds strange, but even when Maxey is missing shots at the rim, they are often benefitting Philadelphia because of the pace he shows off on his way to the basket. The Warriors were in scramble mode trying to cope with him attacking the basket, and that led to some offensive rebound opportunities for Sixers bigs that aren't there during Milton's more methodical drives.

The problem at this point, I guess, is that I can't see his path to minutes with a full lineup. There are still moments where you see his age shine through — defense is a complete adventure, and there are a fair amount of turnovers where vet teammates are expecting him to stay in a spot, ready for a kick out pass, only for Maxey to sidestep at the worst possible moment and cause a turnover. It'll be worked out over time, no doubt, but likely not during this season.

• It has been a constant theme lately, but Thybulle's slow but steady development on the offensive end could end up being critical to this team's contention hopes. In fits and starts, we're seeing activity as a cutter, some pull-up shooting ability, and as has been noted all year, he at least is confident enough to let it fly from deep.

The Bad

• I didn't have many issues with Embiid on the offensive end against Golden State, but with Curry cooking in the second half, he needed to be up much higher defending Golden State's human torch. It's an impossible assignment, I get it, and asking Embiid to protect the rim and play inch-perfect pick-and-roll coverage is a big ask. But that's the gig. 

• On many nights, Thybulle is the best (or at least second best) option the Sixers have against a top perimeter assignment. Smaller, speedier guards are an area where he has a leg up over Simmons, and he's no small part of their excellent team defense. A lot of people were up in arms he didn't get the start to try to slow down Steph Curry.

About that — Curry absolutely toyed with Thybulle in the limited time the second-year wing got to guard him. Two straight possessions to open his night, each of them ending with Curry stepping into open threes because of Thybulle's overeagerness.

That was enough for Doc Rivers to pull the plug, and it didn't feel like the wrong decision at the time. Thybulle was much, much more impactful on less challenging assignments as a ballhawk and roamer, and for a spell, it looked like they were going to end up on the right end of history.

Unfortunately, Curry did what Curry tends to do about just about everybody these days, and the Sixers never found the right matchup to go toe-to-toe with him for the rest of the game. A bit more patience for Thybulle appears to have been warranted, but with the zone Curry is in, I'm not sure it would have mattered.

• For a guy coming off of a layoff, Hill blended in with this group just fine, a tough night from the field aside. In fact, there were times where you could see what the Sixers did when they made him their lone deadline acquisition. Hill made several advanced reads from different spots on the floor, adding a point guard's mind to a second unit in desperate need of one.

The bigger issue for Hill's night was his usage, at least on the offensive end. Doc Rivers said before the game they'd be judicious with his minutes as they bring him along, but they mostly stuck him in the corner away from the ball and the action. 

With his shooting ability, he can certainly provide value there, but some of the theoretical appeal of Hill was bringing him in to stabilize and set up the second unit. It could be temporary, but Hill was a passenger in the Milton show on Monday night. Stop me if you've heard this before: Milton looked pretty out of his depth as the lead decisionmaker for the second unit, careening into bodies and throwing up tough shots that often had no chance to go in.

Guards who are coming off of the bench all tend to be in the high ceiling, low floor bucket of players, so there's no real reason to get mad at Milton because he's that sort of player. But his limitations are exposed when he has to be the guy who leads the group, and they should have that in mind heading into the postseason.

• We mentioned Embiid's night up top, and his ability to see the floor and find the open man was legitimately impressive at times. Less impressive: what the Sixers were able to do once the big guy swung the ball their way. They are not exactly brimming with guys who can make you feel pain attacking a closeout.

But the starters were certainly not the issue against Golden State. Without one of the leading men to help buoy the second unit (looking at you, Tobias Harris), there was a whole lot of my turn, your turn offense. 

• Death, taxes, and the Sixers getting burned on possessions in transition. Considering how tough it is to slow down Steph Curry right now, I thought the Sixers defended the Warriors as well as could be expected, some missteps and overzealous block attempts aside. But they let the Warriors walk to a few easy buckets on fast breaks, and that has been an issue for basically the entire season for Philadelphia.

"Championship habits" is a phrase that has been worn out discussing the team this season, and their consistent, day-to-day effort has been worth celebrating most of this year. But there's no reason they should be as poor as they are at getting back and stopping teams on the break. Good teams, maybe even mediocre ones are going to make them pay in the playoffs. 

• I'm not sure how you defend this version of Steph Curry. That guy is unbelievable. 

The Ugly

• Let me reiterate: the offense whenever Embiid was on the bench certainly qualifies. A lot of side-to-side action with very little desire or ability to get downhill. Unfortunately, the only guy who really tried was Milton, and his night was subpar to say the least. 

• I'm not sure how Green used telepathy to convince the officials to call a foul on a teammate instead of him on a play midway through the fourth quarter, but had they gotten it correct, he would have fouled out of the game with just under four minutes left. Pretty important mistake. 

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