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October 20, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers' bench goes off in fourth quarter to beat Pelicans

The Sixers rode a giant fourth quarter from Furkan Korkmaz to a 117-97 opening night win over the Pelicans on Wednesday night, an excellent start to the season on the road for Philadelphia.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• You don't want to be in a position where Furkan Korkmaz is your long-term backup at the point, but I honestly think he did a good job running the offense on Wednesday, especially when he was put in combination plays with Andre Drummond. Korkmaz's size posed some problems turning the corner against smaller Pelicans players, and he did a good job of keeping options open until the last possible second, leaving backup Pels center Jaxson Hayes in tough spots trying to defend pick-and-rolls with Korkmaz at the controls.

Making the reads to create for others is going to be key to the Korkmaz experience, and he lived up to his end of the bargain against New Orleans, avoiding tunnel vision and spraying some nice passes to corner shooters when the defense collapsed on his drives. 

And all of that was true before Korkmaz went on a one-man run to effectively close out this game in the fourth quarter. After he got one three to go down, Korkmaz's eyes seemed to light up, and as soon as he was crossing halfcourt, the Turkish wing/guard was making it rain, pulling from damn near Philadelphia to force the second Pelicans timeout in two minutes of action. This is a man with overflowing confidence:

When somebody on your bench goes off like this, it allows the big guns to get a rest at the start of a long season, and I can guarantee you Joel Embiid is quite happy he got to sit most of the second half thanks to his Turkish teammate. 

I still don't know if Korkmaz should have been in a position to play point guard and effectively run the offense. But when you combine the ability to do all of that with the scoring barrage he went on by himself, you start to understand why Doc Rivers trusts this guy a lot. His spot in the rotation isn't getting taken anytime soon.

(An all-bench point: I don't love going to all backups against any team, but at least this Sixers group of backups all has relatively defined roles and discernible skills that complement one another. It's a lineup of guys that make some sense on paper, and knowing Doc Rivers, you're going to see a lot of them.)

• Joel Embiid has been the king of the hot start since he made his way to the league, and Wednesday night's season opener was no different. Any concern about the lack of a point guard faded from view when it became clear the Sixers were going to run their offense through Embiid early and often, with the big guy manipulating the floor masterfully on night one.

There were two big points of emphasis for Embiid as he spoke during training camp — sharing the basketball and getting more threes up, and he lived up to his word on the first point. On several occasions in the first half, Embiid was hit with a double team and made a cross-court skip pass to Tobias Harris in the corner, the sort of read he wasn't even capable of making early in his career. Looking for those passes and more importantly delivering those passes to his guys is critical to Embiid making the leap to the very top tier of players in the league, and he's getting closer each day.

Things began to get away from Embiid and the Sixers a little bit in the second quarter, as the Pels slowly but surely fought their way back into this one. Thankfully, the big guy found his footing out of the halftime tunnel, helping to keep the Sixers afloat as Pelicans players buried jumper after jumper over their perimeter defenders to open the half.

(One complaint: there were a few too many jumpers from Embiid in this one, even though I'm a supporter of him hoisting early and often. When the Sixers made a more concerted effort to get him the ball with deep position, they reaped the benefits.) 

Although he made a few business decisions to stay out of foul trouble in the first half, I thought this game was a pretty good example of Embiid's ability to prop up the Sixers even when they don't have their best stuff on defense. He made some acrobatic plays around the basket to turn away Pelicans drivers, Jonas Valanciunas had an absolute nightmare of a time trying to score on him, and most of New Orleans' scoring when Embiid was on the floor came on contested jumpers, tough shots that a young Pelicans team just happened to knock down. There are going to be nights where they're more in a need of a true stopper on defense, but the stability he offered on the back end was key in this one.

• It seems exceedingly unlikely that Georges Niang will develop a cult fan following the way Mike Scott did in Philadelphia — lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice — but he looks primed to have a much bigger on-court impact than Scott did. It's an important upgrade if Niang is even a reasonably consistent shooter, and he offers a little more utility than Scott did to boot.

It's a subtle difference because Niang isn't coming flying around screens a la JJ Redick, but the early returns say Niang is not a true standstill shooter, and the Sixers used flare screens to buy Niang a shooting window that he capitalized on. He's going to fit right in.

• I have plenty of gripes about Andre Drummond's offensive decision-making in this game, but he was far above expectations as a defender in this one. A good chunk of that was all effort — Drummond ran the floor as hard as anybody on the team Wednesday night, and that allowed him to break up a few would-be dunks for the Pels in transition, in addition to the work he did defending pick-and-rolls in the halfcourt.

There is absolutely no disputing Drummond's size, athleticism, and skills, and it has always come down to him buying into a role and applying those talents in a way that helps win basketball games. If he plays as he did in this one, I tend to believe the Sixers can win a lot of games this year.

• Tyrese Maxey looked a bit lost at sea in the first half of this game, unwilling to pull the trigger as a catch-and-shoot guy and a bit out of his depth trying to set the pace of the team. But he grew into the game with time, in part because there was a more concerted effort to run the offense through him to open the second half. Once they got him in more handoffs and pick-and-rolls with Mr. Embiid, Maxey was able to take advantage of his speed and get to the cup, flashing the talent that helped him make an impact in the playoffs last year.

One of the problems the Sixers are going to run into starting Maxey is that he seems much more comfortable and confident as an off-the-dribble shooter than he does as a spot-up guy. On the second unit, where he'll be asked to do a lot of pick-and-roll creating, that's not a huge deal. In an Embiid-centric world, he has to be ready to let it rip when the ball comes his way, and Maxey needs to break the habit of dribbling out of open looks that come his way. There are already too many reluctant shooters in this group to get away with that on a regular basis.

Thankfully, after a hesitant start to the game, Maxey knocked down a catch-and-shoot three from the wing in the third quarter, a shot that will open up the floor for him and give his franchise player a little bit of extra breathing room if he makes it consistently. This is a growth year for Maxey, and it was good to see him rally after a tough start to the night.

• I never know what to make of Tobias Harris performances like this one. It didn't feel like he played particularly well, especially early, but he was able to string together some nice mini runs and ended up putting up 20- points and 12 rebounds by the time it was all said and done. It's not the sort of game that is going to get him All-Star consideration, but sopping up touches and scoring on volume is a job that is underappreciated in today's numbers-centric league. Sometimes, you need a dude willing and able to go get you a bucket. Job done.

The Bad

• An unfortunate side effect of having no backup point guard: the Sixers were far too reliant on the decision-making of Drummond, who tried to do way too much at times. When his moves came off, he looked like a basketball savant, dropping off no-look dimes to cutters. Unfortunately, there were several slapstick comedy moments in the first half alone, and you can pick your favorite — Drummond throwing a mid-air behind-the-back pass into the front row, or Drummond getting a steal and then trying to play Magic Johnson on the break before turning it over.

(To be clear, I think Drummond gives the Sixers variety on that unit that they didn't have with Dwight Howard at backup five. The trick is going to be getting him to cut out the nonsense while tapping into the passing skill.)

• Matisse Thybulle was an absolute mess on Wednesday night, perhaps understandably so after missing time in the preseason and getting little time on the floor as a result. The Sixers got most of the downside of his style of defense (gambling leading to open shots and layups) without any of the trademark disruptiveness that earned him an All-Defense nod last season.

That's part of the problem I have with just expecting he can fill Simmons' shoes as the perimeter defensive anchor right now. He can hit as high of a level as anybody else in the league, but he has rarely had to be the consistent, undisputed defender of No. 1 options for the duration of games. The Sixers need him to play with a level of composure that he has to prove he has this season. 

• On the "less defendable problems" sheet, Danny Green made some decisions that are beneath a player of his experience level on Wednesday night. Picking up the odd foul here or there while guarding Brandon Ingram is just part of the process, but Green's third foul on a reach-in was dumb right from the start, and forced him to play more passively for the rest of the night. 

The Ugly

• Having broadcasters work remotely during the height of the pandemic was an understandable, even smart decision. Putting a brand-new broadcast partnership in that situation as Kate Scott tries to replace a beloved local legend behind the play-by-play mic seems like a dumb decision from NBC, and there were a few times when it made a difference on the broadcast, with limited replay views leading to a few awkward, uncertain moments.

Nothing either of the two broadcasters can do about it, but it's a bummer.

• Things were already going poorly for Isaiah Joe as a rotation player out of the gate, with the second-year guard scoreless across nine minutes in the opener. But the concern coming out of the game is an awkward fall Joe had early in the fourth quarter, which saw him sent back to the locker room to get looked at shortly afterward. Nice to see him return to the floor before the game ended.

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