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February 18, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers hold on for nervy win over Rockets

The Sixers blew most of a 29-point lead against the Rockets on Wednesday night, but they managed to hold on for a 118-113 win over Houston. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Is 2-3 zone defense about to become a regular part of Philadelphia's gameplan? I wouldn't go that far yet, but despite working on it very little this season, the Sixers have been able to execute it with great results, and that bodes well when they need it as a changeup down the line.

Nobody is thriving in that style more than Matisse Thybulle, who rose to prominence in college as a disruptive force at the top of Washington's zone. While he has more than proven himself as an individual defender, he seems to go to a different level when he can gamble in a zone with fewer consequences for coming up empty. Houston was cooking on offense to start this one, and as soon as Rivers allowed Thybulle to attack from a zone, the well ran dry, and Philadelphia started getting transition opportunity after transition opportunity.

With the young wing in a zone on defense, confidence flowed to the other side of the floor. Thybulle was a terrific shooter in home games last season, and while that hasn't translated to the 2020-21 campaign, small flashes here and there lend hope that his touch could eventually return.

(Additional note here — effective zone defense was even more important with Embiid laboring throughout the night, allowing the big guy to move less and effectively "rest" on a lot of defensive possessions.)

• Don't quote me on this, but I don't think I have ever seen Embiid play well with a headband on. When he took the floor with the head accessory on to start the game, it felt like a mortal lock that he would struggle early and then abandon the fashion statement at halftime.

Evidently, ripping off the headbands was all it took for Embiid to get going. If you didn't see him wincing and moving slower, you would have thought it was just business as usual. Fadeaways, fouls drawn in the post, and some nice combination play came to the forefront, and Embiid flirted with a triple-double for most of the second half despite not having close to his best stuff.

His work in pick-and-rolls and handoffs with Seth Curry was a big positive of the night for me. Curry was in a nice zone as a shooter, which will make anybody look good playing next to him, but Embiid set some better screens than he usually does, and Curry was able to take advantage of DeMarcus Cousins' lack of foot speed by going downhill.

That said, in an ideal world the Sixers put this game to bed in the third quarter and Embiid sits the rest of the night. He was a big part of the reason that didn't happen, so health concerns or not, he wears some of the blame for their sputtering in the third and fourth quarters. Being able to mail it in and score 30 must be really nice.

• This might sound goofy or old school, but as long as Embiid is not genuinely hurt, I think it's actually sort of good for him to have to fight through some tough nights and dig deep to close teams out in the fourth quarter. Anything short of a legit injury will not be an excuse come playoff time, so there's some value in learning to manage pain in a relatively meaningless game. 

• Basketball is a very simple sport at its core, especially in today's day and age. If you create and make open threes while playing reasonably good defense, you are going to win a lot of games and win them relatively easily.

Danny Green and Curry led the way, and if there are no major additions between now and March 25th, that's going to have to be the case more often (especially in Green's case). Rivers has been adamant that their lack of three-point shooting is directly connected to their occasional inability to get stops, and that looked like an astute observation Wednesday. They started to get rolling as soon as they turned up the intensity on defense, and they went cold once Houston went on their second-half run.

• They had their ups and downs, but I thought the Sixers' young guys acquitted themselves well in limited action Wednesday. Isaiah Joe competes a lot harder on defense than his college rep suggested he would (and he has coped with physicality better than his frame suggests), even though he couldn't find the range from deep. Tyrese Maxey was turned away at the rim emphatically on a few occasions, but I liked that it didn't stop him from attacking deep into the fourth quarter, undeterred by previous failure.

If anything, I still think they should be a little higher in the rotation, but Rivers is still giving guys like Furkan Korkmaz time to figure it out. Okay, mostly he's giving Furkan Korkmaz time to figure it out.

• For once, it was not Embiid who was leading the way in the early stages of the game. Tobias Harris put Philadelphia on his back for most of an excellent first quarter, and watching him go to work has been a treat this year compared to the slow, meandering style we saw him play last year.

One major point of distinction between this year and last (aside from, you know, hitting shots) is Harris' increased physicality all over the floor. Drives that start from the perimeter go at defenders, so Harris is taking higher quality looks at the rim instead of fading away from it. Post-ups are quicker and stronger, with Harris doing an excellent job of clearing space with his body without crossing the line into offensive foul territory.

Thybulle is the guy who headlined their zone defense, but Harris quietly had some nice dig downs from the corner to help in the paint, preventing or altering what would have been clean looks at the basket. Again, physicality is a factor. Harris has been willing to sell out for blocks, get into guys' chests on defense, and his core strength looks excellent when he has had to guard guys in the post.

They could have used more Harris in the second half, but he made up for some of his offensive struggles with a focus on the glass. 

• Doc Rivers had his first successful challenge of the year Wednesday, and mostly I was just glad to see him use one of the tools in his kit.

The Bad

• As we have discussed to death in recent weeks, the Sixers need a real alternative to Dwight Howard for nights like these. I was in favor of Tony Bradley getting a chance against Houston, but I don't think he's a "real" option in the sense that he can't be the guy you count on when they reach the playoffs and need to sit Embiid.

I thought he got a particularly tough whistle against Houston, but I think that a lot of nights, so at a certain point the fault probably lies with the guy who can't stop fouling guys on the other team. It's hard to figure why this issue is so prominent — Howard was a multiple-time DPOY at his peak, is loaded with vet wisdom now, and is still a great athlete for his age. No reason he should be picking up all these cheapies.

• Philadelphia's letdown at halftime was pretty fierce. The Rockets appeared to be well on their way to mailing it in for the final two quarters, down nearly 30 points early in the third quarter, and the Sixers decided they'd had enough playing hard for the night. 

That showed up in every way imaginable. Their defensive effort was poor, which cut off their transition attack, which brought down their shooting, which forced them to try to create more in a halfcourt setting, and look, you get the picture. Mentally, they just didn't appear to be there, and the wheels started coming off.

I am more sympathetic to blown leads in these instances to a lot of people — maybe I am just a bit numb after the past three years of second-half insanity — and the letdown effect is real when you're smoking a team like the Sixers were with Houston. Still, these are costly stretches when you start stacking them up during a congested schedule, and the Sixers would have benefitted from being able to put Embiid on ice for most (if not all) of the second half.

There's not a whole lot there worth analyzing if you're asking me. They got outworked and were nearly victims of their own hubris.

The Ugly

• It was not a sparkling performance for Embiid even before he started wincing toward the end of the first half, but seeing him grimace and meander around the floor to close out the first 24 minutes — not to mention linger to stretch before hitting the tunnel — is more than a little worrying. Pain in his lower back has been pretty constant for the big guy recently, and it appeared to get worse the longer the game went on Wednesday night.

The good news? They didn't need him to be Hercules with the rest of his teammates shooting the lights out against Houston, and the Rockets helped matters by clanging shot after shot even when Philadelphia had defensive letdowns. But Embiid's health is a much bigger concern than a February game against the Rockets, and there's no extended rest coming. Philadelphia's schedule is relentless, and this will be a tough problem to solve unless they decide to shut him down for a few games in a row. 

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