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November 07, 2021

Instant observations: Embiid, Korkmaz carry Sixers to sixth-straight win in Chicago

Sixers NBA

The Sixers battled hard to earn their sixth straight win on the road in Chicago, beating the Bulls 114-105 behind a dominant Joel Embiid and a shooting display from Furkan Korkmaz.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This looked like another off night for Joel Embiid shooting the basketball, and the Bulls flustered the big guy by crowding him throughout the opening quarter. Years ago, the early ugliness (four first-half turnovers) would have been enough to derail Embiid's entire game, with offensive struggles bleeding into his play everywhere else. Instead, Embiid held down the fort on defense until the offense caught up, and when it finally did, the Sixers went on a mega run to close the first half, pulling out in front in fairly improbable fashion.

A game like this shows exactly why Embiid deserves MVP consideration whenever he is healthy. With small, unproven lineups around him and Chicago's perimeter players at a huge advantage in their matchups, Embiid was always there as the last line of defense for Philly, forcing some tough shots at the hoop and scaring other guys away from attempts. His two blocked shots in the first half were of the highlight reel variety, with Embiid volleyball spiking one Zach LaVine attempt near the basket.

(Just as important as the rim protection and screen navigation — Embiid cleaning the defensive glass. Rebounding has been a teamwide issue for Philadelphia, and he came up with 10 rebounds all by himself in the first half, committing to ending possessions after working hard to manufacture stops.)

What was the key to getting him going on offense? Playing decisively. The first play in his big second-quarter roll was a pick-and-roll with Furkan Korkmaz, who fed Embiid the ball as he moved downhill and put him on the free-throw line. After he split the pair, he really got rolling, hitting a one-handed turnaround in the post, a face-up jumper, a three in transition, and an and-one through contact with Nikola Vucevic. The full arsenal was on display, and the connective tissue for all those plays was Embiid catching the ball and immediately knowing what he was about to do with it.

And Embiid hit some absolutely ridiculous shots in the guts of the game, dragging the Sixers to the finish line with what is quite easily his best offensive game of the year. He posted 30-15-3 on good efficiency, and that's tough to beat. Plus, the man is a showman!

Whether this is the real start to his season or just one shooting barrage, it was nice to see Embiid find that groove again. Even without it, this sort of performance reinforces the player and leader Embiid has grown into, with the big fella able to guide this team to wins in very different ways.

• Shake Milton's return to the lineup has been a sneaky big addition for Philadelphia, both because Milton has played well and because it allows the Sixers to mix-and-match lineups if one of their guards isn't playing well. When Tyrese Maxey has it going, the Sixers can just leave their second-year guard in the game and let him cook. But if they need a change of pace and a more reliable outside shooter, Milton can step in and not miss a beat.

He was critical in the first half on Saturday night, battling Zach LaVine head-to-head and coming out basically even. LaVine scored more, but his volume was significantly higher than Milton's, who made him work hard for every bucket he got, even coming up with a block on him at the rim in the first half. On the other end, Milton used his length to score some really tough buckets in the paint, including one on a sweeping hook layup that reminds you that Milton's wingspan can be a legitimate weapon.

Milton still lacks some of the traits of a "point guard" in the most traditional sense of the word, but he has played composed with the ball in his hands so far this season, making the easy reads in traffic and combining with their other secondary creators to build an offense better than the sum of its parts. His willingness to take and make a tough shot can be frustrating at times, but it is a savior in late-clock situations. Excellent night for him.

• There are lot of players throughout history who had lucky charms they refused to play without in big games. Even the Chicago GOAT, Michael Jordan, used to wear an old pair of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls gear to bring him good luck. So maybe Furkan Korkmaz should consider rocking the black wrist tape on his shooting arm forever, because he came out shooting lasers in the first half.

Following a one-game layoff to get his wrist right, Korkmaz was awesome to open this Saturday night meeting with the Bulls, hitting his first four triples of the night in effortless fashion. At least a couple of those were on looks where Korkmaz's quick release was the difference between getting a clean shot off and having to swing the ball around the perimeter, which is something that probably gets taken for granted with him.

The Sixers would have had no chance to win this game without him — Korkmaz checking back into this game in crunch time was probably the difference between winning and losing this one, and he hit another big shot as soon as Rivers brought him back into the game. He has gone on big runs before, but this start to the season feels like a legit step forward from Korkmaz, who pulls out more tricks with each passing game. Even if he didn't have any other tricks, the ability to make seven threes in a game will keep him in any rotation.

His percentages are not always great, and you have to live with some crazy heat checks, but a tall, quick-release gunner has value on any team. One thing to keep an eye on — Korkmaz running more pick-and-rolls with Embiid. He has had a lot of success making it happen with Philly's backup bigs, but Korkmaz and Embiid combined for some easy offense in this one.

• A sneaky impactful game from Tyrese Maxey, who racked up eight assists on the night and always seemed to find a path to the basket just when the game looked to be getting out of reach. He has patented the art of off-angle layups early in his career, speeding by his guy and flipping a shot that looks like can't go in based on the laws of geometry, only for it to drop anyway.

Maxey hit a monstrous shot with around two minutes to play in this one, a pull up jumper from the elbow late in the clock to bail the Sixers out of a pretty crappy possession. Getting reps in these moments will pay huge dividends down the road, and while he hasn't been the star man often lately, he has been a viable and important piece of the machine.

• Paul Reed's first professional start was not exactly a walk in the park — he had the unenviable task of guarding DeMar DeRozan to open it up, needed to try to figure out how to space around Embiid, and most likely had to work through some butterflies as any guy in his shoes would. And he handled that the way he has handled every challenge in his professional career to date, playing as hard as he can for as long as he could.

Reed's points came almost exclusively on effort plays, with the Bulls ill-prepared to deal with him on the offensive glass. Whenever Reed was on the floor, you knew it, mostly for the better but occasionally for the worse.

The Bad

• Ah, it's our old friend turnovers, the prominent thorn in the Sixers' side during the Brett Brown days. If the Sixers had simply taken care of the basketball and changed absolutely nothing else about their performance in Chicago, they likely would have won this game going away. The shooting battle tilted heavily toward the Sixers most of the night, and they played better on defense than their opponent, but they gave up far too many possessions for free.

Embiid was the guy who got them off to a bad start in this department, with his aforementioned five turnovers in the first half leading the way. Games like these are a reminder of what you're missing when Tobias Harris is out of the lineup, and really, what the Sixers need in whatever player they acquire for Ben Simmons. When opposing teams go on big runs, they don't have a perimeter creator they can give the ball to in order to settle the troops down and sort everything out. Embiid, for all his strengths, can be a little panicky when he has to playmake for others in big spots, better equipped to just hunt his own shot and score.

But the turnover problem was a team effort throughout this one — a travel from Seth Curry, reckless loose ball fouls from Andre Drummond, a wild pass from Maxey, even a forced entry pass from Korkmaz that was never there in the first place. These sort of games are impressive to watch in a perverse way, where you almost can't believe how many different ways they manage to give the ball to the other team.

Their total didn't end up being that high, given how ugly it looked at times, but they have to be a lot more responsible with the basketball.

• One point of critique for our friend Bball Paul — he has to learn to defend without fouling. I think that was easier said than done for him in this situation, given that he had to defend a wing, but controlling his energy will be critical if he wants to make the leap from occasionally impactful bench guy to regular rotation piece.

He wasn't the only guy to pick up a dumb foul on a jumpshooter in the fourth quarter — the Sixers played sensational defense for the first 20-ish seconds of the shot clock on one critical possession, only for Milton to get LaVine on the wrist as he hoisted a late-clock three. Have to be smarter than that.

• It was about as bad as it gets for Georges Niang in this one. Couldn't buy a make, got torched in isolation a few times, and it's hard to get all that mad about it given the run he was on prior to this one. And when the chips were down, Niang hit the big shot that put the Sixers way out in front for good.

You could say essentially the same thing about Drummond, although I think his performance was a little more indefensible because he was basically just getting cardio out there for most of his minutes. The best thing you could say about his night is that several attempts to get an offensive rebound put enough pressure on the Bulls to either cause a foul or for the ball to get knocked out of bounds. That's how light on impact his night was.

The Ugly

• Nikola Vucevic looks like somebody sapped both his basketball ability and his desire to care. He was flat-out terrible for a lot of this game and has been most of this season.

• Frustrated as a result of his own turnover, Embiid turned and punched the air in frustration late in the second quarter. Unfortunately, Lonzo Ball was occupying the air at the moment he swung, and it nearly led to a violent incident.

I think there are a couple of separate points to address here:

  1. Embiid clearly was not trying to swing at Lonzo Ball (or any other player) on this play, so there was no intent to injury
  2. Embiid was absolutely reckless and out of control on this play, and could have been ejected if the officiating crew wanted to ding him for that fact alone

To me, you could have justified throwing him out of the game or just sticking with the initial tech, and the officials chose the latter. Wouldn't have bothered me one way or another. Given how the Bulls players reacted afterward, with Embiid joking around with LaVine, DeRozan, and even Ball, I think letting him skate with the tech was just fine. No further risk of escalation. But if Ball is a little bit taller, this would have been ugly. Glad everybody avoided that outcome.

• The NBC broadcast is very obviously suffering as a result of being remote when the Sixers are on the road this year, and frankly, it's a little embarrassing for the team's broadcast partner. It's no fault of pros like Tom McGinnis or Kate Scott or Alaa, but there are tons of plays each quarter where they seem to have no idea what actually happened as a result of broadcasting off of a feed in a studio in Philadelphia, rather than with the team on the road. The broadcast exists to make fans feel closer to the game, and they sound just as bewildered as the average person is.

Even if that part got cleaned up, the audio mix sounds screwed up every night. In order to make the broadcast team come in clear, the game sounds quiet and washed out by comparison. Big highlight moments, like Lonzo Ball throwing an oop off the glass to Zach LaVine, don't have the same pop when the arena feed is off like this. You could tell United Center was going nuts, only for the cheers to sound like they were being broadcast from underwater. It stinks out loud. 

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