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November 02, 2019

Instant observations: Furkan Korkmaz game winner pushes Sixers to 5-0

Furkan Korkmaz emerged as the unlikeliest of heroes for Philadelphia in a Saturday night classic in Portland, hitting a game-winning three to push the Sixers to a 129-128 victory. The Sixers remain unbeaten at 5-0, and they got there despite not having anything close to their best stuff against the Blazers.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night.

The Good

• It's one thing to say you want to "grow a bomber," and it is another to actually give the ball to Furkan Korkmaz with the game on the line and ask him to win it for you. But here's the thing — Philadelphia's most maligned bench player came through when it mattered most, putting an exclamation point on a solid game for the third-year player.

How about the cojones on Brown and Korkmaz alike here? Drawing up the set for a guy who came in cold off of the bench and absolutely nailed the shot is quite an ask, and Korkmaz rewarded his coach's confidence with the biggest shot of his career. Korkmaz is going to go down swinging in the rotation, that's for sure.

• I have been plenty vocal in this space and on Twitter about this, but let me say it yet again — Raul Neto absolutely has to get consistent minutes for this team. He is not spectacular on his own, but he brings a lot to this Sixers team that they desperately need, and he helps paper over the cracks they have elsewhere in the rotation.

Forgive me if this is overly simplistic analysis, but he can dribble, he can separate from his man, he can pass, and he can defend opposing guards. Those first three things are invaluable on a team with a lot of finishers but precious few creators. When someone like Neto is on the floor, a guy like Josh Richardson has less work to do and can focus on his strengths. Ditto for Matisse Thybulle, who is plenty capable as a cutter but not so much when he has to create his own offense.

Neto made an instant impact when he came into the game in the third quarter Saturday night, and it's the sort of performance that should make Brett Brown take notice. They're far too early in the season to shrink their rotation.

• He didn't blow Portland away with his efficiency, but the Sixers are not even in the game by the time the fourth quarter rolls around if not for Al Horford. With the Blazers sending doubles and help defense at him seemingly every time he got into the paint, the big man just kept coming, and he worked the two-man game well from both sides of the equation.

When Portland sent too much pressure at him, Horford was happy to find cutters and keep the ball moving. When they tried to converge on the few drivers Philadelphia has on the roster, Horford turned the pressure on the opponent, either by catching lobbed passes near the rim or drifting out to the perimeter, where he could see the whole floor and pick apart the Blazers from the top of the key.

And that's before accounting for his defense, where he was basically the only thing stopping the wheels from coming off. His backup for the evening, Kyle O'Quinn, got absolutely eaten alive on pick-and-rolls, and the only time the Sixers were able to switch up coverages without getting fried on the back end was with Horford in the game, guiding and directing Damian Lillard where they wanted him to go.

• Sneaky great game from James Ennis. Did not show off the same passing ability as the aforementioned Horford, but was basically the wing version of the starting center, filling in the blanks with steals, offensive rebounds, and timely shotmaking. After a rough opening night, he has bounced back nicely.

• I was a fan of how Brett Brown handled Philadelphia's end-of-game strategy. Down one late, he gave the team a chance to try to find a shot on their own in transition against a fluid defense, and when that didn't come, he called a timeout with enough time left in the shot clock to run a play and get everybody set.

The execution of their double team on the other end of the floor after taking the lead wasn't great, but Philadelphia ultimately accomplished what they wanted — get the ball out of Lillard's hands. The process behind their decisionmaking was sound, even if they didn't get the result.

• This was an excellent game from Tobias Harris on both ends of the floor, which I don't think is something you can often say. Without bombing away from deep, he was their most consistent performer on offense all night, piling up points as a cutter, from the mid-range, and on a couple of putback opportunities where he punched in dunks.

But after an offseason of promising he had focused on defensive improvement, Harris really showed it in this game. He made a couple of standout plays on defense in the first half with the rest of the team struggling big time, and when he had to check Damian Lillard on a crucial possession late in the game, Harris held together on an island against a guy who was absolutely shooting the lights out.

• Not anything close to Ben Simmons' best night at the office, but when it was time for him to step to the line and knock down two critical free throws, he delivered. More on him below.

• The Sixers pushed their record to 5-0 despite not having their best player, with Damian Lillard shooting fireballs out of his eyes, and with the Blazers as a team shooting 54 percent from three. That is a hell of a win to steal, regardless of how good or bad they played.

The Bad

• There were at least two possessions in the first quarter where Furkan Korkmaz was guarding Damian Lillard by design. He didn't even necessarily do a bad job of it, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that shouldn't happen.

• I've been a big fan of the Sixers mixing up their schemes and keeping teams guessing so far this season, but there's a difference between disguising by design and going off-script at the cost of team harmony. Ben Simmons is usually one of the defensive catalysts for the Sixers, but he was absolutely erratic against Portland, and the Sixers struggled to react properly to make up for it.

It's hard to figure why he decided to go rogue. He had some bad or at least shaky calls go against him in the first half, so perhaps he let the frustration pile up and carry over to the defensive end. You could also connect some dots using his struggles on the offensive end — he did earnestly try to attack Portland in the paint, but despite some early success, he would eventually run into a brick wall, and there was a carryover effect when the Blazers would go the other way, with Simmons not showing the same effort he has all season.

Frustration is no excuse for a guy who wants to be Defensive Player of the Year to just go meandering past an opposing guard or to let someone drive right past him. The Sixers are worse on defense without Joel Embiid, but they are not this much worse.

And let's be clear, this was not just a Simmons problem. There were plays where they had designed doubles or traps and there were no rotations beyond the original action, allowing the Blazers to get wide-open threes up after making just a single pass. Philadelphia's drop coverage in pick-and-rolls got absolutely eaten alive by Portland, which is something you expect when you're playing the likes of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard may have gone off anyway, but they didn't exactly make it tough for him.

A bad defensive effort on basically every level.

• As good as Matisse Thybulle has been on the defensive end, there are certainly concerns about how he's going to hold up on offense as competition gets stiffer and you can't afford to be a non-entity on either end. Portland basically dared Thybulle to punish them from deep, and while I admire that he has the confidence to keep letting it rip, eventually he has to start connecting from there.

Teams are already starting to disrespect him out there. There was actually a possession in the second quarter where Thybulle was left relatively open in the corner, passed out of the situation to keep the ball moving, ran to the other corner, and was still wide open when he received the ball a second time, clanging the eventual attempt off of the rim. That's as good an indication as any of how opponents view him on the scouting report.

As long as he defends, the Sixers will live with the ups and downs, but let's see how this trends.

• When we met with Brett Brown for his annual luncheon, he told reporters that we were not going to see Ben Simmons stand in the dunker's spot on offense and that he would be encouraged to go to the corner without the ball. That has not been the reality, with Simmons going right back to his comfort zone and rarely finding himself pretending to space the floor.

Whether you put this on the coach, player, or both men is sort of up to you, but it's a problem either way. The Blazers played small throughout the night, but it's a lot harder to leverage a size advantage when all five opposing players are touching the paint on defense, which happened often on Saturday. The bandaid needs to be ripped off here, pronto. 

The Ugly

• The first 2.5 quarters of this game definitely count. 

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