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April 06, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers earn win No. 50 in blowout of Bulls

This is the first time the team has won 50+ games in consecutive years since the mid 1980's.

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For all the brave souls willing to watch Sixers vs. Bulls on a warm Saturday night in early April, the Sixers delivered something they rarely have: a comfortable victory. With the backups taking over in extended garbage time, the Sixers earned a 116-96 over a depleted Chicago team, earning their 50th victory of the season.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night.

The Good

• For those of you who think Joel Embiid should just camp in the paint and never stray from the low post, the second quarter of Saturday night's game must have seemed like a fever dream for you. The Sixers did nothing special on the offensive end of the floor, but they had a clear directive: get the big man the ball in the post and then get the hell out of the way.

Sometimes, that's going to be the only offensive strategy the Sixers need. A depleted Bulls team is not at all equipped to defend Embiid, and he took care of business once he got the ball on the block.

Embiid also decided he was going to ignore a lot of Chicago's attempts to goad him into shooting threes, but he didn't let himself get baited into trying to beat guys off of the dribble. Instead, when the Bulls dropped to around the free-throw line, he used a dribble or two to step into pull-up jumpers that he made quite easily.

I don't think NBA teams/players should be in the business of trading open threes for long twos, but it's always important for players to have as much confidence as possible in the shots they do take. If that means Embiid has to trade a few threes for jumpers that he feels better about, fine, just don't let him think he's Curly Neal out there.

• Speaking of Embiid, one positive development from the past month of pain and torture has been a growing chemistry with Ben Simmons on lob plays. For as big and athletic as Embiid is, he has not always been the best finisher on lob plays, making it hard for him to turn into the weapon he should be as a roll man.

Playing more minutes with Simmons has helped with timing those plays, if nothing else. Simmons is a good enough passer that he can hit Embiid in his sweet spot, and they connected on a couple of lobs in the first half alone against Chicago:

They're still a bit of an odd couple on the floor, but they are flashing signs of development. During this brutal period of the season, these are welcome signs.

• At some point, I think it would probably be wise to get JJ Redick a night of rest. But with the groove he's in right now, I don't know if you want him to miss any games. Keeping him in rhythm in advance of the playoffs next Saturday may be the best thing for him and the team. The Bulls were fielding a YMCA-level team on Saturday night, so I'm certainly not reading much into the performance, but piling up night after night of efficient work has to feel great for Redick heading into the postseason.

Ultimately, I imagine the Sixers are going to sit him for one of their final two games, because chasing the hot hand is not worth risking potential injury or fatigue heading into the "real" season for Philly. It's a good problem to have, in any case.

• Jonah Bolden still got baited into some silly fouls against the Bulls, but his minutes at the four in recent games have allowed him to showcase his passing, something we haven't seen in a while. It was one of the skills that made him an intriguing prospect in the first place, so it was nice to see him shake things up a little bit.

The only caveat I have here is that the man needs to take some mustard off of the passes. He's lucky Ben Simmons has fairly soft hands because Bolden threw a bullet pass that would have taken an average player's head off in the first half, which Simmons somehow turned into a basket. But passing is somewhat of a bonus skill for a player at his size anyway, so no one should turn their nose up at the fact that he can hit shooters in their pocket on a cross-court pass.

• It took another team running out a high school JV team for it to happen, but the Sixers finally got a comfortable win down the stretch, and they picked up their 50th win of the year.

That number may not seem as significant after they won 52 last year, but you are witnessing one of the best runs the Sixers have had in the modern era of basketball. This is the first time the franchise has won 50+ games in back-to-back seasons since the mid-'80s, and it should not be taken for granted that they did it over the last two years.

It has taken some ugly wins to get here, this team hasn't been as dominant as some would have hoped, but they are easily the best version of the team in decades, sans that 2001 Finals team that rode Allen Iverson on a magical ride. Sustaining this run and restoring the franchise to its former glory should be on the minds of everyone in the organization.

The Bad

• I got on him the other day for his lackluster defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Ben Simmons isn't alone on that island. That's less about his desire than it is about going up against the league's likely MVP.

But if I had to point fingers for Philadelphia's poor effort on defense in recent weeks, a big one would be directed at Simmons. He has all the tools to be one of the league's best and most versatile defenders regardless of his limitations on the other end. When he's locked in, you see flashes of that guy, and that's what makes his dips in effort so infuriating to watch. This isn't a guy who is just a step slow or dealing with a short wingspan. He has everything he needs to impact the game, and chooses to mail it in instead.

Simmons may be super talented, but he is too young and with too few accomplishments to decide he's going to mail it in on defense as often as he does. I expect he'll be much better in the playoffs, but he needs to take ownership on that side of the ball as one of the team's leaders.

• Greg Monroe got his first chance to play on Saturday night. Within the first couple minutes of checking in, he picked up a cheap foul on Robin Lopez, bricked a midrange jumper, and stood flat-footed without ever facing the basket as the Bulls scored an open layup on a baseline out of bounds play.

So, you know, sparkling debut for the newest Sixers player. He was fine in garbage time, but that's an extremely low bar.

• Not the best night Zhaire Smith is ever going to have as a Sixers player. I like the confidence he has shown as a shooter so far, but he was just all over the place with his misses. One his attempted threes sounded like it was going to go through the back of the rim, one missed left, one missed short, you get the idea.

A positive note — he was called for a goaltend in the second half, but it was great to see him elevate high enough to have his head close to the rim on a defensive possession. His physical tools were a big part of his allure, and after all he's been through it's nice to see that he can still leap with the best of 'em.

The Ugly

• This is a level of disrespect on defense that I can get behind:

Embiid is basically the only guy on the team who has earned the right to jaw on defense, in my opinion, so give me more of this at all times.

• I can't properly convey my distaste for the end of the regular season. Last year's long winning streak was such an aberration and I think a lot of people (including some members of the media) expected that competitive level and team success to be a fixture in March and April in years to come.

This year's group has spotlighted how rare it is to get a team firing on all cylinders like that one was last year. Guys like Jakarr Sampson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the equivalent of "AAAA players" in baseball, tore up the Sixers for stretches of the first half. The latter crossed up Ben Simmons on a play in the first quarter, something that shouldn't be possible with his handle.

These guys can say all they want about the No. 3 seed and trying to build chemistry and all that jazz, they just don't care that much. I have to show up and do my job and I try to do it to the best of my abilities, but we don't have to pretend this is anything except for garbage. May we be fortunate enough to watch a better stretch run next season.

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