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February 11, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers earn statement win over Clippers with new-look lineup

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Sixers-76ers-Joel-Embiid-Clippers-021120 Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

The Sixers got a statement win Tuesday night.

With a new-look starting lineup and a national audience looking on, the Sixers delivered one of their best performances of the year, a mature, hard-fought 110-103 victory over the Clippers. They go off to the All-Star break in style.

Here's what I saw on Tuesday night.

The Good

• Joel Embiid once again received some boos during pre-game introductions, no surprise after the controversy over the last couple of days. And the big fella responded in the best way possible, with an immediate commitment to the offensive glass, an and-one finish, and a big smile to the crowd, who briefly rose to their feet to cheer him on.

Philadelphians are ornery and competitive and tough, but they are not a hard group to please. Play hard, and they will give you the respect back that you're after.

Outside of a dust-up with Marcus Morris in the waning minutes of the game, it was not Embiid's loudest night as a 76ers player. But whether you credit the lineup change, the desire to push the Instagram controversy into the background, or a desire to play well under the bright lights of national TV, Embiid played with a different level of swagger on Tuesday night, and it is hard to underscore how important that is for Philly.

When the big fella is committed to getting his, there is nothing most teams in the league can do. Better spacing gave him a lift, but Embiid's willingness to run the floor and do the early work necessary to succeed was just as crucial to his success.

• The lineup change many have been waiting for finally happened in a high stakes, high visibility game, and I have to tell you, the Sixers sure look more like a normal basketball team when they don't start two centers together. When guys are put into roles that make sense for their skill sets, and they aren't asked to sacrifice what makes them good in service of making a bad fit work, it turns out the talent is able to shine through.

Tobias Harris was the embodiment of that idea on Tuesday. By playing him exclusively as a four, you can change the types of players who guard him, the quality of his three-point looks, and the way the team operates around him. When he's playing as a true wing, there are matchups where he simply won't be fast enough to get by his guys. But he has more than enough burst to thrive as a power forward, blowing by slower guys with speed and weaker guys with strength. 

Harris just looked like a much more confident player than he has a lot of this year, even uncorking a stepback three in the first half, something we haven't seen him do much this year. These are lineups where you're more incentivized to lean into his skills as a pick-and-roll player, and the Sixers did so in small doses on Tuesday night.

• One other lineup-related benefit for Philly — with more space in the paint, the Sixers were able to get Embiid way more deep touches in the post than they're able to when Horford is on the floor with him. And perhaps more importantly, it was Simmons who was delivering most of those feeds to him, getting his big man the ball around the rim and often with a chance to get fouled.

For all the concerns about how those two fit together, they continue to succeed when you put groupings around them that make sense. Imagine that.

(We will get into all the reverberations of the lineup change at some point later. The bottom line is they look a lot closer to figuring this out after this game than they did late last week.)

• Every day I wonder whether we are talking about Ben Simmons' defense enough, and I often land on no. He is in rare territory this season, the sort of guy who can credibly check every perimeter player in an opposing lineup and the only person offering real resistance against the league's best wings.

He has not become this player by accident. Simmons may have always had the tools to be an elite defender, but his demeanor on that end of the floor is his biggest asset. Simmons fights for his territory on basically every possession, and while that doesn't always matter in the NBA, it leads to a lot of turnovers created, deflections that land out of bounds and force offenses to reset, and transition opportunities the other way, which he of course often finishes.

Speaking of finishes, Simmons' work at the rim lately has been excellent, and he's another guy who certainly stands to benefit from 48 minutes of better-spaced lineups. More importantly, he has to be willing to continue attacking and firing at the rim even when the results aren't there, and he has committed to that task in recent weeks. Simmons' outside shooting still hasn't come, but his touch looks a heck of a lot better in other areas, including from the charity stripe.

This is the version of Simmons fans have dreamed about. When he makes plays for his teammates without sacrificing his own scoring, he is dangerous, and Simmons was terrific at navigating that fine line against a player who tormented him big time last season. 

• Brett Brown initially went with Furkan Korkmaz in the starting lineup on Tuesday night, pivoting quickly to Glenn Robinson III in the second half after a quiet start for Korkmaz. I think there is some merit to giving that second-half group a look moving forward, as Robinson III brings a decent amount to the table without taking much off of it.

While his shooting hasn't translated yet (wasn't that predictable?), Robinson III has been an active cutter and covers ground quickly in transition, on top of offering some additional defensive steel that Korkmaz doesn't have. That was especially important on a night where Korkmaz was getting hunted by the Clippers at every possible opportunity, and he has acquitted himself well so far in Philly.

• Time will tell whether the Sixers regret paying a hefty sum of money to a player who is best suited to be their backup center, but Horford responded well to his demotion on night one. Turns out, when you play him as a center, give him the opportunities on offense that centers get, and allow him to defend a position he has defended as well as anyone in the league since he was drafted by Atlanta, he looks pretty good.

It did help Horford that Montrezl Harrell, the guy he was matched up with for a lot of the night, is a guy who he can go to work against in the post. But there have been other games where that has been the case this season and Horford has not often been up to the task. Not the case on Tuesday.

• It felt like every shot Josh Richardson made on Tuesday night was a big one. Every time the Clippers crept closer, every time it looked like the Sixers might wilt, every time there was a chance for Kawhi Leonard to rip out their hearts Temple of Doom style, Richardson came through for them. And this was before Richardson came up with a pair of huge buckets in the fourth quarter, including a huge and-one that sent the crowd into hysterics.

Richardson lacks a conscience in the best possible way. He'll have maddening stretches where you wonder what he's doing, and then he'll come right back and hit a monster three because he has already moved on. That's a quality teams need when times get tough in the playoffs, and Richardson's ability to bridge together this odd jigsaw puzzle continues to be underrated.

The Bad

• Mike Scott's time in the rotation feels like it should have come and gone a long time ago, but somehow he survives in the rotation in spite of his limited offensive contribution and actively harmful defense. Conceptually, I understand it: he's a floor-spacing four with a quick trigger who will let it fly when teams double the post. But he hasn't delivered as a shooter even a little bit this season, and it has reached the point where I doubt anyone believes his shots are going to fall when he puts them up.

As a situational heat-check guy, sure, throw him in every so often when you need to go on a big run. Otherwise? No real reason to have him in the game.

• Korkmaz came crashing back to Earth in predictable fashion on Tuesday, which was even more painful as former Sixers player Landry Shamet caught fire in the third quarter. Korkmaz offered the Sixers nothing on either end of the floor, and was actually part of Shamet's offensive explosion himself, getting caught on Clippers screens and never quite making it in time to contest.

I thought he made sense as a candidate to bring off of the bench and start, and who knows if that move took him out of his rhythm that much, but he just didn't have it against the Clippers.

• Something that has to be monitored the rest of the season — Embiid at the free-throw line. He has been one of the team's best free-throw shooters since his rookie season, and certainly their best player at willing himself to the line, but his form has been more erratic than we're used to since he returned to the lineup. There have been some good nights at the line, including a 9-for-9 effort against the Boston Celtics in what was otherwise a putrid game for him, but he has been all over the map recently.

Granted, even bad Embiid at the line is an upgrade over a lot of bigs at the line, but hopefully he is able to get right over the All-Star break, as it is a part of his game that helps to separate him from the pack at center.

The Ugly

• There have to be a lot of Sixers fans who get feelings deep in the pit of their stomachs every time they see Kawhi Leonard go to work on offense. He is just a machine.

• I honestly have no idea what game the officials were watching for most of the night. They missed blatant contact around the rim all night, or perhaps they actively allowed it, depending on your interpretation. That carried over to some degree to the perimeter, where players were able to get away with a lot of clutching, grabbing, and swatting away of hands, to the benefit of the offensive player more often than not.

You can't please everyone, and it certainly didn't make the home crowd very happy on Tuesday night. I am fine with this style of officiating generally, but it has to be consistent, and there were some downright weird calls both ways on Tuesday. 

• I doubt Marcus Morris has ever met someone he couldn't get into a fight with.

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