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November 14, 2018

5 observations from Sixers vs. Heat, including the worst Markelle Fultz free throw yet

You never really know what you're going to get across the span of an 82-game season. Some nights the story will be pretty drab, and no one will want to read or write about an ugly win against an NBA franchise no one cares about. Other nights, Joel Embiid is a human superhero and Markelle Fultz takes a free throw that looks on replay like the footage was doctored.

So you know, it's all basically the same.

The Sixers came away with a very solid road win over the Miami Heat on Monday night, pushing their record to 9-6 with a 124-114 over last year's playoff victim. The cavalry is coming in the form of Jimmy Butler this Wednesday, and even without him the Sixers were able to pick up a hard-fought win with contributions up and down the rotation.

Markelle Fultz's free-throw form has not just regressed, it's the worst it has ever been

I'll be completely transparent with everybody who reads my work — my brain was so broken from Markelle Fultz's free-throw attempt in the second quarter of Monday's game that I lost total concentration for at least a few minutes of action. This is, unequivocally, the worst we have ever seen him look at the free-throw line, and an unprecedented display from an NBA player.

For all the debate about Fultz's shooting this year, when he did let it fly over the first few weeks of the year, you could at least count on the mechanics looking normal-ish. The attempts were not there in large enough volume, but when he showed confidence in his shot, it at least looked like he'd played basketball before.

This is like watching an alien try to grasp the concept of basketball for the first time, or as many people pointed out on Twitter, like watching Charles Barkley try to play golf. It is heinous, and it is unplayable on an NBA court. It's also important to note that his free-throw mechanics have often tracked with his willingness to shoot from downtown, and that remains the case here — Fultz has not even attempted a three over the last seven games.

The road for his development was already about to get tougher with Jimmy Butler arriving from Minnesota. His success this year has mostly come with the ball in his hands, and his total unwillingness to shoot three-point shots recently (he has not attempted one in his last seven games) was going to make him a tough sell next to ball dominant players like Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons.

In that sense, there was a built-in excuse to move him to the bench and let him run the second unit, which might have helped him get back on track. But when a problem that has been known for quite some time regresses at this pace, how can you feel confident asking him to play any sort of big role? The Sixers are going to stagger all three of Embiid, Simmons, and Butler, and his current state makes life tougher for every single one of them.

Asked about the form after the game, Brown gave about as charitable an explanation as Fultz could have asked for.

"Every so often you'll see it, then all of a sudden he'll come back and he'll take rise up, fadeaway jump shots, and look like a real, sort of fluid type of player. Real fluid type of motion in his shot," said Brown. "And I thought that his defense was exceptional. But I hear what you say, we're going to keep encouraging him and try to shoot more of those shots where his fluid side was really impressive."

I'm not sure how impressive it is for a guard to look natural shooting from within 10 feet of the basket. But to Fultz's credit, he did continue to compete on both ends throughout the game and try to make an impact with energy, if nothing else.

JJ Redick was absolutely essential

On a trip to Miami where they had a day off to enjoy the sights and scenery, it wouldn't have been shocking to learn the young Sixers went out and took advantage of it. Warm weather and a chance to unwind in the middle of a grueling schedule? I get it.

I have no idea what Redick did with his Sunday, but if we're judging by the results, it looks like he locked himself in the gym and did nothing but prepare for Monday night's game. He was tremendous for a Sixers team that needed every bit of his scoring, even if he put up a few unusual heat checks as a result. I can't remember the last time Redick dribbled into a three in transition, with Simmons and Fultz nearly always leading the break, let alone when I saw him do it in the first quarter of a game.

There has been a lot of discussion of what Butler's arrival is about to do for both of Embiid and Simmons, but imagine what this can do for Redick's shot quality. Butler can take the ball and push in transition, finding Redick when he gets to his spot, but he will also be treated as a credible scorer in the halfcourt, drawing attention away from Philadelphia's perimeter assassin.

As is, the Sixers would be pretty screwed without him. And he even added some style points to the equation on Monday night, knocking down a three while dealing with, shall we say, some equipment issues.

I mean I've heard of waiting for the other shoe to drop, but this is ridiculous.

(Feel free to throw tomatoes at your computer/cell phone screen.)

Furkan Korkmaz takes his chance and runs with it

Following Philadelphia's decision to decline his third-year option, Furkan Korkmaz told anyone who would listen that all he needed was an opportunity. The Sixers hadn't given it to him, and he was unable to show what he has as a result.

Through two games of legitimate rotation minutes, Korkmaz looks like he may have been right. He offered plenty as a shooter and floor spacer, but the biggest surprise was seeing him flash some competence on the defensive end, helping to spring the Sixers on the break and lock down the Heat.

To be clear: I'm not saying he's actually any good there. Korkmaz is still weak enough that he gets wiped out by screens and his instincts leave something to be desired. But he competes, and that was enough to turn defense into offense:

Korkmaz was rightfully rewarded for his contributions and got to play crunch-time minutes for Philadelphia, and he deserved every one of them. He set a career high with 16 points in 22 minutes, and his coach praised him for being ready to roll after the game.

"It's what life's about, it's opportunity and you just have to stay ready," said Brown after the game. "He's got a fitness base that enabled him to play in a game that moves. What that means down the road in relation to his minutes or role, I don't know right now, but what I do know is tonight he played a significant role in our win."

With Butler coming and Fultz in the state he's in, a spot in the rotation might be his to claim. At the very least, it could add a little bit of trade value for the Sixers to exploit the closer they get to the trade deadline.

Ho hum, another big night from Joel Embiid

"He comes to dominate every night," said JJ Redick after the game. "He comes with a disposition to take someone's head off every night."

That's a concise and precise summary of what Embiid brings to the table every time he steps on the hardwood. He is impossible to stop for other teams as long as he has his legs under him. Embiid singlehandedly puts other teams into foul trouble, bullying his way toward the rim and daring the officials not to call a foul.

They have been obliging his wishes so far this year. 16 of Embiid's 35 points came at the charity stripe, and I can imagine he will have something to say about that to Hassan Whiteside whenever he gets around to making his nightly Instagram post. In the shocker of all shockers, he actually refrained from going after him postgame, telling reporters in Miami he was going to "chill" after this win.

But it doesn't really matter who is defending him or who is in his sights, because he is making short work of pretty much everyone in his path this year.

Embiid's dominance is probably the best case you could make for going after Butler now. It would be borderline criminal to waste a year of this level of Embiid, and bolstering the supporting cast with a legitimate star will give them a chance to compete with anybody in the East. The Embiid-Butler duo alone should inspire fear across the league.

Add bully ball on top of talent like this, and you can just forget about stopping this group with a go-to scorer on the perimeter.

Ben Simmons, preparing to play off-ball

And finally, we get to the tricky-fitting piece with the most work to do upon Butler's arrival. How Simmons fits alongside Butler (and of course, with Embiid) will help define this era of Sixers basketball. If Simmons finds a way to be a productive offensive player without dominating the ball, it's over for opposing teams.

We saw a flash of how Simmons should probably be used next to Butler at the end of Monday night's game. Rather than using him to initiate the offense, Simmons was used as more of a finisher, serving as the roll man in a number of pick-and-roll plays in the game's closing minutes. All the concerns about his jumper fade when he's able to just fly toward the rim and attack.

There are various ways the Sixers can make use of Simmons on the offensive side of the ball without putting it in his hands on the perimeter. He's an outlier athlete at his size, and any window of space you can create for him can be turned into points in short order.

This is where we really get to see what Brown is made of as an offensive tactician. It has been easy to point to the limited personnel for most of his tenure, but Butler's arrival will allow them to add wrinkle after wrinkle if they choose to go that route. The motion and ball-sharing philosophy isn't going away, but it does not have to be the center of everything they do for 48 minutes.

And Simmons' use will be at the heart of any changes made by the coaching staff. Even before Butler's arrival, we're seeing hints at what it all might look like.

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