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November 23, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers banish Jimmy Butler and Miami Heat to the shadow realm

Jimmy Butler arrived to deafening boos on Saturday night, and it didn't get much better for the returning star from there. The Sixers absolutely smoked the Miami Heat, 113-86, in Butler's first return to Philly since departing last summer, and the Sixers played their best game of the season at an opportune time.

Here's what I saw on Saturday, with more to come.

The Good

• During Brett Brown's time as head coach, they have frequently been a great first quarter and first half team, with the second-half comebacks from opponents driving fans nuts. While they've gone away from that tendency this year, playing in a lot of slugfests, the Sixers were certainly ready to go for their first date with Jimmy Butler, and they came out and just punched Miami in the mouth to start the game.

Every member of the starting lineup contributed a little something to their hot start. Joel Embiid abused Meyers Leonard in the post, Ben Simmons tore down the floor in transition, Al Horford hit some tough late-clock shots, Josh Richardson did work in the pick-and-roll, and Tobias Harris threw down an early dunk that got an already raucous crowd fired up.

You want to send a message to the big free agent who left last summer? That's the way to do it.

• Philadelphia's defensive effort to start the game was probably their best stretch they've had as a unit all season. Miami wasn't able to generate basically any separation on offense, and when they did, the Sixers flashed the athleticism and the length the team is built around, turning good looks into mediocre looks.

(The returning star, Jimmy Butler, sort of helped them out here. His insistence on trying to play a slow, grind-it-out style wore the shot clock down and seemed as if it was specifically designed to make the Sixers look good at times.)

Al Horford was the guy who I thought really shined in the first half, playing pitch-perfect defense on the back-end of pick-and-rolls. Goran Dragic got into the paint on several different occasions with a roll guy alongside him, and Horford made the right read on all of them, either hanging back with the lob target or contesting Dragic's floaters.

• The Heat have been one of the league's best defensive teams so far this season, but they are not particularly equipped to deal with Joel Embiid throwing his weight around on the low block. And Embiid made sure he got the most out of the matchup, doing the early work to seal off Meyers Leonard and Bam Adebayo, either forcing those guys to foul him or let him go by for an easy dunk or layup.

Embiid was just as assertive on the glass, where Adebayo in particular can be a handful to deal with. But with size in his favor, Embiid was as active and committed on the boards as he has been all season to make sure Adebayo couldn't extend possessions and bail out Miami's poor shooting. That's an area of Embiid's game that often gets taken for granted, but good defense doesn't matter if you can't finish off the possession.

One other positive development for Embiid recently: his passing out of double teams. Embiid has avoided getting tunnel vision when he has the ball on the block, and though Miami tried to send a lot of help his way, he refused to get flustered by it, picking up some hockey assists by finding his release valve on the perimeter. His reads were sharp, and the ball was out before the help could even get there.

Those little plays add up to a lot over time.

• Jimmy Butler was the guy who generated all the headlines leading into the game, and rightfully so, but Josh Richardson did not want to play second fiddle in the battle of reunion games. After missing a couple of games due to tightness in his right hip, Richardson came out playing like his (very large) hair was on fire, pouring in a season-high 32 points. He looked like the guy who wanted to prove something to his old team, and he dog-walked whoever was guarding him for four straight quarters.

Butler is the better player with the better resume, but none of that mattered on Saturday night, and you could see stylistically Richardson is a cleaner plug-and-play guy within this Philadelphia team. He's not going to constantly slow the game down and try to dominate the offense, which makes him an asset on a team with a lot of mouths to feed, but he does enough things well to help move the offense along when it grinds to a halt.

It certainly helps when he shoots well, of course, and when Richardson is making threes off-the-dribble, it's a lot easier for Philly to distort an opponent's defense. But Richardson reminded everyone how important he is to this Sixers team on Saturday, the man who ties it all together in some respects.

I've said many times Richardson is a quintessential Philly dude, and nothing is more Philly than spitefully stunting on your former team in a blowout.

• Perhaps it's just a reflection of how bad the backup guards were on Saturday night, but against the Heat, Philadelphia's formula was fairly simple — if Ben Simmons was on the floor, they won the minutes handily.

It was a game not totally unlike his performance against the Spurs on Friday night, with Simmons filling up the box score and leaving his imprint defensively more than anything. Simmons was darting into passing lanes and getting the Sixers downhill in a hurry, and his energy there was infectious for the rest of his team.

Matched up with Butler on both ends of the floor for much of the evening, Simmons didn't really do much damage against his former teammate, but he also didn't allow Butler to get much going when he drew the matchup on defense. There are times when the Sixers need to take matchups more personally, but with basically the whole team cooking on Saturday night, they didn't need him to post Butler up 75 times. The job got done.

• Tobias Harris did nothing spectacular on Saturday, and nothing spectacular was exactly what the game called for. 19 points on 11 shots from a variety of looks, some tough rebounds in traffic, and hell, even a clean strip of Kendrick Nunn on defense, a nice exclamation point on a great two-way effort for the whole team. Harris has been on a roll recently, and his uptick in play is one of the biggest reasons the Sixers just picked up easy victories in back-to-back games.

• Matisse Thybulle still needs to figure out how to play defense without fouling, but I like what I've seen from him on offense recently. He has avoided the wild drives and wild kick outs of the recent past, gathering himself before getting too out of control. It's okay for a role player to have to reset the offense and keep moving, and accepting that has made a big difference for Thybulle.

The Bad

• Shake Milton has basically been a disaster since returning from his minor knee injury, and he was especially bad on Saturday night against Miami. Josh Richardson picked up two first-quarter fouls, so Brown was looking for wing players to sop up some minutes to keep his starter out of harm's way.

Unfortunately, Milton was responsible for two turnovers, picked up two fouls, and looked like he had no idea where to be or what to do during the short stint he was on the floor for, so Brown had to go back to Richardson anyway.

That's the extent of the negative from that one.

The Ugly

• I was expecting healthy boos for Jimmy Butler, but there was more venom in the building for the departed star than I expected. And let me tell you Philadelphia, I love that energy. 

The star from the fan section was a man who I could not pick out individually, but who turned into a walking, talking version of the Spongebob meme based on this episode:

When it was dead quiet during free throws, this man yelled, "I just want to win, I'm Jimmy Butler!" loud enough for everyone by the court to hear. Well played, my man.

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