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December 08, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid carries Sixers again in win vs. Hornets

Joel Embiid turned in another excellent performance against the Hornets on Wednesday night, dropping 32 points in a 110-106 Sixers victory to send the team home with a 3-1 record on their road trip.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There's nothing like a guy going off-glass to himself for a dunk. Joel Embiid doesn't have the lift of a guy like, say, Tracy McGrady, who pulled this move off a handful of times in my childhood, but it's entertaining all the same:

This was not a repeat of the dominant, team-carrying performance Embiid turned in against Charlotte on Monday, though it did feature some excellent rim attacking from the big guy when things opened up in early offense, Embiid calling his own number as the seas parted in transition. It was a necessity to try to score on some of those plays, because the Hornets were prepared to let anyone else beat them on Wednesday — Embiid saw more frequent double teams this time around, and to his credit, he created a lot of open looks for teammates out of that pressure. His assist numbers don't reflect that, but he played with the right mentality. 

And when the second half started, Embiid took a much different approach to the game regardless of what the Hornets were throwing at him, settling less for jumpers and exerting extra energy to establish a position on the block. It was quite frankly pretty boring to watch at times, but the Hornets just fouled and fouled and fouled as smaller players hung onto him in desperation, and Embiid's march to the free-throw line allowed him to pile on some points and guarantee the Sixers would be back in a set defense for all the ensuing Hornets possessions.  

This game got surprisingly tight down the stretch, with some fruitless Sixers possessions allowing the Hornets to climb back into the game and put fear into Philadelphia for the second-straight game. But when they needed somebody to put on the superhero cape and save them, Embiid was there yet again, canning a monster three and then blowing by a defender in the post for a hammer dunk, putting the exclamation point on his performance:

A very casual 30+ from Embiid, and another excellent performance. 

• Andre Drummond was an absolute force during his first-half minutes, absolutely crushing the undersized Hornets at both ends of the floor. The Sixers went on a big run to open up a lead with the second unit on the floor, and their backup big man was at the center of it all.

Shake Milton has been known to work the lob game from time to time during his Sixers career, and the Milton/Drummond pairing worked pick-and-rolls to great effect in the first half on Wednesday, with Drummond soaring over rookie JT Thor for a pair of tough finishes at the basket.

He was just as committed at the other end of the floor, running hard in transition on offense and defense to try to save a few points on defense and get a cheapie or two running the other way. It's hard to argue the results — Drummond made a couple of excellent pass breakups to end Hornets possessions before they started, and with smaller players chasing him in transition, he forced Charlotte to take cheap fouls to slow down Philly, bringing them closer to the penalty with nothing more than hard work.

Since moving into the backup role behind Embiid, Drummond has been a more consistent difference-maker for Philly, changing the game with his energy fairly often. It doesn't always come down to playing hard — Drummond can make some head-scratching mistakes that undermined his effectiveness — but when he is at full go for most or all of his time on the floor, it's rare to see him get outplayed.

• This is more like the homecoming I'm sure Seth Curry imagined when he found out the Sixers would be spending five days in Charlotte. He was hardly present in their overtime victory on Monday night, but Curry had his hands all over this one, coming alive as a shooter while serving as one of their lead playmakers in the second date with the Hornets.

After the league briefly steered toward only threes and shots in the paint for a few years there, the midrange has seen a revival in 2021. Curry is one of the guys spearheading that subtle tweak — his outside game is one of the deadliest in the league, and he's able to use that to set up cleaner looks with a dribble or two inside the arc, creating playmaking opportunities on top of that. He is a multi-faceted threat that opens up the floor whenever he's involved in an action, and even when he's on the weakside waiting for the ball to come his way, he poses danger for the opponent.

With Tyrese Maxey still in a funk, Curry did a lot of the heavy lifting and initiating in the second half, and Curry did quite alright in that role.

The Bad

• Tyrese Maxey was back in the lineup Wednesday, and he's still struggling to find his rhythm in the Embiid-centric ecosystem (and in fairness, after missing a game due to illness). With the Hornets sending frequent double teams in Embiid's direction, the Sixers spent a lot of the game swinging the ball around the perimeter to hunt an open three once the defense collapsed. Unfortunately, Maxey's shooting touch evaded him in Charlotte, with a pair of wide-open misses on the same possession highlighting his struggle to find the range.

If it was just a lack of shooting, that'd be one thing, but Maxey struggled to find a way to impact the game elsewhere. His pace was not as impactful, he turned the ball over with some sloppy passing, and his size was exploited at times on defense, with Gordon Hayward taking advantage of some mismatches by attacking Maxey around the basket. 

Everything looks difficult for Maxey right now, including basic stuff that has nothing to do with Embiid, like beating the press in the final minute. Maxey had a ghastly turnover as the Sixers tried to close this one out in the final minute, allowing the Hornets to feel alive again after the game looked to be over.

No reason to panic, given what we've seen this season and the youth on his side. But being all caps TYRESE MAXEY with Joel Embiid on the floor is very much a work in progress.

• Seth Curry's defensive decision-making is really bewildering sometimes, and he can compound bad decisions with bad effort, turning in some of the worst possessions of anybody on the team this season. There are failures to close, failures to box out, and even when he's a more eager competitor it can get the best of him, with Curry helping away from a guy for no reason who immediately gets a wide-open three as a result.

His shotmaking makes it worth living with all of that, and he is definitely capable of being an okay-ish team defender when he's bought in. But the end of a road trip in Charlotte is not the platform for that version of Curry, so there were a ton of horrific plays by him on Wednesday.

• It makes sense that there's a decent amount of East/West movement when the Sixers have their starters in, because they're trying to find openings to get the ball to their best player on the block. There should still probably be more North/South action that gets Embiid involved as a screen-and-roll player, but at least the concept makes sense on paper.

There's no such excuse for the second unit, with a rim-bound big who happens to be a pretty good lob target stepping into Embiid's shoes. The problem is that the Sixers don't have a lot of guys who can generate something from nothing in one-on-one situations, so every advantage has to be manufactured in some form or fashion. Team speed and ballhandling are both issues, so the Sixers have a hard time putting pressure on the rim and generating clean looks if they don't have the world-consuming center on the floor.

It shouldn't have to be this way. Whatever the Sixers decide to do to fix it, whether it's adding some more off-ball actions, calling more pick-and-rolls, or even bumping Tyrese Maxey into a reserve role to foster some aggression, they have to do more than just kick the ball from player to player around the perimeter in the hopes that an advantage will materialize from nothing.

• Tobias Harris was very good to start the game, hit some big buckets in the fourth quarter, and I still struggle to say he had a noteworthy or impactful performance. He was not really there for the middle quarters, a passenger in the offense as the Sixers tried to build a cushion in the second half, and the creator of some downright brutal possessions even as he began to score again in the fourth.

Even when he's hitting shots over guys in the mid-post, using possessions in the fourth quarter to force-feed Harris inside the arc seems like bad practice. Those shots going in don't really justify junking up the offense and slowing things down, because he's nowhere near as dangerous as Embiid is on similar plays. They may not be able to run it through the big man on every possession, but that would be a better idea than going away from the big guy just because.

• Another day, another set of complaints about Matisse Thybulle. He is a victim of his own inability to play at any speed other than 100 miles per hour, leaving him trapped in the madness if he's not using that speed to create turnovers. That happened multiple times in Wednesday's game, with Thybulle smoking layup attempts because he had to try to beat Charlotte with pace because the skill simply isn't there.

What's worse is that he didn't help them out much on the defensive end. The Hornets absolutely lived on back cuts on Wednesday night, and though he wasn't the only guy to get torched because he was cheating toward the perimeter, he's the guy who you expect to come through in situations like that, reading the game better than somebody like Shake Milton or Curry.

I don't suspect his place in the lineup is in any jeopardy, but he's not doing a lot to justify being a nailed-on guy in the rotation. 

The Ugly

• I don't think there was any malice from Kelly Oubre when he clocked Joel Embiid in the face on a first-quarter play, but at the end of the day, he clocked a guy in the head while he was in midair and trying to dunk the ball. Pretty obvious flagrant foul if you ask me, and taking an abundance of time to eventually rule it a common foul added insult to (near) injury.

The worse officiating mistake was completely ignoring Miles Bridges launching into Andre Drummond on a transition three late in the second quarter, and Drummond rightfully took exception to the play, with the officials needing to break up a brief confrontation at midcourt because they didn't make the right choice in real-time. 

• NBC's in-game feed had audio sync issues again, which remains a hilarious and insane problem for the team's official broadcast partner. At least we get some moments of comedic relief out of it — after the aforementioned review for the potential flagrant on Oubre, the audio synced in a way that made it seem like referee Bill Kennedy was blaring over the public address while Embiid was in the middle of taking his first free-throw. See, now there's definitive proof that the officials have it out for Philly sports!

Seriously though, can't believe this keeps happening. A public access channel would be ashamed of this product. Get it together.

• Embiid getting a delay of game tech at the end of the game sure was something.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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