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October 12, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers finish 4-0 preseason with win vs. Hornets

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The Sixers looked like a team that would have been rather watching playoff baseball, but they still managed to pull away for a 99-94 win to close out an undefeated preseason. Hang the banner. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I'm not sure how much we can actually learn from Joel Embiid torturing guys like Mason Plumlee and Nick Richards, but since we haven't seen much of him in the preseason, you do want to get a handle on where the big man is at heading into the season. Controversial opinion: the guy who forced Plumlee to take three fouls in the first quarter looks pretty good.

Even moving at half speed — or 75 percent speed, if we really want to be generous — Embiid effectively imposed his will on this game, creating deep post position or shooting over the top of guys who had no real chance to contest his shots. And unlike in his first appearance of the preseason, went about his business efficiently, scoring 15 first-half points without exerting much energy.

(It must be noted for the sake of fairness and accuracy: Plumlee got the better of Embiid on a couple of occasions early in the second half, blocking Mr. Process at the summit. Not plays that I think Embiid will be especially happy about/proud of.)

We'll see what the offense looks like when the regular season begins, but it has felt like Philadelphia has struck a good balance with the big man so far, using him as both a static and moving target depending on the possession. 

• If effort was an issue for Embiid and a lot of the starters, that did not carry over to most of the bench guys. I suppose it's hard to play with a guy like Montrezl Harrell and not feel like you need to raise the intensity level.

For whatever Harrell's weaknesses are on the defensive end, and there are multiple problems there, he throws his weight around in the paint frequently and effectively. Teams have to account for him in transition, when he'll beat your big down the floor and seal off a smaller defender if the big doesn't keep up, and he's a handful in the halfcourt, where he remains a great pick-and-roll partner and a pest on the glass. Watching him scream in jubilation after a putback in the second half of a preseason game shows who the guy is, and there is no off switch.

Adding Harrell to the roster has created the same good "problem" at center that the Sixers have at other spots in the rotation right now. Harrell and Paul Reed bring completely different skill sets to the rotation, and at least so far, it hasn't appeared that we can nail down one guy and call him the clear backup to Embiid. 

• Broadly speaking, I think Philadelphia's backup units have looked decent on the offensive end of the floor, attacking decisively and moving the basketball wherever and whenever necessary. We don't quite know what the second unit is going to look like or how Rivers will stagger his stars, but their depth players seem to be playing the same regardless of who they're on the floor with, which suggests they might have the start of a cohesive identity. That's exciting, as far as preseason stuff goes.

It's a low bar to be clear, but the Sixers have guys who are competent straight-line drivers who can score if the opening is there or at least recycle a possession if nothing is available. There are levels of competency within that group — De'Anthony Melton has more wiggle than Danuel House Jr. or Georges Niang, for example — but most of the guys who will see the floor can do at least some creating in a pinch.

I feel good about Philadelphia's depth heading into the year, and there could be a win-now move in the future to improve that in the future. If the top-end guys live up to their end of the bargain, they could have a monster year.

• The preseason is over, god bless.

The Bad

• Look man, it's the preseason, so my expectations are low for what we should expect in terms of energy and effort. But the gap between these two teams in this department could not have been wider. The shorthanded Hornets went out and played like they were fighting for a spot in the play-in games to make the postseason. The Sixers played like they were playing the Charlotte Hornets to close out the preseason. Not exactly hard to figure out why the Sixers trailed for a lot of Wednesday's game.

Frankly, the effort level was low enough that I actually think it's detrimental to continue playing important players in that setting. When guys are checked out, they can end up in dangerous situations by simply not thinking a whole lot about their positioning, or by making a reckless play by using a late burst of effort to make it look like they're trying. Embiid had a moment or two like that, and despite the fact that he made a terrific chase down block midway through the third quarter, I would have rather seen him commit to the not trying approach than throw his body in harm's way for this one.

When Philly actually looked like they cared about the game, they looked fine, and they ran some crisp offensive stuff with Embiid and Harden at the center of things. We'll learn a lot more about them when the season begins.

• Anytime James Harden is pulling catch-and-shoot threes, you should probably feel happy about it. And Harden canned a pair of them in the first quarter of Wednesday's preseason finale, a good sign for him coming off of a down season from outside. It was a great night for him from deep in general, and if he is a comfortable off-the-catch shooter for the Sixers this year, that's a reasonably huge deal for a team that will spend a lot of time feeding Embiid in and around the paint.

On the other hand, Harden leaned hard into the midrange jumper on Wednesday night, and he tilted too far in that direction. Using the pull-up jumper as a counter move or a way to release pressure when teams play up on him is a good thing, but it sometimes felt that was the only shot Harden was capable of getting, and he wasn't especially accurate from that area of the floor, either. Harden is at his most dangerous when he's putting pressure on teams from outside and in the paint, weaponizing his stepback and the theat of a layup to kick passes back out to open shooters.

Overall, I think Harden has looked fine during the preseason, showing plenty of passing versatility and moments where his burst looked better than last year. But my expectation heading into the year is that the Sixers are going to get a guy who is functionally pretty similar to who we saw last season. How you feel about that depends on how much you bought into the all-caps JAMES HARDEN IS BACK tour of the offseason.

• With the obvious caveat that it is preseason, I do want to stress the same point I made the other night: Tobias Harris having a quick trigger on open threes is only valuable if he actually starts making some of them. He struggled with efficiency on Monday, and he was worse against the Hornets, scoring just a single point on pretty low usage across 27 minutes.

I don't have any doubt in my mind that he's trying to do the right things, and the shooting results will more than likely even out over time. So it goes.

The Ugly

• Very few things from this game actually matter, so the top-of-mind concern is PJ Tucker, who went straight to the locker room after a collision with Embiid in the first half. The big man has been taking a lot of spills in the limited action we've seen with him this preseason, and one fall under Philadelphia's basket carried him into Tucker. Philadelphia's vet forward grabbed at his left leg on his way off of the floor, and it did appear Embiid might have hit him around his knee on the way to the ground.

Obviously, the one thing the Sixers want is to head into the season with everybody healthy. Tucker is the only real question mark at the moment, but he did take the floor with his teammates for the second half, so hopefully just a scary moment we can all move on from quickly.

• If you were watching this game over a Phillies playoff game, I have to ask whether you are doing okay. If you are reading this to make sure you simply kept up with the team because you chose the Phillies, I appreciate you.

Either way, we're done with preseason basketball, and the real games will begin next week. I'll be on my honeymoon during the first four games of the year, so one of my colleagues will steer you through the early part of the season, but trust that I will come back ready to roll on recap and coverage duty once I get home. Don't burn anything down in a panic or plan any parade routes without me.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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