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November 10, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers get back on track with win over Hornets

Back on their home court for the first time in over a week, the Sixers were sleep-walking through a date with the Charlotte Hornets when the halftime whistle sounded. But they came out with a new attitude to open the second half and they pulled away for a comfortable 114-106 win to get back on a winning track.

(Okay, it was comfortable until garbage time started, but you can't blame me for writing that before they fell apart in the game's final minutes.)

Here's what I saw in Sunday's Sixers victory.

The Good

• Joel Embiid has run into some problems in recent games because of his preferred style of play. When he runs into centers who aren't capable of being overpowered, he sometimes struggles to figure out how to counter it despite having a lot more tricks in his bag. Fortunately for him, he was handed a matchup featuring Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo at the pivot, and they really don't have any answers for Embiid on the low block.

But here's the better news for Philadelphia — Embiid only had to play 26 minutes in a game the Sixers won comfortably, and Josh Richardson was the only Sixers starter who had to play more than 30 minutes in Sunday night's game. That's probably the most important stat of the night, and with the Sixers playing three games in four nights later this week, they have to love getting a bit of extra rest for everybody. 

• There are nights where Al Horford is just a guy working diligently behind the scenes, and there are times when Horford is at the center of almost everything good the Sixers do. Sunday was one of the latter games, with Horford giving Philly some needed stability on a night where their focus rose and fell throughout the game.

After allowing Charlotte to go on a monster run to close the first half, it was Horford the Sixers turned to out of halftime, letting him go to work against rookie forward P.J. Washington and second-year player Miles Bridges. In either case, it's a mismatch for the veteran big man, and he used his skills and smart to tilt the court in his favor no matter what the Hornets did.

When Charlotte tried to single-cover him, Horford got to the rim basically whenever he wanted. When they sent help in fear of him winning the one-on-one battle, they got caught napping on some well-timed cuts away from Horford, who was able to pick out his guys for easy points.

Whether Horford is a clean fit in the starting lineup of this team is still being figured out, but he's a hell of a basketball player in any case.

• There have been times this season and last when zone defense has flustered the Sixers, but Sunday was not one of those days. That's because they managed to do a couple of things most NBA teams do on a nightly basis — dribble and shoot the basketball.

With their guards getting into the paint without too much difficulty, and Furkan Korkmaz lighting it up from deep on the kick-outs that came, the Hornets' change in strategy had almost no effect.

• Richardson had one of his better all-around performances since joining the Sixers on Sunday night, and though I have been adamant that he benefits from playing next to ballhandlers who can take the pressure off of him to create, he did an excellent job of creating all by himself against the Hornets.

Honestly, I wasn't sure he had a pass like this in him:

One of Richardson's problems is that he can get caught in mid-air and find himself without a plan, leading either to turnovers or sloppy passes that eliminate whatever advantage he created as a driver. But he certainly has enough slipperiness to his game to collapse defenses, and when the Sixers have more shooters in the lineup, plays like this help them pile up points in a hurry.

Add on to that some tough on-ball defense, and he had himself an evening.

• Trey Burke has some downsides as a player, but there is something to be said for having a guard with a scorer's mentality to call on from your bench. Philadelphia's offense can get a little too pass-happy at times with guys not wanting to take too much control of the offense, and it's to their detriment, leading to possessions with Embiid trying to create something from nothing with five seconds or less on the clock.

When Burke is on the floor, it's rare you're going to see those problems take shape. And there are secondary benefits to having an iso-friendly guard in the lineup — forgoing passing is one way to limit turnovers. It's not as if Burke has played selfishly, either, he's just a guy who hunts for his shot first and uses that to set up his teammates, rather than the other way around.

It is a good thing for Philadelphia that they have both Burke and Raul Neto on the roster. They both bring something different to the table, and over the course of a long season, both their services will be needed.

• Korkmaz has come a long damn way from where he was at this point last season. The Sixers had all but closed the book on him, declining his third-year option to kick off the 2018-19 regular season, and he was a surprise return to the team in free agency, with early reports anticipating a potential move overseas was in the cards.

Credit to him for fighting to establish himself in the NBA, because the early minutes Brown gave him to start the year are paying off now. He's making the most impact as a shooter, but his confidence has him trying all sorts of things on offense, from behind-the-back passes to an assortment of floaters and runners in the lane.

He's still a long way from being a good defender, but he is at least competing there, and as long as he keeps hooping on the other end, he's a fixture in this rotation.

• We haven't seen Mike Scott go on a lot of shooting barrages this season, but his dirty work has gone a bit under-appreciated so far. Maybe it's because he doesn't have a "blue collar" rep as a player because his defensive performances are pretty erratic? I'm not sure. But he's not afraid to hit the floor and dive for a loose ball, he'll go in and grab some tough rebounds, and he find ways to pop up even when he's not heavily involved in the offense.

The Bad

• It's hard to figure how the Sixers continue to rack up turnovers game after game, year after year. While that's potentially a product of the style of play, I don't think sharing the basketball necessarily has to come attached to a high-turnover style. 

The Sixers find creative ways to turn the ball over no matter who is on the floor. Guards get stripped, Embiid throws a careless pass or two, and eventually, it all adds up to a big fat problem for Philly. You can be a great half court defense, but if you don't take care of the ball on the other end of the floor, you're not going to have much of a chance to prove that.

Teams are going to have hot shooting halves and succeed in ways that are unsustainable, and you can't control that. But the Sixers are doing a poor job so far this season of mastering the things that are in their control, new group or not.

• About that half court defense — I know Ben Simmons has been missing from the lineup the last two games, and I know this group has a lot of new players in the system for the first time, but there are a surprising amount of miscues for a team featuring so many good defenders. The Sixers have been giving up a lot of wide-open dunks on lobs, and not ones that are contested really at all.

Watching it up close, you can definitely tell they are working their way through some things. Al Horford spent one set of free throws working through what the proper read should have been for Neto on a botched defensive possession, and Embiid came in for a first-half substitution and ran through some instructions with the guys on the floor, trying to organize while they had a dead ball. 

These conversations aren't mean-spirited, and it's a good thing for a developing team to be able to have them and eventually, things will become second nature. But they're still fighting themselves at this point, and that's the reason why they're a promising defensive team, not necessarily an elite one yet.

The Ugly

• I almost feel bad for Trey Burke for including this, but there was a play in the third quarter where he got involved in a tie-up near the baseline that ended up going out of bounds. The officials ruled it was Charlotte ball, though from the media seating on the baseline, it looked like it should have gone to the Sixers.

Burke decided to signal to his coach that they should use their one coach challenge of the game to take a look at it, and from his spot near the scorer's table, Brown looked right at Burke and gave him the equivalent of this:

Suffice it to say that both parties were probably right on this one.

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