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October 27, 2018

Instant observations: Sixers survive tight game with Hornets to get back to .500

It was hairier than it should have been down the stretch — doesn't it seem like we're saying that too often for the Sixers this year — but the home club came away with a tight victory at home on Saturday evening, holding off the Hornets for a nailbiting 105-103 victory.

Behind a monster two-way performance from Robert Covington, the usual 25+ and 10+ game from Joel Embiid, a frisky Markelle Fultz, and little contributions from all down the roster, the Sixers managed to get a win on a night where they shot under 39 percent from the field. They'll surely take it.

Here's what I saw from my seat at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.

(As an additional note: with the Eagles playing early tomorrow morning, ain't nobody got time for the usual in-depth observations we do the next morning. We'll pick it back up with our routine on Monday.)

The Good

• For a guy who was a game-time decision, Joel Embiid looked prepared as he possibly could have been to dismantle the Hornets. And in fairness, they don't really have a single guy on the roster who can match up with him in a one-on-one battle.

Even still. With his rolled ankle still a concern to most people inside the Wells Fargo Center, Embiid went to work on the low block anyway and just bullied poor saps like Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. He didn't generate as many foul calls as he has in recent outings, but it wasn't for lack of trying — Zeller, in particular, kept hitting the floor, maybe as an act of preservation as much as an attempt to draw an offensive foul.

It wasn't a perfect night for Embiid on Saturday, including against Zeller. While trying to contain penetration from would-be drivers, Embiid lost track of the opposing center a few times, leading to easy looks for Zeller around the basket. You don't expect Embiid's man to end up with a goose egg every night, but he's normally better at keeping his head on a swivel and at least preventing easy looks.

Nothing to complain about in earnest for the big man in this one, though. He erased several shot attempts from Hornets players at the rim, moved well enough that you forgot he came into the game with health question marks, and made sure the Hornets couldn't get over the hump when it mattered.

• Markelle Fultz's struggles away from the basket have been documented far more than those around it, but he has struggled as a finisher since entering the league. There's certainly a relationship there — when teams sag off you and dare you to shoot, it's pretty hard to turn the corner if you're not an elite athlete.

Fultz is decidedly not elite as an athlete, but he does have oodles of shiftiness and handling craft to help him navigate through traffic. And that was on display against Charlotte on Saturday night, with Fultz catching the Hornets off guard in transition and the halfcourt alike.

One thing Sixers fans should not be caught off guard with at this point: the spin-move. Fultz used it to great effect in the first half against Charlotte, and it's the closest thing he has to a go-to move at this stage of his development.

He has to begin converting some of his long-two attempts into three-point attempts, because the Sixers are running into a math problem with how their team is constructed. Joel Embiid trades 3's for 2's because he's a big man. Ben Simmons' lack of a jumper forces him to, but he also adds elite-level passing to the equation. Fultz simply can't make his living as a 6'4" guard on two-point shots exclusively.

Still, a solid effort from him on offense that showcased a few of his talents. He made some nifty interior passes to set up Embiid for easy buckets, and looks plenty comfortable when he's simply asked to run backup units with Simmons on the pine.

And that dunk he threw down in the first minute of the fourth quarter was hellacious:

• For whatever reason (there are several), he continues to be a constant subject of ire within this Sixers fanbase, but Robert Covington has been better than he has been given credit for to start the season.

On the nights where his shot is off, I get why Covington is a frustrating player to the fanbase. His shot selection is mostly unchanged whether he's on or off, and if it's off, very few people want to see a bricklayer putting up shots with a hand in his face.

Frankly, the Sixers could use a couple more guys — I'm glaring at the starting backcourt — with a mentality like Covington's. It's always on to the next play, make or miss, and the defensive effort is consistent no matter what else is happening. I think more people would enjoy watching the Sixers if they appreciated him for what he is: a very good role player whose defensive workload will make it tough for him to be consistent on offense.

And on the defensive front, it should be noted that Covington was a massive part of Kemba Walker's brutal night from the field. He does a great job on Walker seemingly every time they play Charlotte. The Sixers don't win that game without Covington or come anywhere close, and the contributions he made as a team defender — steals, blocks, deflections, even timely box outs — are in his nightly repertoire. 

• Circling back on Fultz, the best thing he may have done all night was push the tempo at any and every opportunity. The Sixers are not a halfcourt team, and any offense they can generate without having to slog through sets with mismatching personnel is a boon.

He was excellent on that front, and you can see where he might be able to help the Sixers if his time as a starter ends. If the Sixers can make teams chase them for 48 minutes with one of Simmons or Fultz pushing the break, they will at the very least be a huge pain in the ass to defend.

• Not the prettiest or most impactful game for Dario Saric on Saturday, but I thought the plays he did make were impactful and a good example of the value of "playing ugly," a subject he has harped on in the past. Saric came down with some tough rebounds in traffic that turned into extra possessions for the Sixers, and he was better defending in space than we've seen him be for most of the season to date.

• You would think at this point teams would recognize where JJ Redick is trying to get to and strangle the Sixers' crunch-time offense by cutting him off. But he's so good at using counters to negate any extra attention he receives, and he has been absolute money when it has mattered this year.

The Bad

• Teams are going to shade more and more coverage toward the paint with the lineups the Sixers are playing. If Ben Simmons wants to continue getting away with not having a jumper, it would behoove him to start finishing better at the rim when clear opportunities present themselves.

Finishing in traffic is a difficult skill to master for anyone, but it could very well be the swing skill that determines Simmons' ceiling. He has not shown anywhere near enough to think he'll magically turn into a competent shooter one day. Simmons does, however, have the size and athleticism to do a better job of turning looks into points at the rim.

In the first quarter alone, Simmons missed a pair of makable shots at the basket without a ton of length bothering him en route. It's something we see every night when Simmons finds a way to turn the corner despite his weaknesses and still manages to come up short where it matters.

If he's going to live in the paint, he needs to convert there. That simple. Simmons did not have a good night from the field in general, but no one is asking him to be perfect even when he plays well. Converting lightly contested looks at the rim should not be a huge ask for someone with his tools.

One thing I'll give Simmons credit for — he did not stop attacking late in the game even though he had a rough night from the field. We have seen him shrink away from contact and attacking altogether in past games like tonight's, and I think his coaches would love to see him apply the mentality he flashed on Saturday each and every game. Go get buckets, young man.

• Philadelphia's defensive effort was better than it has been in other games to start the season, but for a team with the top-end talent they have on the defensive end of the floor, it's remarkable how many wide-open threes they're conceding to opponents in this opening stanza of the season.

No punchline to this one. They have to be more connected on D.

• Markelle Fultz's navigation of screens on defense is absolutely infuriating to watch at the moment. All the tools in the world aren't going to make him a good defender if he doesn't start reading and reacting plays better.

What makes it doubly frustrating is that he is still able to close down angles in spite of this, and then he bails opponents out by picking up cheap fouls. I think his heart is in the right place, but he can't get out of his own way on that end. Not all that unique for a young player, but a problem all the same.

• If Mike Muscala's three-point shot would like to arrive at any point in the near future, I'm sure the coaching staff would be thrilled.

The Ugly

• It didn't even necessarily get punished that hard, but the Sixers running a Fultz-McConnell-Redick-Muscala-Embiid lineup in 2018 seems like a misread on why and how teams play small ball. The two point guards are most effective with the ball in their hands, Redick is not a good matchup with modern threes or the fours he'll deal with on switches, and Muscala should really be used more as a stretch five.

But here the Sixers are, using it anyway. Blame that on the injuries in their rotation if it makes you feel better, but there has to be a better way forward than playing lineups that are so small they can get bullied by any ordinary NBA team.

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