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October 11, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers coast past Hornets with disruptive defense

A fourth quarter featuring the bottom of Philadelphia's roster closed the gap on the scoreboard, but the Sixers thoroughly dominated most of their preseason game against the Hornets on Friday night. They eventually picked up a 100-87 win.

Here's what I saw (through completely normal and legal means).

The Good

• The drop-off at center behind Joel Embiid has been significant every year he has been with the Sixers. With all due respect to the likes of Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe, Al Horford is on a completely different level, and he gave Sixers fans (at least those who could watch the game) a taste of what to expect in games where Embiid sits.

Horford opened up the game with six straight points for Philly, and he showed off his versatility getting there. Philadelphia's opening bucket came from a Horford jumper at the top of the key, and he followed it up roughly a minute later with an alley-oop finish in transition, slamming home a lob from running mate Ben Simmons.

At the outset of training camp, Horford told reporters he has been putting in extra work on his shot this offseason, knowing he's going to need to hit outside shots to make this group work. We'll see how the percentages shake out, but early in the preseason, he has at least been ready and willing to let it fly when given the opportunity.

• We're still waiting for the first game where Matisse Thybulle looks like a normal basketball player on defense instead of a robot who was built in a lab to create turnovers. In roughly four minutes of action in the first quarter, Thybulle came up with three steals and a block against Charlotte, and none of them came as a product of him taking unnecessary risks.

Usually, the trick with young players is having to coach some of the aggressiveness out of them to they don't get torched on backdoor cuts or caught off guard by screens. But Thybulle is already walking the tightrope almost perfectly, adding some havoc to a team that needed it badly all of last season.

There is really no way to keep him out of the rotation unless his play falls off a cliff between now and October 23. Heck of a start for the young fella.

• This is true on nights where Joel Embiid is available, but the Sixers need Ben Simmons to carry himself like a franchise player when the big man is on the shelf. It may have only been a preseason game in Winston-Salem, but Simmons did exactly that on Friday night, taking it to the Hornets over and over again.

Charlotte has no one who can match up physically with Simmons, and he made sure to take advantage of that fact. He absolutely needs to develop a reliable jumper between now and May, but in the meantime, everyone should still remember to enjoy plays like these:

And I promise you this happened even though there was no local broadcast to prove it , but Simmons took and made a pull-up jumper in transition in the first half, if that's the sort of thing you're into.

The Hornets kept collapsing the paint to stop Simmons and Horford (they didn't do a great job of that either), and that provided the Sixers with a bunch of wide-open looks from deep. They finished the first half with 58 points, but it easily could have been 70+, and they finally have a fleet of athletes to run with Simmons and crush teams on the break when they create turnovers.

I suspect we're going to see a few different versions of the Sixers this season depending on who's available, and the one we saw Friday looked pretty excellent.

• The Sixers basically already have a solid rotation figured out, and we're not even halfway through October. Their starting group is pretty etched in stone, Thybulle and James Ennis bring the wing help, Mike Scott spaces the floor, Kyle O'Quinn looks perfectly suited to spell both of Philadelphia's top bigs, and after that, you really just need to decide who you want to take the backup point guard minutes.

When's the last time you can say the Sixers had the makings of a quality 10-man rotation period, let alone one that seems to be coming together before the season even starts? With clear roles for every guy named above, they're in a position to hit the ground running, and that could be key as they set their sights on the No. 1 seed.

• If the Sixers want to buy some rest for Horford this season, it appears they might have a third useful big man to turn to, which is mind-boggling. O'Quinn has only played in short spurts so far, but he looks right at home in Philadelphia's ball-moving culture.

Teammates have raved about his passing throughout the preseason, and we're finally starting to see that put on game tape:

Bonus round — he had an emphatic block at the rim in the first half, and he unleashed one of my favorite basketball phrases at the top of his jump: "GIMME THAT SHIT!" Expect to hear some more of that this season.

• Simmons might have had my favorite play of the game early in the third quarter, and it came immediately after he committed a turnover. That may sound counterintuitive, but instead of giving up on a meaningless preseason play, Simmons took off flying and came up with a spectacular chase-down block on Terry Rozier, making up for the mistake.

If you want to be a championship team, you have to build championship-level habits. Everything we've seen so far suggests the Sixers are committed to doing that.

The Bad

• It's hard to complain when the Sixers beat up on a team like this, but a better opponent would have punished them for missing a lot of open looks from deep. Creating as many open looks as they did is definitely encouraging and shouldn't be taken for granted, you just can't rely on playing the walking dead every night.

If they suffocate the opposition with great, active defense, maybe it doesn't matter. But I suspect this offseason question mark isn't going anywhere.

• I think Jonah Bolden might have traveled three or four times in the fourth quarter alone. I also am pretty sure he has no chance of getting any minutes at center this season, based on how putrid the team's defense was with him anchoring that side of the floor, so he better get to work on his three-point shot.

• Dear lord, that fourth quarter was horrid. Thankfully, most of you weren't able to watch it, and I suffered through it for you. You're welcome.

The Ugly

• The Sixers are set to begin their most anticipated season in recent memory and probably in my lifetime, but the local broadcast affiliate apparently isn't at all interested in getting people fired up for the season ahead. Having to resort to — ahem — alternative measures to watch a Sixers game seems pretty absurd to yours truly.

It was made worse by the fact that the local Hornets broadcast was an absolute disaster. The scoreboard had issues starting with the very first possession of the game, the clock was stuck on 6:56 for a chunk of the first quarter because for some reason it must have gotten harder to keep track of time in North Carolina over the offseason.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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