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December 02, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers avoid bleeding out in win over Jazz

The Sixers got a terrible game from Joel Embiid, closed out both halves as poorly as humanly possible, and still came away with a 103-94 victory over Utah that never really felt like it was in danger.

Here's what I saw on Monday night.

The Good

• In Philadelphia's first game against the Utah Jazz, Al Horford struggled despite being handed a matchup he's capable of picking apart 1 v. 1. But with Utah trying to throw Bojan Bogdanovic on him for a second straight time, Horford was not going to let lightning strike twice.

Monday night was a change of pace for Horford, whose best games with the Sixers tend to be more methodical efforts. He came out guns blazing in the first quarter, knocking down a pair of triples and flying all over the place on defense, including on a terrific block in transition to erase a Ben Simmons turnover.

Against teams with paint-sitting bigs like Gobert, Horford becomes especially valuable for his ability to draw them out to the perimeter and take them off of the dribble. He's a more reliable threat than Embiid if teams leave him alone out there, and he's better finding his teammates on the move than Embiid is too, which gives them options that aren't, "Go for power down the middle and hope it works."

• I like Ed Davis as a basketball player, but that man is giving up a lot of weight to Embiid, and it showed.

Good luck, pal.

• Prior to the game, Brett Brown talked a bit about knowing he has to let Matisse Thybulle play through his mistakes and aggression to make sure he's ready for playoff reps. And though Thybulle got plenty of minutes on Monday night, it was Thybulle's understanding of how to walk the line that made the decision easy for his head coach.

Did Thybulle come up with his personal highlight of the season so far because of his gambling instincts? Yes:

But it was all the in-between plays that matter more for him to stay on the floor. There were times where he got beat by Utah's guards in pick-and-rolls, and instead of flying past them for block attempts and picking up cheap fouls when they came to jump stops, Thybulle most often stayed on his feet and waited for his man to make the first move. It's a small but important change, and it's one of the keys to him getting more minutes.

Of course, when he hits threes, the decision gets a heck of a lot easier for Brown, who knows how far ahead Thybulle is on Korkmaz on the defensive end. More nights like this, and Thybulle will be back in that sixth man role in no time.

(By the way, love the decision from Brown to go back to Thybulle with the starters to begin the second half. Confidence cannot be underrated, and the more you can build up your young players when they have it going, the better.) 

• One of the more underrated developments for Philadelphia this season has been the progression of James Ennis in areas we don't tend to laud him for. Everyone knows he's a guy who can knock down threes, chase offensive rebounds, and credibly defend on the wing. But he has also made strides as a decision-maker, cutting down on some of his wild jaunts to the rim and turning those plays into kick outs to open shooters.

As everyone learned with former Sixers like Robert Covington years ago, it gets tough to score in the playoffs if you put too many guys on the floor who can't adapt on the fly. If Ennis is just passable in this regard, it's a big boost to their playoff bench.

• There's a bit of a Catch 22 with Ben Simmons in transition — he's so good that the Sixers want to force-feed him the ball at times, but you run the risk of getting too predictable, and guys give up opportunities of their own that might be gone if they have to give the ball up. But he and Tobias Harris seem to have come to a better understanding over time, with Harris getting more grab-and-go opportunities than he did when he first arrived.

And he absolutely should. It is an asset to have as many guys as possible on the team who can rebound and push the pace, and if everybody gets out and runs with that knowledge in the back of their minds, suddenly you're a more dangerous team in transition. The Sixers should still go to Simmons a lot here, just not at the cost of becoming one dimensional.

• One of his steals was (in hilarious fashion) basically dumped into his lap on a bad Utah possession, but Ben Simmons' activity on defense continues to be exceptional for Philadelphia. The days of the Sixers struggling to force turnovers are behind them, and Simmons is the face of that turnaround.

The Sixers have given him a lot more freedom to gamble this season, but this is about a lot more than just gambling. His ability to recover, switch across multiple positions, and blow up plays on his own is up there among the league's best. Simmons blew up a Utah transition opportunity all by himself at one point, finding the perfect spot to cut off a pass without giving Donovan Mitchell space to shoot.

Frustrating as he can be on offense, he has been just as good on defense.

• Norvel Pelle has been absolutely elite with the Frosty Freeze-Out theatrics. 

The Bad

• You can attribute some of the issues to poor and disjointed officiating, but the Sixers did not finish the first half well at all. With Utah on the second half of a back-to-back, they could have delivered a kill shot in the first half if they had just sustained the momentum they had going, but things fell into disarray as they got closer to halftime, and their two young stars picked up silly fouls to put them in trouble for the second half.

You don't expect any team to just score a million points in a row, but the Sixers shot themselves in the foot.

The same lack of urgency reappeared at the end of the game, with the Sixers sleepwalking their way to the finish line. It is harder than a lot of people realize to keep your foot on the gas when you're beating up a team for most of a game, but even with that caveat, the Sixers barely made an attempt to put Utah out of their misery.

Some of that comes down to one man in particular. 

• It was not a good game for Embiid, who struggled to figure out a solution to the Gobert puzzle in the paint. This wasn't the same guy who kept willing himself to the line most of last week, and outside of a couple of highlight-reel plays in each half, it was a pretty forgettable night. Foul trouble will do that to you.

The good news for Philadelphia is they still basically coasted to a win in spite of this, and they did it while missing another one of their starters due to injury. Rest advantage or not, that's always a good thing.

But a subplot to consider here — this is the second time recently where Embiid has looked far below his usual standard when playing his third game in four nights. I'm not a doctor or an NBA head coach, but perhaps he should not be playing three games in four nights. Someone will have to investigate if the math checks out on that one.

When he's just going through the motions out there on both ends, at some point you have to say it's just not his night and draw the line. He played so in fear of picking up his sixth foul that he took himself out of good defensive positions in the fourth quarter, and it gave Gobert and Co. a runway for takeoff. One player is not bigger than the team, not now and not ever. 

• The entire arena wanted Ben Simmons to shoot a three in the second half. I'll let you guess whether or not it happened.

(By the way, yelling this at any player with 18 seconds on the shot clock in a game they're walking down is an absolute buffoon, even if he needs to take those shots more. Grow up, Peter Pan.)

The Ugly

• When you blow and obvious call as the officials did on the basket interference they missed near the end of the first half, they should absolutely not be able to give out a tech to a coach who complains about it. It's one thing to screw up a call, but giving a team extra free throws because someone has the audacity to tell you you screwed up is brutal.

• That Utah Jazz team needs to get home badly. They look absolutely cooked following a medium-sized road trip.

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