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March 15, 2019

Instant observations: Healthy Sixers cruise past Kings to close homestand

Sixers NBA
031519-JimmyButler-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Jimmy Butler is headed to Miami.

The Sixers never really broke away from the Kings on Friday night, but they didn't need to. Despite some changes to the rotation and up-and-down performances from their shooters, the Sixers mostly cruised to a 123-114 win at home, setting up a huge showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday afternoon.

Here's what I saw on Friday night.

The Good

• If you needed to take a small piece of film to justify Boban Marjanovic's place in the rotation, you could just cut and save the stretch he had in the middle of the first quarter on Friday night. The Sixers resorted to a very simple strategy on the offensive end: throw the ball to the biggest guy on the floor and trust that he's going to come down with it.

Boban is a legitimate weapon around the rim. There are times when there are two players standing around him by the basket, and the Sixers don't have to think about them at all. It's like watching a high-school kid play against a bunch of elementary school children.

As a nice bonus, his chemistry with Tobias Harris is not limited to off-court shenanigans. "Bobi and Tobi" have a great understanding, and with Harris in the middle of a brutal game, the big man helped his old buddy get going with some easy offense:

There are plenty of concerns about Boban's place on defense when teams spread the floor, but the Sixers believe they can make that up on the other end of the floor. That was definitely the case on Friday. 

• Jimmy Butler played with the exact balance of priorities I think he needs to in order for the Sixers to be the best version of themselves. He played selfless basketball when it was warranted and didn't let the offense devolve into Jimmy vs. The World, but he did not allow himself to fade into the background.

When Butler sets his mind to attack, he is still as dangerous as ever. He made it a point to seek out contact on his drives, and you can often determine how good Butler has been by how often he's getting to the free-throw line. He shot seven free throws in the first half against Sacramento, and with their shooters struggling to get anything going, that was basically the difference between going into halftime tied and having a small cushion.

I think I can speak for everyone when I say more of that Butler would be welcomed, and both sides would feel more certain about their future together if Butler played like that all the time. The best news of all is that all of it felt repeatable, and Butler could easily build on this performance heading down the stretch.

• Ben Simmons' has shown progress in two key areas recently — free-throw shooting and ball security. It simply can't be overstated how important they are to his overall development. If Simmons makes free throws and limits turnovers, the Sixers are going to be a tough team to beat in April and May.

It was not a night where he was piling up crazy numbers, but it's much more important to see Simmons maturing and improving his weaknesses than it is for him to put up a triple-double. This team has the talent to beat just about anyone in the league, but they can't overcome too many self-inflicted wounds.

The onus is on Simmons as the point guard to make sure the entire team plays under control and executes. He is on many levels an extension of the coach. The best place to start is with himself, and I think we've seen important progress from Simmons over the last couple weeks.

• I thought Joel Embiid had a solid night at the office. When matchups were there to be taken advantage of, he put guys like Willie Cauley-Stein and Harry Giles in the torture chamber, busting out some gorgeous spin moves. And during the guts of the game, they called his number, and the big man delivered as he tends to in the latter stages of games.

His line didn't look a whole lot different than it did on Tuesday against the Cavaliers, but this was a much different Embiid than the one we saw on Tuesday night against Cleveland. Embiid was engaged throughout the night, and he was back to his normal self on the defensive end after a lethargic effort earlier in the week. Some of the recoveries he made for blocks were just insane — he helped trap the Kings on the perimeter in the final minutes, and when a pass snuck through to Willie Cauley-Stein at the rim, Embiid made a miraculous play to block what looked like a sure bucket.

One caveat here — I'd rather see Embiid shoot 20 threes per game than see him continue to try to act like a guard with his handle. When he tries to shake guys with crossovers and other unnecessary nonsense, he often ends up fumbling the ball and hurting the team in the process. Keep it simple, and the turnovers will go away. He had too many once again on Friday.

• JJ Redick finally got some shots to drop on Friday, though he continues to be a disaster on the defensive end. As long as the former is true, the Sixers will sweat the latter less.

They don't really have an option better than letting him play through it right now — if you think overextending Mike Scott or James Ennis is the solution to this problem, I'd remind you of some of the high profile gaffes both players have made since they arrived here, to say nothing of the rest of their careers. Redick has always righted the ship when he has gone through slumps before, and I trust he'll do that again this season until proven otherwise.

(One note here — Brown did turn to Ennis for Redick with 1:45 to play out of a Kings timeout. Maybe they don't go to that in extended minutes, but if they need a stop late, Simmons-Butler-Ennis-Harris-Embiid is a long and tough lineup, and I'd like to see a little more of it.)

Redick is an essential part of a lot of Philadelphia's go-to plays and is unlikely to be benched when it matters, so they have to keep hunting shots for him and live with everything else. I know that's not going to make anyone feel better about watching him get burned on cuts and drives, of course.

The Bad

• The first half of Friday's game was, without question, the worst Tobias Harris has been at the offensive end of the floor since joining the Sixers. His teammates got him a bunch of open looks in the first half and Philadelphia easily could have pulled away, but he put on a performance that would put Mr. Freeze to shame.

Not a whole lot more to it than that. Harris at least did his part competing at the defensive end while the shots weren't falling, and he did eventually get it going in the second half thanks to the Boban connection mentioned above.

• While fully understanding the Sixers need to toy with different looks to learn more about what they have, I think Brett Brown was overthinking it by shaking up their star combinations on Friday night. We've talked extensively about how good the Simmons/Harris pairing has been, but Brown broke that up on Friday to build their bench units around Butler/Harris and Simmons/Embiid pairings.

The former worked just fine, but the incumbent stars struggled while on their own all night. With the Sixers still trying to "master vanilla," I think you just need to lean into the pairings that already seem to make sense on paper and maximize their time together. I get the urge here, but it's not what I would do, and it was a big part of why the game was close on Friday.

The Ugly

• I didn't think Nemanja Bjelica received nearly enough boos from the home crowd on Friday night. The guy agreed to a deal with the Sixers over the summer, only to back out of the deal under the guise of pursuing opportunities in Europe and "complications with his visa," only to eventually sign a multi-year deal with the Sacramento Kings.

Look, I get it, more money and years were available and I don't begrudge Bjelica for collecting the bag. But the manner in which he went about it was totally bogus, and I thought he should have gotten more of an earful than he did on Friday.


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