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November 20, 2019

Instant observations: Simmons hits first three as Sixers come back to beat Knicks

The Sixers did everything they could to give the Knicks a chance to win a game on the road, but they would eventually turn it on and complete a dramatic comeback to win, 109-104, on Wednesday night.

Here's what I saw in South Philly, where even though they got a win, I'm not sure the Sixers should come away feeling great.

The Good

• Well, everyone, the long national nightmare is finally over. Ben Simmons finally took and made a three this season.

See, it really isn't that hard. The Knicks decided to throw some zone at the Sixers in the first quarter, so it didn't make a whole lot of sense to have Simmons camped out in the dunker's spot and clogging things up when he didn't have the ball in his hands. And he finally did what people expected him to do for so long — rise up and knock down a shot he has worked on a ton.

Being stationed there in the first place might be more important, honestly. He has lingered in the dunker's spot where Brett Brown said he wouldn't be in the preseason, but that changed against New York, and it should be part of a bigger change moving forward.

The crowd response to the shot was bonkers, and as they have shown in recent years, the locals want to see more of it. Give the people what they want, young man, because it's also going to be pretty important for your basketball team.

• The second half of defense from Ben Simmons was about as active and engaged as we have probably ever seen him on that end for Philadelphia. Every stop the Sixers came up with from midway through the third quarter on, Simmons was visibly fired up as if trying to will his teammates and the crowd back into the game. Along with James Ennis, he accomplished just that.

It's a bit of a double-edged sword because there's the feeling that Simmons could be this guy every night and for long stretches of games, rather than in shorter bursts. His stated goal before the year was to be the best defensive player on the team, and in the second half on Wednesday, he showed what it would look like if he wanted to take the mantle.

But that's nitpicking on a night where he guided the team exactly where they needed to go. He absolutely terrorized the poor Knicks on the perimeter for the final 18 minutes or so of the game, and I'm not sure his fitness gets talked about enough in situations like these. He just rolls into playing most if not all of second halves when the team needs him to, and that's a more valuable trait than I think people give him credit for.

The three aside — yeah I know, big aside — he was great for the Sixers on Wednesday.

• I think it was a totally justifiable line of thinking to give Matisse Thybulle a couple of games off to settle down and see the game from the bench when Brett Brown did that. But I think it's time for him to get a bigger chunk of time in the rotation back, as he has played more under control on offense and could help with the team's erratic defense in any case. 

On a night without Josh Richardson, the Sixers definitely needed the extra help in the perimeter defense department, but more importantly, he looks more comfortable with where he needs to be and how to execute on offense. To the surprise of a lot of people, he worked some nice two-man actions with Embiid, scoring off a cut on a nice Embiid feed and sauntering into a pull-up three when the Knicks gave him too much space in a handoff.

There are still moments where he looks a bit spastic, mostly when he drives to the hoop and doesn't have a backup plan, but progress is being shown, and I think he should be rewarded for it.

• You can tell the sort of game it was from all the role player discussion, but James Ennis was one of the few guys who really brought it every minute he was on the floor. Even when the Sixers were in the middle of being punched in the mouth in the third quarter, Ennis was flying back in transition to try to come up with effort plays on defense, and he did his usual thing on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive and give Philly second chances.

The difference between Ennis and every other role player on the team is that he can be legitimately useful on both ends of the floor. There are nights when his lack of lateral quickness can hurt him, but those are easy to see when they're unfolding, and you can get him off the floor with the quickness.

Frankly, he should be the guy who gets the bump into the starting lineup when one of their wings is missing. The Sixers badly needed the stability he offers to get back into the game on Wednesday.

• I'll lead with the positive on Trey Burke — he gives the Sixers a bit of dynamism off-the-dribble that they need off of the bench, and unlike Raul Neto, he's a little more aggressive hunting his own shot. While that can be a downside depending on the construction of the team, it's sort of a necessity at times for this group.

And I can't knock the effort he is playing with on both ends. Burke wrestled a ball away to extend a fourth-quarter possession for the Sixers, and his energy level on defense has not once been in question for Philly.

Unfortunately, he's giving all of those points back on the other end of the floor despite the effort. Dennis Smith Jr. was lighting him up during the minutes the two shared on the court in the first half, and even on occasions where Smith Jr. wasn't hunting his own shot, he was finding open teammates when Sixers players had to help Burke after he got burned on drives.

There's one way to solve this — letting Burke share the floor with Simmons and Co. so they can hide his weaknesses a bit easier. The Sixers did that to start the fourth, and it's a look I'm surprised they haven't tried more given their deficiencies. It should come back again — how much time did we have to sit through with Simmons and T.J. McConnell, which is a much more nonsensical pairing on paper?

• A video summary of Mike Scott's second half, as told through the perspective of Sixers fans:

Okay, except for his horrific turnover with two minutes left.

• A quick shout out to the Philly crowd in attendance on Wednesday night, because that was quite a performance for a mid-week game in November. The dramatic comeback played into it, but they were ready to go basically from the jump.

The Bad

• The Furkan Korkmaz renaissance over the first few weeks of the season was a good time for pretty much everyone involved, though you are starting to see why they didn't pick up his option last season and why a lot of fans don't really trust him as a permanent rotation piece.

Once the shooting goes out the window, it's a lot tougher to paper over the flaws he has. The Knicks probably got away with a couple of offensive fouls against him in the first half, but Korkmaz' lack of strength makes it easy for refs to believe he's just not holding up against physical play. That is sort of a problem when teams already want to pick on you on defense, especially because the team's whole identity is supposed to be built around defense. The Knicks tortured poor Korkmaz on Wednesday night.

When he was making shots, it was easy to justify his spot in the rotation, and a head coach can't just yank guys' minutes around constantly and expect results, but it has been a rough week of shooting for him after a hot start.

• Look, I'm sure Al Horford is going to start making shots eventually and we are all going to look back at the start of this season as a small blip, but would there be anything more Philadelphia than luring a player away from their biggest historical rival and immediately watching him turn into a pumpkin?

It's not like Horford is taking shots he hasn't in the past, and while he may be taking more threes this season than he has at any point of his career, most of them are wide open from spots on the floor where he has historically been successful. Ditto on his looks in and around the paint, where he's getting matchups against smaller players and can't seem to get where he needs to go.

But it goes beyond the shotmaking. He has had success playing power forward a ton in the past, but Philadelphia's roster is not really built to accommodate him there. The group collectively has no idea how to play together on offense, nor does it look like something that you can definitely count on getting better to a good enough degree to win a title. 

• Joel Embiid was simply not good against New York — missed shots he normally makes, substandard defensive rotations at times, and the big standout for me, some important missed free throws for a guy who is usually money there. Bad turnovers, getting roasted by Mitch Robinson on lobs out of pick-and-rolls in the fourth, it was as bad of a night as you're going to see from Embiid.

He has been their best player this season and the driving force behind a lot of wins, but that was not a good game for him. Good on the role players stepping up around him. 

• Anytime you find yourselves down 17 points to the New York Knicks in a basketball game in 2019, something has gone horribly wrong. Unfortunately for the Sixers, the things that were going wrong were things that have plagued them all season, and don't feel like they're going to disappear with the wave of a magic wand or the passage of time.

The Sixers do not have guys who can create separation. They have few guys who understand and commit to movement when players are posting up and considering that's a foundational skill/approach for many of their best players, it's sort of a big deal. The only guys who really understand and time cuts well are bench players — James Ennis is one of them, and he certainly can't be asked to play a much bigger role than he is now.

Shooting is a known issue. The team's lack of pick-and-rolls is a known issue. Dribbling a damn basketball is a known issue for a lot of their rotation. Their wavering back and forth on defense is mystifying, even without one of the members of their starting five. 

It's a collective failure, from the coach to the front office to the guys on the floor, and it's going to take all of them to get this right if they manage to do it. Their will to fight back was impressive, but they should not be letting it get to that point to begin with. It's a team that expects to compete for a title, and they're needing to throw second-half haymakers to squeak out wins over crappy teams.

The Ugly

• Marcus Morris getting away with a Flagrant 1 for choke-slamming Joel Embiid in the middle of a basketball game is one thing, even if it's not at all a basketball play and is less egregious than some Flagrant 2 fouls they've handed down over the years. But giving Embiid one half of a double tech for getting justifiably mad at being thrown to the ground is, uh, certainly a decision.

On the plus side, this is a heroic performance from Ben Simmons to prevent Embiid from going completely off the handle:

I tend to lean on the side of letting guys play physical basketball, but Morris has been a goon for most of his career, I don't understand the motivation for letting him finish this game.  

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