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January 13, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers escape with win over Knicks behind dominant Ben Simmons

Sixers NBA
011319_Ben-Simmons_usat Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons drives past New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay at Madison Square Garden.

It wouldn't have been a Sixers game if they coasted to the finish in a comfortable victory over the Knicks. With an Eagles game looming later in the afternoon, the Sixers offered a dramatic appetizer in their 108-105 victory over the Knicks, only squeaking by after an Emmanuel Mudiay prayer bounced off the rim at the buzzer.

After going up by as much as 24 points, Philadelphia's lead dwindled to a single point late in the third quarter. It wasn't pretty, but thanks to a dominant effort from Ben Simmons, the return of Joel Embiid, and some small contributions here and there from the rest of the group, the Sixers escaped the Garden with a win.

Here's the quick version of what I saw on Sunday afternoon. And by the way — Go Birds.

The Good

• The Sixers were not exactly playing the Harlem Globetrotters on Sunday afternoon, and they should have been expected to get the offense rolling early. But man, does it make a difference to have the big fella out on the floor, regardless of who the opponent is.

This three-play sequence from Embiid in the first half says everything you need to know about his game. The great footwork, the commitment on defense, and his athletic gifts were all put on display in a tidy 20 seconds or so.

He creates a fear factor on defense and draws attention on offense to a point that life is easier for everyone on the floor. We know that, but it's nice to get reminded of it every so often, and to get highlights served up to us during a sleepy Sunday afternoon game against a terrible opponent.

Embiid has no right being as good as he is with this little basketball experience, and the best is still to come.

• I absolutely love what I've seen from Ben Simmons over his last few games. With Embiid on the shelf against the Hawks, Simmons took it upon himself to step up on both ends of the floor, cutting off Atlanta runs before they could begin in earnest. With Embiid back on Sunday, Simmons continued to play with purpose and did his best to play with an edge after calling out Philadelphia's "soft" defense on Friday evening.

The emergence of his jumper has been a welcome sight for fans over the last couple weeks, but I think the rest of his game deserves the spotlight. After the Hawks dominated Philly on the offensive glass on Friday, Simmons came out like he wanted to personally guarantee that the same wouldn't happen on Sunday. By the time halftime rolled around Simmons had 14 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists to his name.

Nearly all of those points were loud. Simmons did a lot of his damage on offense as a cutter, and he linked up with Embiid a few times for some big-time slams.

It's a lot tougher to do this sort of thing against non-Knicks opponents, but Embiid is slowly getting better at reading defenses and using his post-ups to set up plays for other guys. The Sixers have two guys who are often either the biggest or most athletic guy on the court, and there's no reason they can't exploit it.

The Sixers need this Simmons for 82 games a year plus the playoffs. Is it the headband? Is it the opponent? I truthfully couldn't tell you. But he refused to be denied on Sunday, and when he plays with that edge, the ceiling for this team rises quickly.

• This was definitely not the best game Jimmy Butler has played in a Sixers uniform, but it was an example of how the shot economy is going to have to work some nights. Butler was pushed into the background for stretches of the game, and that made some sense with New York not having a true center available to guard Embiid.

Butler was at the center of everything for Philly with Simmons against Atlanta, but by taking a backseat against New York, he allowed his young co-stars to lead the way. And when his number was called, Butler's skills were no less impactful. During an Embiid-less stretch in the third quarter, Butler went to work and took over, carving the Knicks up out of the isolation sets he's so fond of.

There is room for all three of these guys to thrive, so long as they accept that touches will come and go on a given night. That's easier said than done with this trio — two players are high-pedigree guys drafted by the organization and billed from day one as cornerstones, the other is a famously standoffish star they're hoping to re-sign this summer. 

Each has reason to believe things should run through them. So it's good to see one of them show a willingness to cede control.

• Wilson Chandler had a pair of incredible steals in transition against the Knicks, one in each half. As always, the problem remains that the Sixers don't have a better version of Chandler, because he would be a perfectly fine rotation player in a smaller role.

The Bad

• Since Jimmy Butler made his private complaints about Philadelphia's offense, his willingness to hoist from deep has plummetted. The Sixers are already at a deficit of three-point shooters, and they really need him to take shots like these when they come to him:

A lot of people pointed out that Butler saw a wide-open lane and attacked accordingly. If this was an isolated incident where Butler just saw an open driving lane on a single play, alright. But his catch-and-shoot attempts have plummeted over the last couple weeks, with Butler settling for a lot of tougher looks instead of taking what the offense is giving him.

When a guy complains about wanting the ball in his hands more and then starts turning down shots that the team's offensive system is producing, I raise an eyebrow.

• Speaking of threes, it would really be nice if Jonah Bolden could start hitting some. I like the change-of-pace he offers them in the rotation, but you could build the foundation of a house with all his bricks. That's not going to work when they play teams that are actually good, and especially not when teams have extended time to gameplan in the playoffs.

• Philadelphia's performance in the third quarter lays bare an essential truth about this team right now: they have a lot of high-end talent, but they are not a high-end team. So while the victory is a good thing for the Sixers in the end, it's not one that is going to make them feel very good going into a tough upcoming month of their schedule.

We've discussed all the problems at length. The bench is bad. Embiid dominates first halves and fades in second halves. Simmons' jumper limits some of their offense. Butler wants to be force fed certain touches, and it takes the team out of their usual sets to accomplish that goal.

They've had a decent amount of time to adjust to the new reality with Butler, and many of the same frustrations remain. That is not a good sign for a team that has high expectations, and it's especially worrying if you're Brett Brown, who can't seem to find a way to get four strong quarters in a row from this team, full strength or not. 

We're going to see what this team is truly made of starting this week. They won't be able to hide their flaws or sleepwalk through quarters against the league's elite teams/players. If they fall flat on their faces over the next month or so, everyone will be on notice.

• Do we give the Sixers credit for constantly gutting out close games even though they gave up huge leads to do so?

You're right, forget I asked.

• What is Embiid doing fouling Dotson beyond the three-point line with time winding down? Just stupid stuff.

The Ugly

• Embiid picked up a flagrant foul at the end of the third quarter, and I believe it was absolutely the right call. There wasn't contact with the head, which is what often triggers these calls, but it was a frustration foul taken by Embiid after he didn't get a call on the other end, not a basketball play.

He is the franchise player and has to be smarter than this. With the Knicks already back in the game thanks to a poor third quarter, the flagrant allowed them to pick up more steam and close the gap before the final frame started.

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