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February 13, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers cruise past Knicks in final game before All-Star break

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021319-JimmyButler-USAToday Brad Penner/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler (23) controls the ball as New York Knicks forward Mario Hezonja (8) defends during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Fresh off a loss at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the Sixers came out and took care of business against a bad New York Knicks team. They let it get a little too close in the fourth quarter, but they ultimately left Madison Square Garden with a 126-111 win, and they enter the All-Star break with a 37-21 record. Not too shabby.

Here's what I saw on Wednesday night.

The Good

• After a rough night for the former Clippers against the Celtics, Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic came out and were at the center of Philadelphia's success against the Knicks on Wednesday.

Boban's success against New York was a product of a fairly simple offensive strategy: throw the ball really high in the air, because nobody is going to be able to grab it except for Philadelphia's giant backup. That turned out to be just what they needed, with Boban depositing some downright hilarious buckets at the rim.

But he is more than just a meme machine. Boban was an unselfish passer at the pivot, hitting cutters for easy layups and keeping the ball moving. He may be a stationary player at both ends, that doesn't make him a selfish one.

For Harris, it was back to business as usual. He and his longtime teammate used their prior chemistry to create easy buckets, and Harris did a lot of damage in transition, an area the Celtics limited big time by taking care of the basketball on Tuesday night. The Knicks are, to put it lightly, a little less protective of the basketball, and Harris' ability to lead breaks by himself strengthens their run outs.

We got one particularly thunderous dunk from Joel Embiid with Harris leading the way:

It was a group effort against the Knicks on Wednesday, but it was still nice to see the new guys respond to their first down night by immediately bouncing back.

• Could you tell that Embiid was happy not to be matched up with Al Horford anymore? After being pushed out to the perimeter against Boston, Embiid made it a point to take over the paint against New York on Wednesday night. By halftime, Embiid had almost doubled the free-throw attempts (seven) he shot in the previous game against Boston.

The Knicks obviously do not have anything close to the same defensive prowess, but the Sixers helped their buddy out anyway by forcing mismatches that made his life easier. All due respect to Noah Vonleh, but when he was switched onto Embiid in the paint, New York just had absolutely no chance to stop the big man.

• Liked the general approach to the game from Jimmy Butler on Wednesday night, and really it was a simple continuation of how he has approached the game since the Sixers made the Tobias Harris trade. While I think he still needs to be a little more aggressive hunting his shot, he's doing exactly what the Sixers need their stars to do in order to work together — sacrificing for the greater good.

The assist numbers are nice, and I think Butler at backup point guard will be a difference maker in the playoffs, but I've been impressed with his work around the margins of the game. He's fighting hard for rebounds, poking away loose balls, doing the dirty work to help them win. That used to be the job of guys like T.J. McConnell and Dario Saric, and that work doesn't become any less important because their talent level has gone up.

Philadelphia has been killing with Butler on the floor lately, and much of that can be attributed to Butler taking things into his own hands.

• It was a bit thornier than it should have been against a bad Knicks team, but the Sixers head into the All-Star break with a victory. Would have been understandable to have a big letdown, but they stuck it out.

The Bad

• There was always going to be a drop in urgency following a game against the Boston Celtics, but Ben Simmons was particularly glazed over in the early part of the game. Dennis Smith Jr. was blowing by him on what felt like every other possession, and he had some head-scratching turnovers in the first half, helping the Knicks hang around despite an electric start for Philadelphia's scorers from the field.

The silver lining is that Simmons came out of the locker room at halftime and played with a renewed energy. He competed harder on defense and made a pointed effort to get to the basket, rather than tossing up indecisive passes that could get picked off by the Knicks. That should have been enough for the Sixers to coast to a comfortable victory and rest the starters in the fourth.

Alas...

• I'm not sure if the Sixers have ever seen a zone defense before. If they have, they certainly did not react to the Knicks unleashing a zone defense like they were prepared for it.

There are a lot of ways to beat a zone defense fairly easily, and for a team that tends to move the ball well, you would think this would have been an easy task. Instead, the Sixers decided they were going to spend chunks of the third quarter dribbling directly into the teeth of the zone, which forced them to pick the ball up in bad spots and play right into the Knicks' hands.

They eventually figured it out and just kept the ball moving, making it harder for New York to close out and contest shots. But come on, man!

• I'm all for experimentation, but not sure I understood what Brett Brown was going for with his changes to the rotation tonight. Brown pulled Simmons along with the other early subs (Joel Embiid, JJ Redick) in the first and third quarters, building their bench units around Butler and Harris. The Butler/Harris pairing did plenty of damage, but it came with a cost.

Staggering Simmons and Embiid should still be a goal, even though part of the reason you did it in the first place was that you didn't have other stars to fill in the gaps. They succeed in different styles of play, and the combinations you should be building around (Embiid/Butler, Simmons/Harris) are fairly obvious on paper.

Is this the sort of look you think is going to be viable in April or May? I feel like the answer is no. And if that's the case, why bother? I don't care if it's the Knicks or not, you need to start building continuity with these guys. The Simmons/Embiid lineups were terrible on Wednesday against a bad team, and I don't know why the Sixers are revisiting this look. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that there are better options.

At least Brown played James Ennis instead of Furkan Korkmaz on Wednesday, I guess. Between this and the zone confusion, I put a lot more of this sputter to the finish on the head coach than I did their tight loss to the Celtics.

• There is a time for fullcourt outlet passes. It is definitely not with two minutes left in a game where you're up by 10 points. Chill out, Ben.

• Getting carved up by a Knicks bench filled with guys who might not be in the league in three years is definitely not ideal.

The Ugly

• T.J. McConnell's full-court defense is rather endearing. You know what's not endearing? Watching him miss three different shots at the rim after coming up with steals that should have produced guaranteed points.

I'm not sure what was more infuriating, those plays or the two straight possessions where Embiid tossed outlet passes that his teammates straight up ignored, with both bouncing out of bounds for turnovers. At least one of them produced this wholesome moment:

The Knicks suck, so most of this ultimately didn't matter, but the Sixers need to be locked in.

• If Simmons thought he was safe from being dunked on two games in a row, boy did he find out he was wrong in the loudest way possible. He should be a bit thankful this was only on regional television:

Give the guy credit for making an effort to contest the attempt. Otherwise? Hate it had to be you, kid.


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