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January 29, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers earn comfortable win over Lakers behind balanced attack

Sixers NBA
013019-BenSimmons-USAToday Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) moves to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center.

The Sixers did their best to let the Lakers back into the game after taking a commanding first-half lead, but they kept their hosts at bay all night and ended winning comfortably. Behind a balanced effort from their three stars, the Sixers left the Staples Center with a 121-105 win on Tuesday night.

This win, even with the Lakers undermanned, shows the potential this team has when they can get all three of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons going. Here's what I saw in their win over the Lakers.

The Good

• Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler have shown flashes of great chemistry during their time together so far, with Butler learning to time his cuts perfectly with his oversized point guard down in the post. Where we haven't seen them hit full stride yet is in transition, where the two can be devastating when they get out and run.

They certainly had that part of their game going early. A Butler steal produced a lob to Simmons for the Sixers' first points of the game, and the two reversed roles a few minutes later, with Butler finishing off the pass from his running mate.

These two made life miserable for the Lakers in the opening quarter, closing down passing lanes and forcing a handful of turnovers to put this game out of reach before it could even get going. Their effort was as good as it has been since Butler came to Philadelphia, with both guys scrambling for loose balls and competing hard on both ends of the floor.

After two days off in Los Angeles, these guys came out ready to play, and that's a good sign for their stretch run.

• The third member of the big three was even better than the Headband Brothers. Joel Embiid tends to thrive in games in Los Angeles — don't read anything into that — and he looked well rested after getting the night off last Saturday.

Embiid, as usual, made his biggest impact on the defensive end of the floor. The Lakers tried and tried to get around him in the paint, and he gave them little chance to score at the rim throughout the evening. We're at the point where you can feel the Embiid chase down block coming when he hustles back in transition, and even with Rajon Rondo trying to use the rim as a shield, Embiid came up with a monster block in the first half.

His best moments often come when he doesn't block a shot. Embiid is one of the best (if not the best) in the league at using his length to alter shots without chasing out of position for a blocked shot, and Philadelphia's transition game was fueled by his work around the basket.

• You'll notice that most of the praise for this trio so far has been on defense. That's where this team really needs to shine, because with a three-man core of Embiid/Simmons/Butler, the Sixers should be able to generate stops against anyone in the league.

The effort there has been much better recently, and we're seeing less and less mistakes from Butler as he becomes comfortable within Philadelphia's scheme. Things are beginning to click, and while they still need to hit another gear to be a true contender, they're on the right track.

• I'll touch on this more tomorrow, but I like the concept of turning to Butler as the lead ballhandler on the second unit. There are some repercussions (see below) that are ugly at the moment, but this is a way for Philadelphia to lean into their bully-ball tendencies as long as they can get some reinforcements to help fill out the rotation.

The main reason I'm in on this is that it's going to expedite the growth of the Embiid/Butler pairing. The Sixers, as Brown has said publicly, are going to live and die based on that two-man game in the playoffs. This is one way to force feed them reps, and Butler has the ballhandling and playmaking chops to make this work.

We got to see a bunch of spread pick-and-roll with Butler and Embiid, and even though those two weren't always finishing those plays, they were tilting the Lakers' defense and creating mismatches. That's the end game for this team.

• With Embiid's back a bit of an issue late, it sure was nice to have Butler back in the lineup. He was great late in the game, closing out the game by carving up the Lakers both on and off the ball. That's why they brought him here.

The Bad

• I can understand the mentality of trying to let a lineup you trust play through a tough stretch. I do not agree with that mentality when you're running out a five-man group of McConnell-Redick-Brewer-Simmons-Muscala, who do not have the collective cache to deserve Brett Brown's trust.

The Sixers went from being up 20+ in a laugher to only in front by single digits by the time the Lakers finished a 15-0 run that got the energy pumping through Staples Center, and there was really no excuse for it to go on that long. If the Sixers had their starting five or something close to it on the floor, the regular season is the time to let them take their lumps. Playing through adversity can make you stronger down the line.

Does that five-man grouping really need to learn how to do that? No. They should never be on the floor together in a playoff series or a high-leverage situation, so call the timeout and cut your losses.

Runs like these put a damper on what should have been an overwhelmingly good evening for the Sixers.

• That lineup, by the way, is a symptom of the point-guard experiment the Sixers are undergoing with Butler. Playing Butler as the lead ballhandler in a lineup has some very good side effects for Philadelphia, allowing them to play bigger even without Simmons on the floor. But if you're overlapping his minutes in an effort to play him with Embiid more, you're asking Simmons to buoy bench-heavy lineups by himself, and right now I don't know if they have the personnel to do it.

Some of this circles back to Simmons, who doesn't have enough scoring juice to offset the deficiencies of the rest of that group. A lineup like the one mentioned above hinges on the other guys knocking down the open looks Simmons creates for them, and there isn't really a Plan B. If he ever turns into more of an isolation scoring option, maybe that changes, for now it remains a problem.

I wrote this already but stop with the McConnell/Simmons pairing.

• The Sixers desperately need a better option off the bench than Mike Muscala. He was one of the biggest issues during the first-half run Los Angeles made to get back in the game, falling all over himself on defense while getting smacked around by Lakers players on offense, ones roughly half a foot shorter than him at that.

It obviously didn't help that Jonah Bolden sat out on Tuesday, but the fallback plan shouldn't look like skinny Spencer Hawes.

• I'm all for Butler being unselfish. I am not into this trend of him passing up wide-open threes, which he needs to take whenever they come to him. The hesitation is not what anyone wants to see from a soon-to-be-max player.

The Ugly

• Butler and Amir Johnson were able to share an imaginary blunt in the middle of a game.

That's when you know you're having yourself a great quarter. And it is legal in California...

• When you don't finish off teams early in the game as a good team should, you leave your stars exposed to potential injury longer than they need to be. And Embiid was the victim of Philadelphia's first-half collapse on Tuesday, after awkwardly falling trying to finish a Simmons lob in transition.

It did not look great, but Embiid insisted he was okay during his postgame availability, and he did head back into the game late in the fourth. I wasn't a huge fan of that decision, given the history with the big man, so here's hoping it was just scary looking with no real repercussions.


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