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March 28, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers cruise past Nets behind big Joel Embiid night

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The Sixers did something rare on Thursday night — they broke out to a big lead in the first half, and never really felt like they were in any danger of losing a game to the Brooklyn Nets. After a pair of clunkers over the past week, their 123-110 victory over their division foe felt like a nice return to form for Philly.

Here's what I saw on Thursday night.

The Good

• It seems like many moons ago now, but Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler once set the court ablaze as the Headband Bros. We might have to make way for a new partnership, and this one is connected by the samurai-style head ties that have taken the NBA by storm this season.

It's not often that you see Joel Embiid come out lighting it up from deep, but rocking the new gear, he made it look easy against Brooklyn early, scoring 14 points in the first five minutes of the game with a trio of triples aiding the cause. One of those was a possession he walked up himself off of a defensive rebound. The big man was clearly feeling pretty good.

To the credit of Jimmy Butler, who came out rocking the same look with Embiid, it was the hardest I've seen him compete in the first half of any game in weeks. He wasn't a commanding presence on offense, but Butler was everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, slapping balls way from D'Angelo Russell, skying for rebounds, and barking at teammates when they needed to stay connected on rotations.

When Butler plays that way, he is a difference maker regardless of how many shots he takes or makes. Butler was not offering much of anything on offense Thursday, but I thought you could still feel his presence and energy throughout the game. The key for Philly is getting that version of Butler as often as possible, and the playoffs are the perfect platform for that. One opponent at a time, days of rest in between every game, and all the incentive in the world to get after it.

If all it takes to get Butler and Embiid competing is to have them build a bond over fashion choices, bring on the head ties. 

• The Sixers had some success with designed lobs on Thursday night. There's nothing better than some big guy to big guy connections, and Philly had a couple of beauties against Brooklyn, with Embiid and Ben Simmons swapping roles on a pair of oops in the first half.

The only thing that's frustrating about seeing this stuff work is that you wonder why Embiid doesn't have more success (or perhaps desire) as a roll man since he has proven he can throw it down on the lob with a clear runway. That's something I'd love to see him work on more this summer, and with the guys who will be his partners moving forward. No better way to develop that chemistry than lots of offseason reps together.

• There has been a lot of noise about this Brooklyn team being a bad matchup for Philadelphia that they'd want to avoid in the first round. I think there's a lot of truth to that, and Brett Brown even admitted pregame that Brooklyn is not the ideal matchup for them.

So I think it was important that the Sixers came out of the gate and showed that when they play to their potential, what Brooklyn does almost doesn't matter. The top-end talent gap is so large that if they simply play hard and execute, the Nets are drawing dead against this team. The same should be true of a lot of other teams around the league, frankly.

Philadelphia hasn't shown the urgency a lot of people would like on a nightly basis, but they took this game seriously, and I'd like to see a whole lot more of that down the stretch.

• Embiid's scoring and overall dominance were center stage on Thursday night, and Brooklyn's decision to play small ball offered him an opportunity to just bully them in the paint. But I thought his passing was the true standout of his evening. When he's seeing and reading the floor at a high level, everything becomes so much easier for the Sixers. 

Pressure and doubles are going to come Embiid's way throughout the playoffs, and if he makes sharp decisions, the Sixers are going to get open looks for some very talented players around their big man. We saw Simmons score on some decisive cutting, Redick as open as you'll ever see him, and some of the best offensive flow from the team we've seen in a while.

Again, this isn't hard to understand — when you play with unselfishness the Sixers do but also value the basketball, you become a very tough team to defend. Embiid has to be at the center of that if they want to make a deep playoff run.

• When shots are dropping, it's a lot easier to live with whatever limitations JJ Redick has on the defensive end. With the playoffs starting soon, he sure picked a good time to perk back up.

• With James Ennis missing his second consecutive game, Shake Milton was asked to step up and play a decent-sized role against the Nets. He wasn't spectacular, but I think he has handled the transition from G-League centerpiece to NBA role player as seamlessly as possible.

Unlike some other young teammates who have fought their way into the rotation, Milton mostly seems to be in the right places at the right times offensively, and he has already made scoring off of cuts a habit. The Sixers can always use active cutters away from the ball with the passing talent they have, and Milton's sense of when to make his move has helped him get up and running quickly.

After some tough miscues against the Magic on Monday, I also thought he had a much better night on defense against Brooklyn, perhaps because a lot of his work was done on the ball. The Nets tried to attack him, and he held up well in isolation. There may be something here for Philly.

The Bad

• I've beaten you guys over the head with what I think about Boban Marjanovic in a playoff setting, so we don't need to go over that again here. But we don't need to talk about Brett Brown playing Boban on Thursday night as much as we need to talk about how he was used.

Brooklyn went small in the second quarter, turning to forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as their small-ball center to cut into a 20-point lead the Sixers opened up in the first half. Philadelphia's problem was not reacting to the problem. It's one thing to leave Boban in, but you have to actually try to use him and his specific strengths or you're undercutting yourself on defense for no gain on the other end.

Instead, the Sixers had Boban screening for guys on the perimeter and even shooting jumpers against Brooklyn's small lineup. Hollis-Jefferson is about 6-foot-7, you have to punish him every time down the floor and make Kenny Atkinson rethink the decision. As a a result, he Nets climbed their way back into the game. That was a bad job reacting to the game from the coaching staff.

(Worth noting: the Sixers finally went to Boban a bunch in the third quarter, and he absolutely carved up the Nets inside. They had no one big enough to guard him. Sometimes basketball is a very simple sport.)

• T.J. McConnell is a man adrift at the moment. I still don't think the answer is to play unproven guys like Milton in the playoffs — the defensive concerns are real — but McConnell's fit within this team just seems more off than it ever has. Maybe that's because everyone's minutes are magnified with the pressure on the team, and maybe it's just because he's in a bad place recently, but it's not a good spot to be in this late in the year.

• Not sure what the issue has been for Tobias Harris recently, but he can't seem to get back into the early groove he was in when he arrived in Philly. One theory stands out to me — he's a guy who likes to get his touches early and often comes hot out of the gate, and with Philly turning to Butler more during early offense recently, perhaps that has taken Harris out of his game flow.

Harris is still useful when he's on the floor either way, because defenses respect him/his shot a lot and are hesitant to cheat too far off of him, which helps the guys they have that like to bully on the block. And if they can get all their stars going at once, this team is going to be something else.

The Ugly

• Scott Foster is a notorious official for many reasons, one of them being tenure, but his ability to make a bad call and then compound it by punishing players for being mad at his bad calls is unparalleled. He called a couple brutal fouls on Embiid on the defensive end (plus a correct call the home fans hated for an off-arm push) and the game descended into madness from there. 

Butler and Embiid eventually picked up techs, the Nets got handed a terrible makeup call, and D'Angelo Russell getting dinged for his own technical foul to restore what Foster considers "balance" in the universe.

Look, it's one thing to make mistakes. You can't compound them as an official, and that crew basically quadrupled down.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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