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January 17, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers hand Pacers a beatdown in impressive road victory

Sixers NBA

The Sixers have a pivotal stretch ahead of them over the next month, and while there's a ton of work left to do, the Sixers started off as well as you could have possibly hoped. They absolutely dismantled the Indiana Pacers and their elite defense, coasting to a 120-96 win that never felt close in the second half.

Outside of Joel Embiid laboring with back tightness throughout the evening, it was a tremendous evening for the Sixers, who may be about ready to show the league what they're made of.

Here's what I saw in their victory over Indy.

The Good

• The Sixers' offensive variety has been discussed primarily as it relates to Jimmy Butler. Why won't you run a damn pick-and-roll, Brett?

Whether Butler speaking up was the cause is hard to say, but the Sixers are certainly featuring different looks for different personnel. We saw Landry Shamet run a pick-and-roll with Ben Simmons as the screener, and Jimmy Butler cut off of that action for an easy layup at the rim.

I'm not turning to Shamet to run any late-game offense at this point in his career, or maybe ever. But now is the time to introduce new plays and responsibilities if you want them to take hold in time for the postseason. I like that Brown is not just force-feeding these looks to Butler and instead is getting the entire team involved. That's the only way the offense will evolve from their basic flow.

• Brown has decided to go to Jonah Bolden as the first big off the bench, and it appears to have had a galvanizing effect on Mike Muscala. In a smaller role, he has been more active on D on top of actually making some of the open looks he's getting.

I'm not sure if Bolden is quite ready for that responsibility, because he's still super foul prone this early in his career. But he does give the Sixers a different element off the bench, and he competes hard every second he's on the floor. If his presence in the rotation sparks something in the guy he's competing with for playing time, it's a net win.

• Jimmy Butler did a lot of damage against Indiana, and he did most of it without having to commandeer the offense. As time wears on, it appears he's really settling into a groove with Ben Simmons, who is always happy to hit Butler when he's open.

One thing we've seen a ton of over the last season and a half is Simmons getting himself into trouble by picking up his dribble. He's a talented enough passer to (sometimes) get away with jumping before making establishing a plan, but it leads to a fair number of turnovers as well. Butler has started to minimize the risk of the latter by instinctively cutting off of Simmons when he's going toward the basket, and he doesn't need half the space he's getting to finish at the rim.

Defensively, Butler didn't have the loudest night, but he continues to show why he's one of the league's best two-way players for years. It's all about the little things — keeping his hands up when he's away from the ball, timing gambles well, and sending smart doubles when appropriate.

I've harped on his fit within this team a ton, so Butler deserves an equal amount of praise for finding a way to succeed without taking Philly too far out of their usual offensive structure. He still has the same skills in isolation and can use them when necessary, but it will be to the benefit of everyone if he keeps going like this.

(This is why you go get a third star. He was the difference on a night where they needed it.)

• When Wilson Chandler plays well, the Sixers don't need their stars to have their best games to win. That shows you how meaningful it would be to have any sort of depth on this team.

But give credit to Chandler, who knocked down shots, found Butler with a couple nice entry passes, and sent well-timed help on defense, even when Indiana ended up scoring anyway. I continue to believe he's a guy you can go to battle with, you just can't expect him to be on every night.

• For as hobbled as Joel Embiid clearly was, give the man credit for what he was able to do out there anyway. In the moments where he was able to summon his athleticism, he made some breathtaking plays, and even when he couldn't he used his size to great effect at the rim and on the glass.

The guy remains a freak of nature when he's less than 100 percent:

I don't want to devolve into a pile of cliches, but winners are built on guys who compete as hard as Embiid does. We will address the health and safety concerns, but from an organizational standpoint, the Sixers should be thrilled to have a guy who is willing to do what it takes to win, whether it's a random game in January or a pivotal one in May.

And by the way, the man finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists at the end of it all. He is absurd.

• JJ Redick absolutely killed the Pacers on DHOs on Thursday night. When he gets into that shooting zone, there's not a whole lot teams can do to stop it.

• It was not Simmons' best night at the office, and he still uncorked 3-4 preposterous passes that freed teammates up for wide-open looks. Baseline bounce passes, cutter hits out of the post, he can do it all as a passer. Now if only we could say the same as a scorer...

The Bad

• Let's get this part out of the way first — I commend Joel Embiid for playing through what looked to be some pretty obvious pain in his back. Plenty of players get ripped for using pain as an excuse to sit out, and he's not the sort of guy to back down from a challenge.

Unfortunately, whatever issue Embiid is dealing with was hindering him early. On a few Indiana drives early in the first quarter, Embiid didn't even bother to offer help at the rim. It was uncharacteristic, and let you know something was definitely wrong if you weren't watching him grimace and squirm when he made his way to the bench.

This is an important stretch of games for Philadelphia. But it's not more important than his health, and this is the reason you go and get the third star to begin with. Butler and Simmons have to pick up their teammate.

• Simmons' first half, outside of some nice passing, was not one to write home about. Gifted as he is as a passer, I still think he's a little too lackadaisical when he's playmaking sometimes, and that's a big part of why the turnover problem hasn't gone away in spite of Embiid's improved ball security.

Let's also call a spade a spade — the Sixers need him to score more than zero points in a half. Like, a bunch more. I don't think that's a huge ask. They are not going to win in the playoffs if he's a complete non-entity against good defensive teams.

The Ugly

• I'll count Embiid's back and his constant grimacing here, too. Even on T.V., it was obvious that Philadelphia's best player wasn't right. Embiid certainly has a lot of say in whether he plays or not, but I can't believe they gave him the go-ahead to suit up for this one.

It gets glossed over because of the severity of his foot injuries, but Embiid's college season was ended by a stress fracture in his back. That's not an area you mess around with on a man as large as Embiid is, even if you set the history aside.

So of course, the Sixers/Brown subbed him back in with the Sixers up 17 and under four minutes to play in the game. That is absolutely inexcusable and reckless in a game that was wrapped up. The game was done, and the Sixers saw as well as anyone else what Embiid looked like earlier in the evening.

I don't care how much better Embiid looked in the second half. That was stupid, period.

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