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March 10, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers beat Pacers to climb to No. 3 in the East

Down 14 to Indiana late in the first half, the Sixers looked like they were on the verge of getting blown out on their home floor. But behind a dominant performance from Joel Embiid and contributions from all over the roster in the second half, the Sixers mounted a comeback, and ultimately came up with a monster 106-89 win.

With the victory over the Pacers, the Sixers have clinched the season series over their foes from Indiana, and now officially sit in third place in the Eastern Conference. It was a huge win for Philly, so here's what I saw on Sunday afternoon.

The Good

• Whenever you get Joel Embiid back in time for a pivotal game in the Eastern Conference playoff race, that deserves to lead the good column.

• For all the struggles Embiid had on the offensive end early on, I thought he was an obvious difference maker on defense from the get-go. Some of the easy buckets the Sixers have given up lately have been a reflection of poor defensive instincts from their backups, and those disappeared with Embiid on the floor.

Embiid does not have prolific numbers as a shot-blocker. They're good and sometimes great, but that's not what makes him special. It's taking the right step at the right time to cut off a driver without straying too far from his own assignment. It's using his length to force a lofted attempt at the rim that falls harmlessly on the other side of the basket.

He stabilizes everything on defense when he's on the floor. There's a lot less finger pointing because he erases other people's mistakes, and even when he's not being credited with a counting stat he is altering an opponent's offensive gameplan. 

It did not take long for him to remind everyone why he will be a fixture in Defensive Player of the Year races as long as he is healthy.

• I thought the game was there to be blown open in the second quarter, with the Sixers down 14 and looking like absolute slop. But they made a push before halftime to bring it back within striking distance, and a lot of that can be credited to Ben Simmons turning the intensity level up.

There are times when his insistence on pushing the tempo comes back to haunt the Sixers. The line between aggressiveness and recklessness is thin. On Sunday, they needed every bit of that urgency he plays with in transition. It brought the crowd back to life when Simmons sprinted down the floor for points in transition, and it certainly sparked the Sixers.

• With the understanding that I'm not the head coach and I don't make these decisions, I think it is pretty clear that James Ennis is the guy who should get the bench wing minutes. He and Jonathon Simmons both have flaws, but Ennis at least plays with some semblance of control, compared to Simmons' high-wire insanity and late-clock excursions toward the rim.

Ennis picked up some cheap fouls and wasn't anything special against Indiana, but he made a few hustle plays, stayed in front of his man on defense, and looks like their safest bet to provide value in the rotation come April.

• His game is not aesthetically pleasing to watch, and he picked up a couple of cheap fouls that he could have avoided. But Amir Johnson plays his ass off, and he was an integral part of Philadelphia tightening things up on defense in the second half of Sunday's game.

This guy was basically in mothballs a month ago. Against Indiana, he was coming up with turnovers in transition through nothing other than pure effort. He has earned his recent minutes big time.

• The upgrade from Mike Muscala to Mike Scott is pretty hard to overstate for Philadelphia's rotation. And combined with the above points on Ennis and Johnson, their performances all add up to one thing — a massive defensive upgrade for the Sixers from what they had on the bench earlier this season.

That is going to pay dividends in the playoffs. The Sixers' offense is going to run through their stars when it matters, and they need the rest of the team to fill in roles and play hard on both ends. They got exactly that out of the bench mob on Sunday.

• Myles Turner is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year this season. Embiid's second half made him look like he should be playing against 55-year-old white dudes in Nike Monarchs at a YMCA on the Mainline.

He had absolutely no chance here:

33 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes is not a bad way to make a return to action.

The Bad

• There are very few players who are good enough on offense to excuse them for taking stretches of games off on defense. LeBron James has been for years, and he has had that cost him during his first year in the west. James Harden is notorious for defensive issues, but he's also a one-man juggernaut on offense that has little precedent in the history of the league.

Jimmy Butler is not on the level of Harden or LeBron, so perhaps he should start playing defense like he's aware of that fact. Embiid, who hadn't played in weeks, played more credible defense against Bojan Bogdanovic when isolated on him than the guy who is supposed to be one of Philadelphia's lockdown perimeter guys.

Yes, Butler tends to save some of his energy for later in games, and perhaps he believes he's keeping some in the tank for their playoff run. No one is going to want to hear that if they have to go on the road to start the playoffs or go up against Boston in the first round because Butler has decided he's going to be selective about when he cares about defense.

The ability is there. He made some big plays late and helped kickstart the fourth quarter run that won Philly the game. Let's hope that's what ultimately matters in the playoffs.

• Joel Embiid got dinged for a nonsense foul call late in the first quarter, which contributed to the foul trouble he got himself into. But once he was already sitting on two fouls, he needed to adjust his playing style to keep himself on the floor. You can't help the team while sitting on the bench.

Unfortunately, his anger with a bad call and his excitement to be out on the floor again got the best of him, and he made a reckless attempt to come up with a chasedown block early in the second quarter. That doesn't help him on any level — less time to get into a rhythm, less time to develop chemistry, less time to help inch the team toward a win.

But Brown decided to give him a chance to play more minutes in the second quarter anyway, and he was rewarded for the aggressiveness. The Sixers closed out the second quarter strong and probably don't get back in the game at any point if not for a bit of aggressiveness with Embiid's minutes/foul trouble.

• If you thought Embiid was going to jump back into the swing of things on offense without any rust, I'm sure you quickly corrected course. He was brilliant overall, but even some of Philadelphia's basic plays were tough for him to execute. Dribble handoffs with JJ Redick, a staple play for this group, were botched on numerous occasions.

And look, I give the big man a bit of a pass for not looking A+ in his first game back. I had a much bigger issue with how sloppy Philadelphia looked even when Embiid wasn't on the floor.

One of the "benefits" of losing Embiid for this stretch should have been to develop some semblance of chemistry without him on the floor. This would presumably make the Sixers a more dangerous team in the playoffs — if you can win the minutes without your franchise player on the floor, you're in great shape.

But against Indiana (and really, over the last week) we saw an entire half where the Sixers looked like they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. It doesn't reflect well on anyone — the coaching staff should be expected to have them sharper than they've been, and the players should not need a month plus to make basic offensive reads in an offense built around fairly simple principles.

Give this group credit for rallying in the second half. But they should be able to string together stronger four quarter efforts.

The Ugly

• You have to hand it to Ed Malloy's crew for making sure everyone knew they were there on Sunday. With the No. 3 seed up for grabs and a national television audience ready to invest in Sixers vs. Pacers, the officials decided they were going to turn a showcase game into a ref show, blowing whistles left and right on plays that weren't fouls, only to ignore obvious fouls as they were happening in real time.

The Sixers are already in a tough spot right now, trying to get a bunch of new players assimilated before a playoff run. Playing in a game like this wasn't going to help — you can't get a rhythm going when it's start-stop action all night.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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