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November 07, 2018

Instant observations: Sixers get first road win of the season over Indiana Pacers

The Sixers probably would have liked to wrap the game up long before the final minute, but they came out of Indiana with an important road win all the same. A hard-fought game on national television ended with Philadelphia winning 100-94 over the Pacers, finally getting their first road win of the season.

Here's what I saw, or at least some of what I saw, because a Comcast outage in Fishtown forced me to switch back and forth between watching on my cell phone and watching distorted technicolor acid trips on my television. Shout out to Comcast for never coming through when it matters.

The Good

• There has probably not been a better start to a game for the Sixers' starting five than we saw from the headlining group on Wednesday night. The Sixers got contributions all across the board from their starters, using a team-wide attack to jump out to a 13-2 lead early against Indiana.

The short version: Joel Embiid dominated Myles Turner in the paint, Ben Simmons pushed with pace in transition, Robert Covington was active on D, Markelle Fultz hit a nifty touch shot in traffic, and Dario Saric even knocked down a three. It was all working for Philly, and these are the sort of bursts that lend hope the group can put it together over time.

Of course, Amir Johnson came in and things started going downhill for the Sixers after that, but it doesn't take away from the encouraging start.

• The lineup's results were not good, but seeing as I wrote an entire article about Brown not running enough smaller lineups, I was encouraged to see a Fultz-Redick-Shamet-Covington-Embiid lineup in the second quarter. Shortly afterward, Brown stayed small and tried out a Simmons-Shamet-Fultz-Chandler-Saric lineup, which could be assembled in a bunch of different orders depending on the possession.

This is the time of season to try out looks like these. The Sixers are getting nothing from the guy Brown wants to use as his backup center, so seeing what the team looks like in unorthodox looks, particularly with Mike Muscala on the shelf, is an absolute must.

The biggest problem we've seen from these looks to date has been their inability to protect the rim, which is no surprise when you look around at ultra-small looks around the league. It's why you'd like to see Muscala get more (if not all) of the backup center minutes when he's healthy — you get the benefits of small-ball with floor spacing on offense, and semi-credible defense at the rim.

• The Sixers were hanging on by a thread late in the third quarter, with another offensive dry spell threatening to derail them in the second half of a game. And it was ... Robert Covington who came to save the day?

Strange times, I know. But Covington had what may be the best finish he has ever had around the basket late in the third, putting some english on a layup attempt to pick up the bucket and the foul. 20 seconds later, Covington converted a three, and the Sixers had a bit of breathing room. 

Covington was a monster +23 through three quarters of action, and mini stretches like this helped the Sixers stay out in front despite stagnation and struggles on defense. Critics will point to Victor Oladipo's outburst as proof that "CoVinGton iS oVerRated," but he was active all night, disrupting Indiana's offense and serving as the glue that held Philadelphia together.

He has been one of their most important and consistent players again this season. And he even added some style points on Wednesday night:

• Big, big contributions off the bench from Landry Shamet in this one, and the Sixers needed him more than they have perhaps all season in Indiana. JJ Redick could not hit the broad side of a barn from deep against the Pacers, and so it was left to Shamet to come through as their offensive spark plug.

I keep saying this, but it sure feels foreign for the Sixers to get huge contributions from a late-first rookie. That's what good franchises do on a regular basis, and it's something the Sixers have to do year in and year out moving forward if they want to contend in the East.

• Markelle Fultz didn't have his best offensive game and continues to make life complicated for teammates when they post up, but he did a great job of getting active on the defensive end and following the lead of a guy like Covington. Fultz came up with a career high four steals against the Pacers, and the beauty of Fultz producing turnovers is that he can turn them into fast breaks the other way.

The Sixers have pretty consistently produced some breathing room with Fultz at the helm and Simmons on the bench in third quarters lately. That's a big development and something that is going to warrant a closer look as the Sixers settle in this season.

• I was all set to skewer Dario Saric for another clunker after the first half, when he looked a step slow on defense and continued to struggle on the offensive end of the floor. Then he came out of the halftime locker room and looked like a new man, justifying Brown's trust in him to right the ship.

The scoring outburst from beyond the arc shows exactly how different this team can look if he can simply capitalize on knocking down open shots. Teams would rather concede space to Saric than leave Embiid free in the post, and that's something Saric needs to exploit if he wants to stay on the floor in big moments.

Against the better Eastern Conference teams, who all seem to feature a bundle of athletes who can put it on the floor, Saric remains somewhat of a long-term concern. Whether or not Saric is playable on a successful regular season team is not as important as figuring out if he can be counted on to be a key contributor on a good playoff team. Indiana exploited him on switches quite a bit.

But Saric had some huge moments against Boston last year, and he has risen to the moment in international play before. Evidence suggests he's capable of stepping up when necessary. It took him a little while to settle in last season, and pehaps the real Saric finally stood up on Wednesday night.

• Not overwhelming games for Embiid and Simmons, but then you look down at the box score and they still left their mark all over the game: 20-10 with three blocks for the big man, 16-10-8 for Simmons. Talent sometimes wins out in the end.

• It was not the prettiest result in the world, but the Sixers got their first road win of the season. They will take it, ugly or not.

The Bad

• Amir Johnson continues to suck the life out of the Sixers, and not in the ways you would expect from a veteran backup center. He has lost a bit of juice, certainly, but the bigger problem is him turning into a turnover machine, exacerbating an issue that the team is already dealing with around him.

You can justify Embiid turning the ball over a lot because he's an inexperienced, high-usage post player. Johnson has just straight up thrown some plays and balls away, and he's going to find himself parked on the bench if he doesn't clean it up.

• Victor Oladipo is very good. He's not often 24-points-in-the-first-half good, and the Sixers made his life too easy by allowing him to get going with some easy buckets in transition.

Those came on — you guessed it — a plethora of Sixers turnovers, with the road team coughing the ball up another ten times in the first half. Some of these were completely avoidable, including a trio from Embiid that were mind-numbing at best. He's a talented basketball player, but going behind-the-back at the top of the key against a set defense is not a good odds play.

• Speaking of, I would have liked to see some better shot selection and decisionmaking from Embiid tonight, because he settled for some tough shots even when he'd already worked to earn a mismatch in the post. One glaring example was when he took a stepback jumper while guarded by Cory Joseph in the first half, despite towering over the guard.

It wasn't an overwhelming night for Embiid, who looked more ordinary than he has most of this season. That Philadelphia was able to pull away anyway is a credit to the group, and certainly to Embiid on the defensive end of the floor. He altered shots, came up with some hellacious blocks, and even credibly guarded Oladipo on a few possessions throughout the game. We'll dive a little deeper into his night tomorrow.

The Ugly

• This was a game screaming for a blowout in the second half, and the Sixers just didn't show the killer instinct to get over that hump. A small complaint, but they really need to learn to capitalize when a team is giving them a chance to step on their throat.

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