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November 21, 2018

Instant observations: Sixers escape with a win over Pelicans on Thanksgiving Eve

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112118-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Eric Hartline/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after making a shot before the buzzer at the end of the first quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Wells Fargo Center.

It took them every bit of 48 minutes to come up with a win thanks to some late-game shenanigans, but the Sixers came away with a tight win over the Pelicans on Thanksgiving Eve. Thanks to a potential game-tying free throw from Anthony Davis bouncing out, the Sixers came away with a 121-120 win that shouldn't have been that close.

Here are some quick thoughts on tonight's game. 

The Good

• Anthony Davis is not the sort of player Joel Embiid usually puts in his sights to trash talk and make a fool of on social media. For one, he's too good for that, but he's also more of a "new age" big than he is a traditional center a la Andre Drummond or Hassan Whiteside.

But Embiid does seem to relish playing against Davis and the Pelicans. He came out cooking on Thanksgiving Eve, piling up 15 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter alone, with three of those coming on the offensive end of the floor. That has never been an emphasis for Embiid or this Sixers team in general, so when he does get ahold of them, it's a nice little bonus.

And Embiid was certainly fired up for the occasion, in any case. He hit T.J. McConnell on a nice cut late in the first quarter, and when McConnell ended up missing the layup, Embiid let him hear about it during the next stoppage of play:

I'm with Embiid on this one. Gotta make the open layups when they come.

The more important work from Embiid comes on the defensive end against Davis, where he frustrated him anytime Davis tried to get to work inside. Davis flubbed a few balls out of bounds, struggled to convert looks with Embiid in his face, and was generally far below his usual standard of play.

Just remember when year-end awards season rolls around: defense should matter, too.

• This is an entirely new phenomenon for the Sixers, but it sure is refreshing for them to be able to put multiple wings on the floor who can shoot and dribble the ball.

That sounds like a small thing, but anyone who has followed this team for pretty much any amount of time over the last couple decades knows how precious this is. Philadelphia has their tempo setters in transition and their ball-dominant players in the halfcourt, but it pays dividends to have several options to make something happen at a moment's notice.

When the Sixers can put several guys who can grab-and-go on rebounds on the floor, they're much more dangerous in transition. Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler both scored on their own pushes in transition in the first half, helping to keep Philadelphia comfortably in front despite some typical struggles with turnovers.

• Building on that previous bullet, Chandler has been a big addition to this team just by providing some competence on the wing. He does a lot of things solid, and that is more than enough with their top-end talent.

• There was a bit of skepticism surrounding Ben Simmons to start the season, and some of it was well-placed. Last year's Rookie of the Year was struggling to get anything going and dealing with some lingering back pain, and the experiment with Markelle Fultz as a starter only amplified his biggest weaknesses on offense.

Simmons has really started to take off since Butler arrived in Philadelphia, and that's no coincidence. With Butler in the fold instead of Fultz, the Sixers can let Simmons operate in a wider variety of areas on the court, with defenses shading attention toward the All-Star scorer.

For Simmons, that has manifested itself primarily in post-up opportunities. He gets much smaller bodies on him than Embiid tends to, so it's a heck of a lot easier for him to leverage that into deep paint catches. Once he gets the ball close to the hoop, he's really difficult to deal with.

The one thing he needs to clean up? This will not shock you, but it's the turnovers. Simmons is still playing too fast and loose with the ball, and he's got to start taking better care of the ball and set an example for the rest of his guys as the team's point guard.

• We pile on Amir Johnson a lot around here, so tonight he deserves his credit for helping to slow down Davis on offense. Johnson kept himself just close enough to prevent him from getting easy shots up from mid-range, but not far enough away that Davis could blow by him for dunks or layups.

This is the sort of game that buys him trust with the head coach, and why I presume they'll keep him around no matter how bad his lows look at times. He has the defensive principles stored in his mind, and in the right matchup, he can help steady the second unit on the back end.

• Landry Shamet's first two threes of the game took a lot of extra English to finally drop, but they went down all the same. And that was the start of a very nice night for the young guard, who continues to give the Sixers exactly what they need on the second unit: the threat of a shooter.

The next step for him will be taking that threat of the three-point shot and weaponizing it, either side-stepping defenders or attacking closeouts with drives. He pulled off the former against Davis in the third quarter, drawing three free throws when the Pelicans' big man attempted to recover from biting on the pump fake.

It's almost too good to be true that the Sixers have a rookie drafted in the late first contributing right away. And with Redick back in the starting lineup, being able to direct swap Shamet in helps the Sixers keep some continuity in the stuff they run, regardless of the surrounding pieces.

The Bad

• This is decidedly not the matchup for Mike Muscala on defense at either of the frontcourt spots. When Anthony Davis is at center, he very obviously has no chance to keep up with him. But Julius Randle, the Pelicans' backup power forward, is also a pretty brutal matchup for him to deal with on the defensive end of the court.

Randle has the speed and the skill to push in transition, paired with the power to bully on the glass. Muscala is a lot of things, but he's definitely not capable of dealing with a human bulldozer.

• Speaking of Randle, that guy is quite a sight to behold in person. His strength at his size is pretty remarkable, and despite his limitations I'm surprised there wasn't more of a market for him last summer.

• JJ Redick is going to want to forget about this night at the office. There's not a whole lot more you can say than that — he couldn't get anything going from deep and missed open looks all throughout the evening.

Redick did keep his motor running on the defensive end. He came up with a couple really nice effort plays in transition, slapping balls out of Pelican hands that would end up going out of bounds for turnovers. And for all his offensive struggles as a shooter, he was still able to leverage the attention on him into easy looks for teammates. 

• Having said that, Redick took one of the dumbest fouls I've seen him or any other Sixers player take. E'Twaun Moore rose up to shoot a three in the corner with about nine minutes left in the fourth, and Redick made absolutely no attempt to play the ball, giving Moore a light push in the chest as he sunk the three and picked up the and-one.

Moore bailed him out missing the free throw, but it was a needless foul that he should be way smarter on. And Redick compounded that foul with another one on Jrue Holiday minutes later, slapping at his arm as the shot clock was set to expire.

• Embiid really needs to start cutting down more on the contested long two's he's taking, as they're a big reason for the offensive stagnation the team suffers through in third quarters.

Now that there are more weapons around him, Embiid has to look to take the attention on him and use it against opponents. Butler has flashed open through the lane on cuts only to be ignored by the big man, which should be cleaned up over time.

• Butler had sort of a tough night from the field overall, but no idea why the Sixers didn't let him keep cooking down the stretch, other than out of respect for Jrue Holiday's defense. He hit a few tough ones from the mid-post in the fourth quarter, and then was stowed in the corner for far too many possessions in favor of clearouts for Simmons. No bueno.

• Joel, you can't foul Davis on that last possession, my dude. 

The Ugly

• Before the game, a team of scribes at The Athletic (including my local colleague Derek Bodner) broke a story about the Markelle Fultz saga. The short version: next week, Fultz will also have his wrist looked at on top of his shoulder, and Fultz reportedly would like a fresh start with a new team, despite his agent claiming shortly after the story dropped that no one with the Sixers had been told this

The desire to be traded might end up being the most notable part of this latest fiasco, at least as it pertains to the fan response Fultz receives in Philadelphia. To date, the second-year guard has been the beneficiary of an unbelievably kind response from the local fans, despite how little he showed and how much was (and is) riding on him turning into a major piece.

If I had to guess, that period is over. It's one thing to set aside the nonsense for someone fighting for their spot and interested in digging out of this thing with his team, but looking for an escape hatch now? That seems like it'll end poorly for everyone, if and when Fultz suits up again.

I do not envy Elton Brand, who did nothing more than inherit this mess from his predecessor.


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