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October 28, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers squeak out win vs. Pistons after ugly start

Sixers NBA
Matisse-Thybulle-Sixers-76ers-Pistons_102821_USAT Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Matisse Thybulle has been inconsistent to start the year, but remains a ferocious defender.

The Sixers started and finished ugly but dominated the middle portion of their game against the Pistons, ultimately emerging with a 110-102 victory on Thursday night. Joel Embiid looked more like himself in the victory, pouring in 30 points and 18 rebounds to lead Philly to the win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There were moments throughout this game where Embiid did not look fully there physically — refusal to close out on a shooter, a wince on his face after a Euro step, and so forth. But he strung together enough stretches to carry the Sixers through this one, which will have to be enough for now as he tries to rediscover his fastball.

If there's anything Embiid knows how to do at this point in his career, it's sensing an opportunity to put up points in bunches against backup bigs. After spending a lot of Tuesday's game against the Knicks clanging jumpers and avoiding the paint, Embiid cut down on the jumpers and attacked the basket against Detroit, putting Isaiah Stewart in foul trouble early. That gave him an opportunity to go to battle against Luka Garza, and it was a slaughter in the paint.

(Credit Garza for this much: Embiid's opponent made him pay for a few plays where he did not feel like closing out to the three-point line, making back some of the points he was giving up at the other end. Guarding stretch bigs is still a struggle for this group.)

You could tell Embiid was feeling it in the closing minutes of the first half, having bullied Garza something fierce around the basket. That's when it was time for Embiid to bust out one of the prettiest moves he has made all season, throwing a behind-the-back pass to Tyrese Maxey in the corner for a made three and the loudest cheer of the night.

Embiid was finally truly rolling for the first time this season, with 19 points and 12 rebounds at the half. While he slowed down considerably in the second half, that shot in the arm is exactly what the Sixers needed to get in gear.

Beating up Garza doesn't tell me anything about Embiid's well-being or this team's stature in the Eastern Conference. But everybody needs a get-right game once in a while, and the Sixers will have to hope this is one of those for their franchise player. Posting 30-18 ain't half bad.

• This was probably the best game this version of the starting lineup has played together, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Maxey, who has been viewed as the obvious odd man out once they get everyone healthy and available. I don't know if he did enough to dissuade Doc Rivers from shaking it up, but Maxey looked a lot more comfortable at the controls against Detroit, balancing scoring and playmaking with the top group rather well.

For lack of a better way to put it, Maxey's "feel" was much improved on Thursday night. He showed a better sense of when to hunt his own shot, when to defer, and what sort of pace to set for the group that was on the floor. Frankly, he looked a bit more like a point guard, a welcome sight after a rough start to the year for him.

More importantly, though, Maxey just got some shots to drop, which is all that it's going to take to change the calculus for him. Hitting a pair of threes against one of the league's worst teams isn't going to get teams to start guarding him out there, but it might give him the confidence he needs to start letting it go more often.

On the other side of the ball, you're also seeing real maturation from Maxey, who showed some good signs early against New York on Tuesday before the wheels fell off. He's making better reads away from the play, making some timely swipes when his man moves toward the cup, and figuring out ways to be useful even when he's giving up size. Important things to watch the rest of the way, regardless of whether he starts or comes off of the bench.

• The Sixers were not exactly up against an offensive juggernaut, but as their own offense deteriorated in the first half, they did well to stay engaged on the defensive end of the floor, making up for everything that went wrong on the other side of the ball. 

It's not often that you can say this, but a big chunk of it came in transition, where the Sixers ranked near the bottom of the league for most of last season. The Sixers had to get back in transition by necessity (we'll get to that in a moment) but tracked back well and made sure to limit damage on the break, which put the focus on Detroit's anemic offense.

Matisse Thybulle's (lack of) offense has taken center stage for me in the early season, but he made sure the focus was on his defense and activity early in this game, coming up with some big deflections and hustle plays to manufacture a few buckets for his teammates. He had one particularly impressive sequence in the first half, deflecting a ball to create a turnover, tearing down the floor in transition, and eventually saving a near turnover while keeping his head up, finding Georges Niang for an improbable score at the end of it. 

Without a grade-A option to worry about on the other team, Thybulle had more opportunities to do his chaotic flying octopus routine. It felt like he got his hands on anything even close to him on Thursday night, and it was a nice return-to-form after a choppy start to the year.

Overall, there were a decent amount of things to be happy with on defense. The Pistons made them look a bit better than they are on that end — what a group of bricklayers they are — but that doesn't take away from Philly's contributions. 

• It says a lot, and not in a good way, that Furkan Korkmaz is probably the guy you trust the most on Philadelphia's second unit right now. Even if we concede that it's an indictment of his running mates, credit to the Turkish wing/temporary point guard, because he's finding ways to create offense with a group that is making it very hard to do that right now. The Sixers can run him off screens as a shooter, put him at the controls of pick-and-rolls, and trust him as a passer more than, well, most of the rotation. 

The pass-fake into a Korkmaz layup is quickly becoming one of my favorite moves of the early season, and perhaps eventually we'll see someone actually defend Korkmaz at the rim instead of lunging toward the big.

• Having Shake Milton back is a good thing for this rotation, regardless of what you think of Milton as a regular contributor for these Sixers. For one, it gives them another guy who can dribble and shoot, two skills they rarely manage to have in the same player at one time, and helps diversify who they can run their offense through as the Sixers mix and match personnel.

It certainly helps when Milton actually manages to shoot the ball well, and Milton's offensive output is exactly why he might supplant Maxey in the starting lineup sooner than later. A little competition in the backcourt should bring the best out of everybody.

The Bad

• At some point, the Sixers are going to need Danny Green to play a game where he is useful on both sides of the ball at the same time. There have been good shooting performances, like his effort in New York the other night, and impactful off-ball moments on the defensive end, as we saw against Detroit on Thursday. But there have rarely even been stretches where they've gotten both, let alone a full game of both, and that's going to hurt this team regardless of whether Ben Simmons returns to the lineup or not.

As a lot of people learned the hard way in the second round, losing Green has side effects for both the starters and the second unit, with the top group losing something on both ends and the backups unsettled by changes to their mix. They need him to be the steady veteran presence he was last year to keep this thing stitched together over the long-term, unless somebody else breaks out.

• This game had shades of the early Embiid/Simmons years with all of the ghastly turnovers committed by the home team. Turnovers in the backcourt on what should have been run-outs, turnovers in pick-and-rolls, turnovers by Embiid against fairly ordinary double teams, turnovers of every variety you could think of. Sprinkle in an offensive foul here or there, and you have yourself an ugly number in the final box.

The only funny part about it was the fact that the Sixers threw a variety of flashy and/or unorthodox passes and none of those were punished. Maybe if they had thrown strictly behind-the-back passes on Thursday night, they would have cut down on their turnovers.

• Did not like this Andre Drummond performance in basically any way. He never got involved on the glass, got in some dumb physical battles that resulted in nothing (or worse, fouls on Drummond), and he couldn't even do us a favor and liven up this game with his trademark insane passes, relegated to rolling most of the night thanks to Milton's return. A true injustice. 

You really have to try hard to pick up six fouls in just 14 minutes. 

• This group really needs to work on how to balance bleeding the clock at the end of a game vs. actually running decent offense, because their default mode right now is to play excruciatingly slow and force whoever ends up with the late-clock hot potato to bail them out of stagnant possessions. If this team had, for example, Kevin Durant, you would be okay with doing that sort of thing. But with a post-up center at the center of their offense and an elite perimeter creator nowhere in sight, this team has to play with the same pace and purpose they play the opening 36 minutes with.

They are failing in these late-game sets for the same reason prevent defense gets carved up at the end of football games. When you're not even attempting to do the things that earned you the comfortable lead in the first place, why would anyone be surprised that things come to a screeching halt? On possessions where they made real attempts to run an offense, the Sixers looked mostly fine in crunch time. But walking the ball up and bleeding the clock with no plan aside from that is a terrible way to approach late-game offense. 

Honestly, I think some of this could be blamed on the coach, who decided to throw the starting lineup back into the game after they probably thought their night was over. I get that the second unit was on the floor as Detroit started creeping back into the game, and that Drummond fouling out changed the style of lineup you could play, but you're asking for trouble when you give the top guys a long rest and have them start to check out, only to yank them back in.

The Ugly

• The Sixers were very fortunate to be up against a terrible Pistons team on Thursday night, because if they played that first quarter against a team with a pulse, they might have been down 20 points by the end of it. It was a game with no juice and no real stakes, and they carried themselves as if that was the case, sleepwalking through the opening 12 minutes.

Philadelphia's offense has not been much of a problem so far this season — they ranked in the top-five for the entire league coming into Thursday night, if you can believe it — but it was as awful as it has been in a long time against Detroit. You would be hard-pressed to find something they did well in the opening 18-24 minutes of basketball. Their passes were erratic, they struggled to create separation off-the-dribble, and their shooting was worst of all, with the Sixers ineffective from range and reluctant to shoot on top of that. On one possession early in the second, the Sixers probably passed up four open threes on the same possession, ultimately having to get up a midrange look late in the clock.

The Pistons weren't a whole lot better, and the two teams combined to go 1-for-13 from deep in the opening period. But at least Detroit played with some degree of urgency, looking like a team full of young guys who actually wanted to compete. By comparison, the Sixers looked listless, and it's far too early in the season for them to be turning in these sorts of stretches.

• Josh Jackson smacking Embiid in the face had the potential for a real ugly response, so good on Embiid for showing some restraint and not getting tossed.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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