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December 28, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid carries Sixers to victory vs. Raptors

Sixers NBA

Joel Embiid put the Sixers on his shoulders and carried them to victory on Tuesday night, making sure Philly came away with a 114-109 win over the undermanned Raptors.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Raptors have been able to give Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid a lot of problems over the years, in part due to individual players and in part due to their game-to-game prep, which has stood out from the pack during the Nick Nurse era. But even though they struggled to execute at times early, it felt like the Sixers came in with a coherent gameplan and plan of attack with the starters, and it allowed Embiid to get off to a good start on the road.

Naturally, the Raptors sent a lot of double teams at Embiid, not wanting to leave Chris Boucher on an island to defend him. Embiid did an excellent job of balancing his responsibility as a playmaker with the comical mismatch he had basically any time the Raptors single-covered him — Boucher looks like a guy Embiid could pick up and dunk in the basket himself, and he nearly did a few times, blowing the smaller defender off of his spot.

Toronto is also known for playing unsettling and unorthodox defensive concepts if it helps them mask a disadvantage, and I thought the Sixers (and Embiid specifically) did a nice job to deal with a matchup zone they tried to use at times on Tuesday. With Embiid positioning himself around the free-throw line and his teammates making quick passes to and around him, the concept sort of fell apart for Toronto.

Early in the second half, Embiid made his move to put this game away, with the Sixers repeatedly using Harris as an entry passer around the free-throw line while the big guy sealed off his defender around the rim. On three or four straight plays, Embiid either scored or got fouled, inspiring Marc Jackson to note the example of "BBQ chicken" we were all watching.

Unfortunately for the big man, he wasn't getting a whole lot of help from his running mates (or his coach) in the third quarter, which allowed the Raptors to hang around far longer than they should have with such a depleted roster. It's hard to find anything to ding him for in this one — his effort was good from moment one, he played unselfishly, punished weaknesses, and protected the rim at a high level all night. And to really drive the point home, he was the guy who ultimately shut the door on defense on Toronto's most important possession, locking down the paint and effectively ending the game.

If you ask me, he has the right to chew out anybody in the locker room that he feels like after this game. Get the man some extra Christmas presents. 

• Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang weren't exactly shooting the lights out in the time immediately before they missed a handful of games each, and while I won't suggest time off helped either one, the Sixers have definitely gotten the better versions of each player over the last couple of games. Anyone can bring shooters off of the bench, but the key is for them to be makers, and these two have started to find the range.

For Korkmaz, this was simply an extension of a good game against the Wizards on Sunday night. He was a little overzealous with some of his rim attacks, with transition attempt drawing an audible laugh out of me, but seeing Korkmaz flowing with confidence was a welcome sight. He's on the roster to make threes, and he has to shoot himself through/out of slumps, no matter how ugly they might get.

Niang, on the other hand, brings floor spacing and just enough game intelligence to the second unit, where he helps out in areas beyond shooting — he makes smart rotations on defense and gets to the rim just enough to keep teams honest, with Niang even making a couple of nice reads as a short-roll passer against the Raptors. He was overextended when he had to start a handful of games during their first COVID crisis of the year, but he's a rock-solid bench guy who understands his role.

Who knows how this game ends if Niang isn't available to play. This game was a lot closer than it had any right to be when he helped put it out of reach in the fourth quarter, going on a scoring run of his own to put the Sixers up double digits, calming any concerns that they might blow this least for a few minutes.

Depth — it's good.

• Paul Reed has fallen out of favor with Charles Bassey making his case for the backup center role, but this felt like a good matchup to get the leaner Reed involved. With Toronto small at basically all times, Reed's defensive versatility and ability to hold up on an island against wing players and guards ended up being pretty important.

Beyond that, I continue to like the discretion Reed has shown when he has gotten opportunities this year. It's hard to ask a young guy to play under control if they have no idea when their next opportunity is coming, with Reed needing to beat out Bassey and Andre Drummond when everyone is healthy. But he comes down with offensive rebounds and either put up sensible shots at the rim or recycles the possession, and Reed has not taken the bait when teams try to encourage him to take long jumpers. He'll need to hit threes eventually, but his approach has been perfect for the role he's in currently.

• I thought Marc Jackson did a good job in fill-in duty as the color commentator on the broadcast. He was the right amount of homer for a local broadcast — willing to gloss over some borderline fouls the Sixers got away with, but no whining about missed calls, and plenty of good analysis and fun banter with Kate Scott throughout the game. Not easy to jump into that role with minimal preparation, so kudos to him.

The Bad

• Win or loss, this would have been an embarrassing performance from pretty much everyone on the roster. Embiid being a superhuman does not negate the fact that they struggled to beat a team as ravaged by COVID as the Raptors are.

• Pascal Siakam's fresh legs appeared to make a big difference on Tuesday night, but his outburst against Philadelphia also highlighted one of the issues with Tobias Harris being a building block for an organization. Siakam is in fringe All-Star territory at his best, and there is a pretty clear gap between him and Harris as two-way players, one that is most evident when they're matched up against each other in a game.

When Siakam is able to hit tough midrange jumpers over you, that's something you're just going to have to deal with, but Siakam also made Harris look impossibly slow at times on Tuesday night, getting by him to score, get fouled, or create an advantage somewhere else on the floor for Toronto, bringing Embiid into help before finding an opening with his passing. 

But there's a huge coaching-related gripe with this matchup — in the first half, the Sixers switched Embiid onto Siakam and Harris onto Boucher at one point, which slowed Siakam down after a hot start. This is something we've seen the Sixers do for years against Toronto, and it makes plenty of sense on paper. 

For some reason unknown to me, the Sixers decided to flip the matchups back to the standard pairings in the second half, and it benefitted both Raptors players. Siakam went back to burning Harris in isolation more often than not, and Boucher made Embiid defend all the way out to the three-point line, hitting three threes in the third quarter even with Embiid making a good effort to close out on him. Not sure why you'd go away from a style that suited you well, and it's not like you're saving any miles on Embiid's legs by making him defend a guy who is constantly spacing the floor. Embiid was forced to double Siakam on a ton of plays anyway, so I'm not sure why you'd hesitate to get him on Siakam in any way.

The box score suggests Harris left his mark on this game in spite of his poor offensive showing — and his transition play was pretty good, to be fair to him — but those numbers feel like happenstance. There were dumb entry passes to Embiid that he got away with, poor effort plays that Jackson noted on the broadcast and numerous head-scratching turnovers where he dribbled into traffic without a plan or care in the world.

• Building off of the above coaching gripes, the Sixers went away from other stuff that was working for no real reason. Philadelphia's approach last season was to re-run all successful plays until their opponent proved capable of stopping it, but when they stumbled into positives on Tuesday, and we didn't see enough of that against the Raptors, who didn't have the roster flexibility to make changes if the Sixers had something working.

One guy I thought this impacted more than anybody was Tyrese Maxey. One of the best plays of the game involved a ball screen for Maxey by Harris, Embiid rolling from the other side of the lane for a drop-off pass and an easy bucket at the rim. But Maxey was relegated to attacking from or standing in the corner a lot of the night.

(Maxey didn't help himself with poor touch all night, which a coach can't do anything to fix.)

There's just not a lot I can point to right now that looks like a positive reflection on Rivers. Embiid has to bail them out of so many bad possessions on both ends of the floor, and while that is ultimately the job of a superstar player when times get tough, the Sixers' structure is making nearly everything harder and more complicated than it should be.

• I know we've seen him do this for years now, but there are still defensive moments for Matisse Thybulle that simply amaze you when he comes out of nowhere to make a play. He blocked a three in transition in the first half of Tuesday's game where you ran through a bunch of emotions within the span of about three seconds — there's no way he can get there, he might pick up a dumb foul here, holy crap he managed to block that shot.

On the offensive end, though, I struggle to find the middle ground between valuing his ability to live play-to-play and being incredulous that he has such a green light as a shooter. Thybulle can't become a reliable outside threat if the Sixers don't allow him to let it rip from deep, so I get it on some level, but there are two to three moments every game where you wonder if Thybulle is at all aware of his limitations as a player. He called his own number on an iso in the third quarter in a moment that only barely rose above slapstick comedy routine, and it probably would have lived on in a lowlight if Paul Reed hadn't grabbed the offensive rebound.

When he hits a three off of a relocation to the corner as he did late in Tuesday's first half, you wonder what could be if he ever develops the attack. If those flashes were more frequent, you might be able to look at his role on this team from a more permanent perspective. As is, it's a total adventure when he touches the ball.

• Seth Curry's defensive decision-making in this game was as bad as it has been all season. Early in the game, there were possessions where you could give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that perhaps they were leaving certain guys alone to entice them to shoot, given the banged-up state of Toronto's roster. It was harder to maintain that belief as the game went on, with Curry's man frequently wide open for no discernible reason.

Saying Curry doesn't try isn't really an accurate assessment of his defense, because trying is often what gets him into trouble. If Curry would simply sit on his assignment instead of over-helping, there are several possessions per game when opposing teams would have a tougher time getting a clean shot up. Add on that he gets wiped out by screens if you put him in actions and you have the foundation for a pretty negative defensive player.

But man, the dude can shoot it.

The Ugly

• I don't say this to dunk on the guys who are fighting for their spots and playing these minutes to make names for themselves, but the bench-heavy minutes for any team right now are just disgusting. You're throwing together a bunch of guys who don't know each other, barely know the offense, and in many cases aren't really cut out for regular NBA minutes. They're getting the games in, but they aren't very good. 

• Completely unrelated to the game tonight, was very sad to learn about John Madden's passing on Tuesday night. Beyond the countless hours I spent playing video games with his name on them over the last 25-ish years or so, Madden is one of the first sports voices I can remember from my childhood, the guy who was seemingly on all the big games I watched with my dad growing up. And I probably took for granted at the time Madden's ability to both entertain and teach with his bits of color commentary, because I mostly loved hearing him yell "BOOM" or "WHAP" while drawing routes on the telestrator after I first became aware of who he was.

To borrow from the legend himself, "now here's a guy" who made knowledge accessible and entertained the audience while helping them learn. He set an example all of us in the media could take notes from — and he was a hell of a coach, too. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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