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January 03, 2022

Instant observations: Joel Embiid triple-double powers Sixers win vs. Rockets

Joel Embiid put up a monster triple-double against the Houston Rockets on Monday night, leading the Sixers to a 133-113 blowout win with his brilliant all-around performance. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The words "Joel Embiid in transition" used to terrify Sixers fans for a lot of reasons, mainly because the big guy was liable to turn the ball over or potentially injure himself when he picked up a head of steam on the break. Now, Embiid remains a scary sight on the move, but the fear comes from the opponent, with the big man looking like a completely different player on the break this year. 

Without Ben Simmons to dominate the ball in transition, the Sixers have had to democratize their fast break process, which has given Embiid far more opportunities to grab a rebound and attack the opponent's basket himself. That doesn't always mean getting all the way there and scoring. Embiid found Shake Milton for a transition layup on a play in the first half...

...but Embiid being able to score off his own dribble in transition is a huge deal, allowing him to get some easy-ish buckets without needing to bang in the post for 8-10 seconds. Even just constant running of the floor is a good sign for Embiid and his overall health, as the big guy showed when he hammered a dunk after stepping around Garrison Mathews in the first quarter:

There's a lot more to it than what he does on the break, obviously. The Sixers have been in pretty bad shape as a team recently, whether because of poor performances, COVID-related issues, or the usual schedule strain that undermines most NBA teams. Embiid has been able to paper over most if not all of that, carrying the Sixers on both ends by realizing his potential as a combination of brute strength and beautiful touch.

Embiid's focus was touch-and-go for a bit after he first returned from COVID, part of their struggles against undermanned and inferior competition. That has changed over the last few weeks, with Embiid setting a physical tone and making an effort to dominate early offense, establishing deep position and quickly reestablishing to get a better seal if he doesn't like the early look. Poor Daniel Theis was taken for a ride during most of Monday's game, in search of answers as Embiid went through, by, and over him during a dominant performance.

Underneath all of that, Embiid has started to make the playmaking portion of the game look much easier. Crosscourt passes to the corner that used to be outliers are now routine for him, and he has helped himself a lot in the assist tally by improving as a screener as well. There are still possessions where he bails too early in order to get in position for his own offense, but the average Embiid screen gives whoever is in the action with him room to get an open shot.

The game looks easy for him right now, and you could argue the recent, sustained run he is on is as good or better as any portion of the MVP push he made last year. The Rockets are a bad basketball team, but Embiid did his job and then some, dominating Houston to give his team a good chance to win. The triple double was a nice added bonus.

• The Sixers needed someone to step up and co-star alongside Embiid with Tyrese Maxey out, and the unlikely man who rose to the occasion was Furkan Korkmaz. Playing pseudo point guard for a lot of the game, Korkmaz got some shots to go down early and kept cooking Houston for most of the evening, bailing out the other role players who failed to show up for this game. 

Hesitation moves have become a huge part of Korkmaz's arsenal, allowing him to compensate for whatever get lacks as a ballhandler or limitations with his first step. Korkmaz has a good sense of how to rock his defender in one direction before slithering by him the next instant, and with the opposing big man often more concerned with stopping Embiid, Korkmaz can score a lot of easy buckets at the rim when he plays next to and off of the big fella. 

And Korkmaz was much more than a scorer against the Rockets, collecting double-digit rebounds in a bigger role than he normally has. There were a few he grabbed that were legitimately tough, but even if he grabbed nothing but cheapies, you can't take any rebounds for granted if you've watched this team play all year. Sprinkle in a handful of assists with increased playmaking opportunities, and it was one of the best Korkmaz games all season, certainly his best since he got off to a hot start at the beginning of the year.

• If Dan Burke is taking instruction from Doc Rivers, it certainly hasn't been in the lineup and rotation department. The way Burke has used his subs has been radically different than a typical Rivers gameplan, with Burke doing everything he can to protect heavy-bench lineups from drowning on their own, something we have advocated for in this space since Rivers took over.

The formula has been something like this so far — Embiid plays most (if not all) of the first and third quarters, with the rest of the lineup changing around him as the quarter wears on. And with the likes of Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Tobias Harris back in the game once Embiid sits, the Sixers have some extra shooting and creation on the floor when Embiid is out, helping out the offensively-challenged backups after the big guy hits the bench.

To reiterate something we discussed after the Nets game, that hasn't necessarily produced the results you'd like to see, mostly because Harris and Curry have been less than good lately. But I will take good process with bad results over bad process that ends with similarly bad results. You have to at least try to do the right thing in order to get rewarded.

• I am a card-carrying skeptic of any future with Paul Reed playing power forward, but this game against a bad opponent was admittedly a good opportunity to get him minutes there. And in limited first-half minutes, Reed made a good impression, offering a dose of energy in a game that didn't feature enough of it from Philly's perspective.

Reed makes it hard to miss him when he's on the floor, and though that occasionally means he is flying out of control doing something he shouldn't, he has learned how to direct that length and energy in a productive fashion. He almost immediately picked up an offensive rebound after checking into the game, and there were several smart and timely rotations into the paint that saved the Sixers from conceding open layups, Reed filling the space Embiid couldn't while guarding the perimeter.

A more organized team might punish him for his inability to shoot, but that's a story for another day. Good Reed performance.

• It has been a long time since we've been able to write about a solid Isaiah Joe outing, but he finally, mercifully found the range against the Rockets on Monday night. Secondary creation opportunities are not going to be there all that often — though Joe had a nice basket attack that put him on the line against Houston — so Joe's shooting remains the most important thing for him, giving him a chance to get and stay on the floor.

Sometimes, all it takes for a shooter is one confidence game to get on a roll, so who knows if this means anything for Joe or not. But he needed one of these and assuming he remains in the rotation in the short-term, this is a game to build on.

Seth Curry was as bad as he has been all season in the first half of Monday's game, but Philadelphia's separation from Houston in the second half directly coincided with Curry waking up as a shooter. In other words, if I was the Sixers' head coach, I would simply tell the shooters to make more shots. Feel free to give me millions of dollars whenever you want, other NBA teams.

The Bad

• I have been picking on Tobias Harris a lot lately, and you almost start to feel bad about it at some point, but there's just no getting around how bad he has been. There are constant issues on both ends of the floor that either involve Harris directly or stem from his integral place on the roster, and they are going to keep hitting a glass ceiling so long as he is a central figure for this team. 

At his best, Harris is a guy who can help you hunt switches and target the weak link in a defensive chain, but lately a Harris-driven possession has been where good offense goes to die. It is just meandering mid-post possession after meandering mid-post possession, with Harris simply hoping that tough jumpers over outstretched arms would go in. He can't beat guys off of the dribble, and while he had a nice move for two points at the rim in the first half, he can't really move anyone on the block right now either, with Harris getting stonewalled by guys like Eric Gordon.

Give him credit for this much — Harris' overall effort picked up in the second half, as he made an impact on the offensive glass and helped maintain the lead with Embiid on the bench to open the fourth. Rather than dominating the ball and trying to score that way, Harris made the most of second-chance opportunities, eventually finding his way to a respectable line.

The bigger issue — Harris was one of the main culprits in a putrid defensive effort on the perimeter in the first half on Monday night. The Rockets tried to keep Embiid away from the rim by spacing Daniel Theis or using small ball at times, heightening the importance of good man defense. Harris was a ball watcher and an uninterested defender on far too many possessions, watching Rockets players walk to the rim for layups, dunks, or trips to the free-throw line when somebody else tried to step in.

(Quick sidebar: Harris was far from the lone culprit in their perimeter defensive issues on Monday, and has not been the only underachiever there all season. Seth Curry continues to be an absolute trainwreck on that end a lot of the time, actively harmful by either missing his rotation or rotating when it's not necessary. Guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Isaiah Joe give an effort, but that effort is often not enough, with fouls coming fast and furious as a result of poor technique or decision-making. Bottom line is you can only take so many good defenders out of the lineup before things go haywire, and the two best perimeter defenders for Philly did not play on Monday.)

There were small bursts of boos directed at Harris throughout the first half, and it got much uglier over time, with what seemed like half of the arena on his case as he finished off his ghastly first half against Houston. When Houston turned the ball over as the crowd booed his miss on the previous possession, Harris used the brief stoppage to beckon to the crowd around halfcourt, though it was unclear if he was sarcastically asking to hear more boos or hoping to get just a little positivity from the home fans.

That's the state of Harris' basketball life right now. As we have to keep noting when talking about him, there could be long-haul COVID effects slowing him down. But whether this has anything to do with COVID or not, he is in a bad, bad place, and if he can't get right during this soft stretch of the schedule, the Sixers are in some serious trouble down the road.

The Ugly

• Shake Milton was down under the basket for a while after a spill he took midway through the fourth quarter, rubbing his back after the fall and remaining on the floor for a solid chunk of time. Though he walked off under his own power, it's something to keep an eye on given the state of the roster and their guard situation. They can hardly afford to lose any of their small handful of guys who can dribble.

• Some of the folks in the section behind us at the game are not embracing the concept of, "New year, new me!" Houston's players got an absolute earful from a few guys all night, and while the trash talk is normally one of my favorite parts of the arena experience, there was simply no creativity on display Monday night. If you want to make fat jokes and short jokes, for example, you have to do more than simply calling someone fat or short. It's not like there's a shortage of material!

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