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January 23, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers escape with win over Spurs to close homestand

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The Sixers looked to have lost their second meeting with the Spurs with the team running cold in the fourth quarter, but a late push from their shooters and some clutch defensive plays got them over the line, and they escaped with a 122-120 win that will have them in high spirits heading into their west coast trip.

There was not a singular performance that got it done, but there were plenty of impactful contributions. Here's what I saw on Wednesday night.

The Good

• Jonah Bolden has planted himself in the rotation and I doubt there's any going back from here. He came on slowly, but he is making difference-making plays as a backup center every night, and that has changed the way we can look at Philadelphia's bench.

On one sequence midway through the second quarter, Bolden came up with a big block of LaMarcus Aldridge at the rim, stuffed him again on the follow-up attempt, and then ran the floor alongside Ben Simmons, finishing the play with a ferocious dunk.

Having another guy in the rotation who can impact the game defensively, specifically as a rim protector, is a game-changer for Philadelphia. He's still going to have to make more threes in order to really take the next step, but he has earned his spot in the rotation.

• Is Corey Brewer going to be on this team the rest of the season? It sure feels like it, based on how well he has played over the last two games. He hit a couple of threes in the first half against the Spurs, but more importantly, he has given the Sixers an injection of energy and toughness on defense they've needed on the wing.

There's something to be said about having guys around who actively enjoy the game. Brewer constantly has a smile on his face, and on a team that has been surly at times this season, Brewer's combination of production and charm has been delightful so far.

We've talked since the beginning of the year about how harmful their bench has been. Consider this: Brewer walked in off the street and has immediately made a difference. You can cut that one way or another, and from my view, it shows how easily this team could hit a new level if they can just get one or two more legitimate rotation players for the stretch run.

• As a passer, Ben Simmons was at his absolute apex on Wednesday night. He hit teammates with passes of all sorts — no-looks, bounce passes, hit-aheads, lobbed entries, everything you could think of. And he did all of that without ever really putting the ball at risk, with his turnovers a product of his dribbling rather than his passing.

I know we often focus on what he can't do, but he really has a special gift as a passer and I hope that doesn't get lost in the conversation about his shot.

And, by the way, he took a few jumpers against the Spurs, including one he got fouled on in the first half. Slowly, his aggressiveness is picking up as an attacker.

• Joel Embiid's offensive performance isn't one he's going to write home about, but he was one of the only people who altered what San Antonio was doing on offense on any level. DeMar DeRozan sliced Philadelphia's perimeter defense up pretty badly, but he still ended up getting stuck in midair on a bunch of his drives, afraid to attack Embiid at the summit.

That didn't stop DeRozan from hitting his usual array of floaters and mid-range nonsense, but it at least made the Spurs work.

• Speaking of defense, that was one of the better defensive games Landry Shamet has had as a pro. He wasn't necessarily all that great in one-on-one matchups, but he made some great reads as a help defender and jumped into passing lanes for a trio of steals.

Brown went offense/defense with Shamet and Brewer down the stretch, and Shamet delivered with a massive clutch three to bring the Sixers within striking distance. They've already gotten more than they could have hoped for out of him during his rookie year, and I look forward to what he gives them come playoff time.

• Your local Wilson Chandler defender has logged on. Insane clutch block in the guts of the game.

The Bad

• Joel Embiid was a force on the glass early on, which was great, but I thought he was way too insistent on trying to attack LaMarcus Aldridge one-on-one. Aldridge didn't have the greatest defensive rep early in his career, but he has made great strides over the years, and he held his ground well against Embiid by staying planted in response to Embiid's pump fakes.

Where Embiid did well was get down the floor and serve as a target for Ben Simmons in transition, and attack the glass when offensive rebound opportunities became available. But they can't afford for him to have tunnel vision, even with as talented as he is. His share of the offense is huge and sets the tone for the team, and he got a little too wrapped up in the individual battles against San Antonio.

(It should be noted that even on a night where Embiid clearly didn't have his best stuff that he still managed to put up a monster line. He just keeps coming and coming and coming, and by the time the dust settled, he had his usual NBA2K-esque numbers.)

• Patty Mills beat T.J. McConnell like a drum with the ball in his hands. Absolutely torched him. These are the matchups he really needs to win (or at least keep close), because he gets really exposed against teams with high-level guards. But Mills took him to the woodshed, and that's not a recipe for success for Philadelphia's bench.

• In fairness to McConnell, he wasn't the only one who had trouble on the defensive end. The Sixers did not offer a hell of a lot of resistance outside of Embiid and Bolden at the rim, and any time their rim protection go sucked away from the paint by a pick-and-roll, they got hammered in the paint, with Aldridge slamming home a few dunks without a Sixers player in sight.

It was a disappointing performance there even with how good the Spurs have been on offense since the beginning of December. The Sixers were without one of their best players against a well-drilled opponent, but they should have a better understanding of how to respond to the Spurs machine.

• JJ Redick offered the Sixers a whole lot of nothing on Wednesday. Got hunted on defense, and came up short on the vast majority of his jumpers. Not his night, though a four-point play from Redick helped Philly on its 10-0 run to end the game. (This is what I get for trying to write some of this before the fourth. They don’t win the game without his clutch shooting, so shame on me for doubting him, I guess).

• Brett Brown made a very curious decision in the middle of the fourth quarter — neither of Embiid or Simmons were on the floor for about a two-minute stretch in the middle of the quarter. On a night without Jimmy Butler, that's a pretty crazy risk to take on the personnel front.

The Sixers ended up down six at the end of that run, and that was close to being enough to clinch the game. We'll talk with Brown after the game about the logic behind the move because it made as little sense on paper as it did in practice.

The Ugly

• Watching Embiid head back to the locker room is never a welcome sight. Luckily, it turns out he just needed a little stretching in the first half to stay loose.

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