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January 31, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers beat Warriors on the road behind dominant Ben Simmons

Sixers NBA
013119-BenSimmons-USAToday Kyle Terada/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) dunks the basketball against the Golden State Warriors during the first quarter at Oracle Arena.

Down early and struggling, the Sixers looked like they were going to be overmatched against the league's most unstoppable force. With some help from a pair of rookies off the bench, a rally from Joel Embiid, and the best game of Ben Simmons' young career, the Sixers shook off that tough start to earn a 113-104 win over the Golden State Warriors, easily their signature win of the year.

The January Sixers live on. Here's what I saw from a tremendous performance, which featured gutsy efforts from a bunch of different players.

The Good

• After sleepwalking through the early minutes, Philadelphia woke up in a big way when they brought their bench guys in around the seven-minute mark. With Ben Simmons and Wilson Chandler left over from the starting five, the Sixers ripped off a 15-3 run, pulling themselves into a tie with Golden State despite having no business doing so.

So what was the key? Some good shooting definitely helped, but Simmons playing more of a forward role was huge. He finished a lob from T.J. McConnell, took Andre Iguodala into the post and scored easily, and on top of all that he was active on the defensive end, bothering the Warriors with his length and activity. It's not hard to see why the Sixers have been toying with Jimmy Butler at point lately; Simmons' diversity and size should be leaned into a lot more, and we got a good glimpse of that on Thursday night. 

They needed him badly with Embiid and Butler struggling early, and Simmons was on fire for basically the entire game, as he has been for a lot of the past month. The rest of the team was fumbling all over themselves trying to execute basic plays, and Simmons was darting down the floor in transition, blowing up plays on defense, and even sinking free throws with confidence.

The silver lining for Philadelphia with their odd-fitting stars is that they have players who are built to succeed in different sorts of matchups. Maybe they don't combine like Voltron, but they can lean on different guys in different scenarios, and Thursday was a Simmons night. Remember nights like these when you get frustrated by the lack of a jumper or his struggles against other good teams. The sky is the limit for this kid.

Simmons has had better box score lines, but I thought that was easily the best game I've ever watched him play. Not a moment went by without you feeling his presence on the floor. That's how it should be.

• What is it with Landry Shamet and games on national television? He's good for at least one major moment per game if the Sixers are playing in prime time, and his moment came in the first half against Golden State.

The three-point shooting is something we've come to expect, but I did not quite think Shamet had a block like that in him. He continues to show new things as the year rolls along, and I'm at the point where I feel good about his potential contributions in the playoffs, rookie or not.

• The Sixers seem to believe they need a rim protector to supplement Embiid, but I'm starting to believe that Jonah Bolden could be that guy. With the team in need of upgrades at the trade deadline, I firmly believe the Sixers need to invest whatever resources they deem fit to trade to upgrade the wing, and live with Bolden or whatever buyout guy they can get to spell Embiid in the playoffs.

The box score stats weren't overwhelming, but I thought that was the best performance of Bolden's young career. What really stood out was how fearless he was against the league's most unstoppable team. He didn't back down from DeMarcus Cousins in the paint, he tried risky passes in transition that came off, and as usual, he was not shy about letting his shot fly from deep.

The Sixers only need someone to play spot minutes behind Embiid in the playoffs. Bolden's athleticism and activity have made a difference. Bet on the kid.

• One of the best things you can say about Joel Embiid is that if he struggles at some point in the game, he's always going to try to fight back and reestablish his rightful place at the top of the pecking order. It took him until the third quarter against Golden State, but he was at his absolute best in a quarter that the Warriors typically own.

With Cousins on the bench, Embiid had the good fortune of being matched up with Kevon Looney in the paint. He threw Golden State's backup big man all around the paint, depositing offensive rebounds and making sure everyone knew he would not go down quietly.

When you looked up at the box score at the end of things, it was a typical Embiid line with subpar efficiency. And maybe that says it all — the dude just keeps coming, bad night or not. That's part of what makes him special. 26 points, 20 rebounds, and five assists against Cousins is a hell of a game.

• If you guys have been waiting for a win against an elite team, that one was it. That's a performance this team can point to — with Butler basically a no show, mind you — as a reason they can compete with any team in the league come playoff time.

The Bad

• Dear god, did the Sixers come out looking like they had no interest in protecting the basketball. The entire starting five contributed to the turnover problem early, not giving themselves a real chance to get it going against the Warriors starters.

Most of the turnovers weren't a product of anything the Warriors did offensively, which is absolutely maddening to watch. A pass from Ben Simmons off Wilson Chandler's hands here, Joel Embiid stepping out of bounds there, it was a smorgasbord of suck. Embiid was at the center of it all, with the Sixers center coughing up four of the Sixers' seven turnovers in the first five minutes of the game. Yikes.

The Warriors don't need any help to get rolling at Oracle, and the Sixers shot themselves in the foot with their go-to lineup. Not going to win many games like that.

• I can say quite confidently that Embiid's first half is up there with the worst 24 minutes of basketball he has had as a professional. He was a bumbling mess on the offensive end of the floor, and while he had a few nice defensive plays against DeMarcus Cousins, he was nowhere near his usual self on defense. There were times during his rookie season where he looked like a giraffe on ice skates, rather than an athletic freak, and that came back to the forefront against Golden State.

There was a stretch where he looked like he let the back and forth with Cousins get to him instead of allowing play to come to him, which contributed to the early turnover problem. Embiid could learn a lot from Cousins when it comes to moving the basketball because the double teams sent at him should turn into open looks for somebody if Embiid keeps his head up.

• As bad as Embiid was in the first half, Jimmy Butler's performance was even more concerning considering the long-term stakes of this summer. The Sixers specifically went out and got him to raise their ceiling against the league's elite teams, and he was an absolute no show on both ends in the first half against the Warriors.

Butler is in pursuit of a max contract this summer. The Sixers would love to give it to him if everything breaks right, but if he's going to outright disappear and go scoreless for entire halves, what exactly are they paying for? He's not going to get better, more athletic, or healthier as he hits his 30's. A commitment would be based on Butler giving them prime production now, and paying a premium for that, knowing the final years of the deal could get ugly. There are enough warning signs right now that everyone should take a hard look at the cost of keeping him for the next 4-5 years.

Worse than his lack of production, Butler was just straight up indecisive. With the ball in his hands to end the first quarter, he ran the clock all the way down before passing off to Corey Brewer, who couldn't get a shot up before the buzzer sounded. On a set in the second quarter, Butler had to turn around to ask Brett Brown about a play in the middle of a set.

He's too good to look lost in the shuffle, and he needs to figure it out. 

The Ugly

• Like a carton of milk that sat in the back of the fridge for too long, Corey Brewer's time may be up.

• Wilson Chandler came out early in the third quarter and was ruled out with a right quad strain. We'll have to see how severe the injury is, but that is awful news for a team with little/no wing depth.

His health (or lack thereof) is another point in favor of trading for a wing at the deadline. I simply don't know if they can count on his body holding up when it matters.


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