More Sports:

November 12, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers grind out win over Cavaliers as Ben Simmons returns


These Sixers sure have a flair for the dramatic, don't they? After letting the Cleveland Cavaliers hang around for most of Tuesday's game in Philadelphia, they came up with a finishing blow when it mattered, squeaking by them in a 98-97 victory.

Here's what I saw on Tuesday night.

The Good

• Tremendous play design from Brett Brown on the play that ultimately won the Sixers the game. Whether they should have been in position to potentially lose is another story, but they got their franchise big man a wide-open look at the rim, which is all you can really ask for in that spot.

• Furkan Korkmaz knocking down threes has been the biggest difference for him between this season and the two prior, but finding confidence as a shooter has also had a knock-on effect for the rest of his game. When you feel good about your place in the team and aren't looking over your shoulder thinking you could get yanked, it's an empowering feeling.

Korkmaz has always had a few more tricks in his bag, it has just been a matter of using them. The Sixers often want to play through Ben Simmons in transition, and rightfully so, but it doesn't always have to be as the ballhandler, and Korkmaz showed what it can look like when other guys get a chance to grab and go.

Sprinkle in some floaters and behind-the-back passes, and you have a useful offensive player. Korkmaz has been a big help for Philly after an up-and-down start to the year.

• There were a lot of fans upset over Brett Brown's decision to give Matisse Thybulle a couple of games off, but it was never framed as a punishment for the young man, who is still learning how to play at an NBA tempo night-to-night. Thybulle returned to the lineup and looked like he benefitted from a couple of games on the bench to observe, which is absolutely a thing that can happen, contrary to popular belief.

The trick for Thybulle is going to be finding the sweet spot on defense, where he can obviously be a turnover-creating maniac but too often puts himself in foul trouble. Cleveland is not a team that can really punish him for the latter, as their guards are inexperienced and not in possession yet of the sort of craft you need to generate fouls all the time, and that helped him thrive on the defensive end Tuesday.

And just as importantly, he stayed within himself on offense, confidently knocking down a corner three and keeping the ball moving otherwise. I will repeat what I've said a few times recently — it is a long season, and his development will not simply hinge on giving him unlimited minutes every game.

• You would have thought Simmons' return to the lineup would have come attached to a whole lot of leading the offense from the perimeter, but the Sixers turned him loose in a bunch of different ways on Tuesday in an effort to take advantage of a good matchup for him. 

The Sixers unleashed him as a screener, they used him in more off-ball action, and Simmons scored on a couple of different lobs from Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, thriving as an off-ball cutter. As much pressure as there is on Simmons to be a threat with the ball in his hands come playoff time, the team does need to be prepared for a reality where he doesn't get there. 

The best way to do that is to take advantage of the flexibility the team has when you play a 6-foot-10 player at point guard, rather than treating him as a static, one-position player. There are times when the Sixers do the latter to their own detriment, so it was encouraging to see them toy with different actions against the Cavs.

(One question I have here — are they still able to do this with their normal starting lineup? Is there enough space to operate in when Al Horford is out there instead of Furkan Korkmaz? I'm not sure.)

• I sometimes feel like I'm on an island here based on how the fanbase likes to watch Embiid go to work, but he should absolutely be posting up less. A lot of his best work comes when he does the simple act of facing guys up from the mid-post, setting himself up to either make an easy mid-range jumper or attack the basket using only one or two dribbles.

He a huge guy and watching him stick his shoulder into the chest of smaller big men is satisfying for a lot of fans, I get it. And when he has a matchup as he did on Tuesday, with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson guarding him for most of the night, sprinkling in a healthy dose of post-ups is 100 percent the right move. But as a general rule, the world opens up for him when he's not trying to deal with somebody hanging on his back, plus timed double teams, plus trying to read the floor and score.

Simplify the game for him, and he does great work. Embiid threw some excellent crosscourt passes out of double teams, got himself to the free-throw line, and played good offense facing up. A better balance is there for him on offense, and it's on him and the team to figure out how to get there. 

• Give credit to the Philly crowd on Tuesday — that was a pretty sloppy game they could have checked out of, but they were loud as hell when it mattered in the fourth quarter.

The Bad

• Every time I bring up Tobias Harris' shooting numbers, he comes out and has a good night from deep, but the guy who was paid $180 million to score the basketball should not swing so wildly across the shooting spectrum from night-to-night. They can't afford for Harris to be an average shooter, let alone a bad one, and Harris looked like he had never made a three before on Tuesday night. Shots were clanging off of the backboard, the side of the rim, he was an absolute mess.

Before the game, Brett Brown mentioned that they would often rather see aggressive misses from Harris rather than hesitating during windows where he's open. Even with the house of bricks he built, there were still times when Harris had wide-open looks and didn't even really think about shooting.

In fact, there was one occasion in the third quarter where he stared down a wide-open three from above the break, and then drove into a crowded paint, picking up a charge in the process. It was positively Fultz-ian. This is a guy who is supposed to be elite from deep to help to make life easier for Embiid and Simmons. That can't happen. 

I'm not sure what they have to do to help him rediscover the form he had over the season and a half prior to arriving in Philadelphia, but they need to figure it out, because he has lost the plot as a three-point shooter. If he doesn't start making threes, that contract is going to be an absolute disaster for Philly.

• I understand Embiid is most likely going to get the night off in Orlando on Wednesday, but there is absolutely no reason he should be playing 19 first-half minutes against a bad Cleveland team in mid-November. Play Kyle O'Quinn more minutes, turn to one of the other young options off of the bench, or play small ball if you have to. That can't happen for a team that is supposed to be looking at the big picture.

(Worth noting: Embiid was going to be subbed out in a situation where he was the free-throw shooter, and then the game went several minutes without a stoppage. That's out of the team's control, but you don't get to 19 minutes that way.)

On the positive side, Embiid's energy was up and his approach to the game in those minutes was good. His activity level has been surprisingly poor at times this year, and on a night where the opponent wasn't exactly a title contender, that was good to see.

• The Sixers were actually playing behind their league-leading turnover pace on Tuesday night, but some of the possessions they give away are just absolutely mystifying. Embiid threw an inbounds pass to Raul Neto in the third quarter before Neto had even turned around to look for the ball, with the pass bouncing out of bounds and into the hands of the Cavs.

Playing with pace is an admirable goal, and it is even necessary for a team that is going to struggle to score in the halfcourt. But it absolutely cannot come at the cost of needless turnovers night after night. It's that simple.

The Ugly

• If Tristan Thompson is shooting wide-open threes, I'm not exactly sure what the excuse is for Simmons at this point. He was not the reason the Sixers ended up in a dogfight with a much worse team, but there were still times when Simmons' shooting issues hurt them. He had a terrible turnover midway through the fourth quarter on a possession where the Cavs ignored him to send help elsewhere, including in the path of the pass he tried to throw to Harris.

Just let that thing fly, man. What is the worst that can happen?

• I'm in the camp that wants to "let these guys play!!!" but Embiid really needs to chill out when he's hunting guys for chasedown blocks in transition. Whether his reputation has an impact on the calls or not, he has to play in control.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Subscribe to Kyle's Sixers podcast "The New Slant" on Apple, Google, and Spotify