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December 23, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers ride dominant Joel Embiid in fourth to win opener vs. Wizards

NBA Sixers Observations
Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Wizards_122320_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid looked close to midseason form in the Sixers' season opener Wednesday.

The Sixers sputtered through most of the first three quarters in their home opener, but a dominant stretch from Joel Embiid and a steady performance from Shake Milton was enough to earn them a 113-107 victory. Doc Rivers' tenure opens with a W.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• We're starting a new year, yet we're still revisiting the same old script. The Sixers' offense looked out of sorts, they drifted through some possessions on defense and in transition, role players missed shots, and then Embiid came in with a sledgehammer and brought the team within striking distance of a win.

Philadelphia's starting unit looked pretty miserable for most of the night (a subject we'll touch on below), and the turning point of the second half was a unit featuring Embiid at the pivot with shooters at every other spot: Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Mike Scott. In a five-play stretch early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers threw the ball to Embiid on the left block five straight times, and the big guy turned those possessions into 11 points. Even by his lofty standards, that's hard to do.

The onslaught kept coming. There was a free-throw line jumper over Thomas Bryant where he made the defender dance, more work on the left block, even some nifty dribbling in traffic from the big man to score a reverse layup. As is typical, the energy from getting going on offense transferred to the defensive end of the floor, with Embiid drawing his second offensive foul of the game by flashing to get on Bryant's hip and absorbing contact with no fear.

It was not a dominant, wire-to-wire performance from the big fella, but he was sensational when it counted. In this league, that's often all it takes to get a W. Philly will take it.

• Not since the days of the "Night Shift" led by Lou Williams have the Sixers had a second unit this good. In fact, between the two preseason games and this one, there's a case to be made Philadelphia's bench has looked more cohesive than the starting unit, with Dwight Howard and a pair of young guards looking quite comfortable in control of the team. 

Shake Milton continuing his play from the preseason is less surprising after the flashes he showed last season, but it was still nice to see him start the year off right. He's a smooth operator on the second unit, and unlike some of the lead guards Rivers has employed off of the bench, he plays with a conscience, taking open shots but rarely forcing the issue. 

There was a great sequence in the second quarter where Milton and Seth Curry took turns inviting pressure with Washington scrambling, eventually leading to a Curry three in the corner. It sounds crazy to say, but the Sixers have rarely multiple guards on the floor at a time who could dribble and shoot, which makes little moments like these feel refreshing.

To my surprise, Rivers gave Milton the vote of confidence in crunch time, and he absolutely earned it. Beyond the offensive contributions, Milton has shown improved fundamentals on defense, and he had several key plays and/or contests against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, a pair of the toughest players he'll likely have to guard all year. Between that and Milton showing no fear in crunch time, it was a terrific debut.

The other big story early, is Tyrese Maxey, who missed the start of training camp due to COVID protocols and has nonetheless looked like he was shot out of a cannon to start the year. Maxey's touch around the basket has been exceptional so far, leading to a bunch of beautiful finishes at the rim, and his playmaking has been almost as impressive, with the rookie guard showing great composure and feel in both halfcourt and transition. He does not look like a kid who is going to let a spot in the rotation go anytime soon.

With the starters struggling to establish a rhythm so far, these guys have been essential for Rivers, and I expect that will continue for a while until Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rest of the starters get on the same page. If they can outplay opposing benches all year, the Sixers will be a really dangerous team once they get the kinks ironed out.

• I've been saying this a lot so far, but I like what Dwight Howard brings to the table as a backup center. He competes for basically every rebound on both ends, offers terrific rim protection, and he's a vertical threat when they put him in pick-and-rolls.

• There were probably 3-4 "oh my god" type plays on the defensive end from Simmons. He picked a Westbrook pass in transition like a roaming safety on the back end, came up with a terrific recovery block at the rim midway through the fourth, and looks like he's primed to have another terrific season on that end.

As I wrote Wednesday morning, I think Simmons is going to spend a lot of the foreseeable future on All-Defense teams. It's nothing to sneeze at.

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The Bad

• First impression of the Sixers' offense that I imagine Daryl Morey might share: the Sixers are shooting way too many midrange shots. I am not completely opposed to the concept like some of the numbers zealots — sometimes it's all the defense is giving you on a given possession — but you're not going to get it done if you're passing up decent looks from deep to step into tighter contested shots.

The No. 1 culprit is not going to shock anyone. Harris let a three fly from the corner late in the first quarter, but otherwise, he played the same meandering style that drove fans nuts last season, and the style that his coach has been vocal about trying to get him out of. Maybe you could convince yourself this is all a process and the improvement will come over time, but we are pretty deep into Harris' career, and this is a coach who he has already played for and succeeded under. It should be a much easier process for him than it has been so far.

He was far from the only guy who contributed to the problem. Frankly, if Simmons' version of expanding his range is taking the odd free-throw line jumper here or there, he should just keep it. Shooting off-the-dribble is a considerably harder process to master than just standing in the corner and attempting a couple of jumpers per game, and as well-intentioned as those shots are, at that point you'd rather see him try to get to the rim or just take a three where no one is guarding him.

• Another point on Harris unrelated to the midrange stuff: he was barely even trying on defense at times on Wednesday night. Possessions where you get caught flat-footed happen from time-to-time, but Harris did a whole lot of staring and half-heartedly chasing after people who were already priming themselves to let a three go. When you're covering a sharpshooter like Davis Bertans, that's hardly a luxury you can afford him.

It was just an ugly night at the office for Harris no matter what he tried to do, frankly, and it underscores that Rivers is not a miracle worker. He'll put Harris in actions he's comfortable with, try to get him to speed up his decisions (he was gesturing at him to do so throughout the evening), but there's not much coaching can do to change a night like Harris had Wednesday.

I have tried to drive this point home throughout the last couple of months, but the Sixers would be fortunate if they can turn Harris and that ugly contract into just about anything useful. It ain't gonna be James Harden unless there's some form of divine intervention.

• Embiid certainly looks lighter on his feet than he did last season, and that is a good thing. The lob he finished from Simmons to open his scoring for the season was something we rarely saw from him last year, a quick cut that was rewarded by his running mate with a nice feed.

(By the way, I see a play like this and wholeheartedly reject the premise he could not be a good pick-and-roll big with a high-level handler at the controls. Someone who can eat space and suck in attention would get him easy looks.)

That said, there were some ugly moments for Embiid defending in space, which is something you're going to see him doing a lot of as the Sixers demand him to play more mixed coverage than he did last season. And one of my least favorite sequences of the game was Embiid forcing a bad midrange look early in the clock during a first-half possession, loafing back down the floor, and Washington scoring in transition without the big guy back there.

He was far from the only culprit, and there were definitely plays where it just looked like guys were not on the same page. Embiid helped into the corner to prevent a wide-open three in transition, and the rest of the team just sort of drifted aimlessly through the paint instead of making an attempt to protect the rim, a failing of the unit rather than the big guy.

There will be a lot of discussions and review of the tape early for Philly. Assistant coach Dan Burke was the last person Embiid spoke to before taking the floor at halftime, the two mulling over what needed to get done in the second half. It's a work in progress, clearly.

• I would like to formally retire the phrase "Ben Simmons is coming out playing aggressive" from Sixers lexicon. At a certain point, Simmons playing fast and getting downhill just doesn't mean anything if it's not accompanied by free throws generated or at least shot attempts at the rim. 

The Sixers have a completely different coaching staff, a different group surrounding Simmons and Embiid, and the person who has looked the most like their previous self through two preseason games and one regular-season game is Simmons. He's going to give you some electrifying passes, create a bunch of open threes for teammates, and play high-level defense on his opponent. But he's also going to struggle to do much of anything in a halfcourt setting on offense, and that last bit is a pretty big deal, as Sixers fans have often seen. 

There was a lot of time spent in the dunker's spot late, though it should be noted they got Simmons one of the cleanest looks he'll ever see by having him down there for a late-fourth ATO. When he starts coming out shooting and pressing the issue on offense, attempting to shoulder the load the way a lead perimeter star does, we can talk about aggression. The bar should be set higher. 

• I think Korkmaz will have better nights than this, but I do not think he needs to be involved as a handler as much as he was on Wednesday regardless of whether that ends up being true or not.

• A lot of the concerns on offense boil down to whether Danny Green and Curry knock down their looks on a given night. They are certainly better shooters than they showed they were in the opener, so that will inevitably make the group look better, but that's the nature of relying predominantly on role players to be legit floor spacers. 

(At least Curry had some nice plays down the stretch to redeem himself. Green never even got the chance, with Rivers rolling with Milton and then choosing Matisse Thybulle as his defensive specialist sub in the final minutes.)

The Ugly

• I miss having you all at the games a great deal, but it's great to be able to hear a lot more of the trash talking and complaints from players and coaches alike during the game. One particularly great sequence took place near the end of the first half, after Bradley Beal got called for a defensive foul for knocking over a screening Embiid.

Moe Wagner, standing under the rim, looked in his teammate's direction and said: "Hey Brad, you must be strong as f***!"

Sprinkle in a whole lot of talking from Russell Westbrook — distracting people during free throws, yelling about Embiid getting calls — and it's a good time at the office. I wish they would offer fans the option to experience that without all the loud music and arena nonsense teams are still insisting on.

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