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February 23, 2018

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons willed the Sixers to a win in Chicago

On the first evening of action since the Sixers returned from the All-Star break, most of the Sixers appeared to still be in vacation mode. Their shooters couldn't get going, their defensive rotations were far from crisp, and Chicago just happened to have one of the best shooting nights they'll have all year.

In years past, this would have been a definite loss. But in years past, the Sixers did not have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons playing together on the same team, and those guys absolutely dragged their teammates to a 116-115 win over the rebuilding Bulls.

The box score absolutely told the story on Thursday night: Embiid dropped 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists on 11/17 shooting, and his running mate added 32 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists of his own on 13/18 shooting. It is the first time since March 14, 1990, that two Sixers teammates managed 30-5-5 games in the same contest, and you felt their impact until the very last moments of the game.

Down by one and with the ball in Chicago's possession, the Sixers' two stars combined to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With Simmons using his length to bother the rebounder, Embiid ended up switched onto Zach LaVine and chasing the guard out to halfcourt. The matchup, as it tends to when he's defending, tilted toward Embiid, and he came up with the team's biggest steal of the season.

But there was a lot of work left to do from there, and Simmons hit the biggest free throws of his pro career to date to put Philadelphia in front for good. It was an awful night from the charity stripe for the team and Simmons was no exception there, shooting just 6/11 from the free-throw line against Chicago. He erased that uneven effort with two makes when it mattered most.

For fans that stuck around in the darkest days of the rebuild, this is what you dreamt of during those lean years. Nearly every other guy on the roster had a poor night, but it ended up not mattering because the Sixers had two stars to carry them across the finish line.

Even their head coach is appreciative of the moment, of the best-laid plans actually paying off. Chicago reporters, covering a team in a rebuild of their own, pressed Brown on some thoughts on the way forward and what it's like to emerge on the other side. The veteran of the tank was fairly direct about where his group is at these days.

They feel something special is close. They feel something special that we've worked hard for, for four years is potentially around the corner. And nobody's taking that for granted, we use the word appropriate fear a lot. We have a respect for our situation, and we don't feel like we've arrived. There's certainly no entitlement. We just fight for whatever we can get, and I feel like the locker room feels that. We're the closest we've ever been to doing something that we feel matters for our city, and that's to be in the playoffs.

It's technically true that the Sixers are "close" and not quite there for their goal of making the playoffs, but this team has certainly arrived on some level. The goal of this rebuild was to get pillars the franchise could build around, stars who would lift up those around them and draw other elite talents to play with them. By just about any measure, Embiid and Simmons are blinding, relentless talents who still have years of growth left ahead of them.

Even in this proto stage, they are capable of seizing the game themselves and erasing mistakes from their teammates. They ran give-and-gos throughout the game, and though they're still trying to perfectly sync up they're so large and athletic that they can erase potential mistakes.

That goes double on the defensive end, where Embiid continues to reign supreme. So long as he stays reasonably close to the basket, there is no mistake it seems he can't recover from. Guards who get a step and attack the rim even try to protect themselves by using the rim as a barrier between the ball and Embiid, but his recovery speed and length are immense enough to snuff out plays anyway.

As long as these two guys are healthy and playing on the same team, the Sixers will be dangerous. Philadelphia's ceiling will shift based on the supporting cast put around them in the years to come, and there is plenty of work left to do for them to become a legitimate contender.

That doesn't mean you can't enjoy what is already happening, or that you can't celebrate the pieces already in place. These two have a lot of great basketball ahead of them, and you should start getting used to performances like these.

Self-inflicted wounds

Frequent readers know I am fairly charitable to Brett Brown around here, and that I think a lot of the criticism sent his way is overblown. That said, there are some legitimate gripes to be had over the rotation decisions against Chicago, and some of the end-game decisions that ended up working out against all odds.

The decision to stick with Amir Johnson on Thursday night is where we could start and probably finish a conversation about the bench. Whereas the young stars came back from the break ready to rock, Johnson looked like he hadn't even thought about basketball since being left to enjoy his downtime. He got burned on defense far too often for a guy who is really only in the game for his defensive reliability and was part of the reason Bulls big man Bobby Portis got going early.

There was enough poor play from Johnson in the first half to warrant Richaun Holmes playing the second half minutes behind Embiid, even if Johnson remains ahead of him in the rotation. But Brown stuck with Johnson for limited stints in the second half and things didn't go a whole lot better.

The lack of flexibility on this specific issue is puzzling because Brown has shown a propensity for burying guys he otherwise likes playing on nights they don't have it. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Jerryd Bayless played awful first-half minutes in games earlier this season, and Brown would then park their butts on the pine until the final whistle. There has not been the same reflex with the Johnson/Holmes minutes, even though there are instances where it has been warranted.

On some level, I understand and even agree with Johnson being the primary backup. The Sixers are looking for someone who simply holds down the fort on defense when Embiid sits, and Johnson is a much more reliable option on that front. Holmes represents volatility and high variance in comparison, and Brown isn't the first coach to roll with a steady player over a guy who is hot and cold. Brown is striving to tighten his rotation so the Sixers are firing on all cylinders come April, as any coach in his position should.

But on nights like Thursday, there's no excuse to keep beating your head against the wall. Holmes deserved a shot because it couldn't have gone much worse than it did for his counterpart.

Dario Saric, aggressive and intelligent cutter

We've talked a ton about the improvement Saric has made as a shooter, rightfully so because it's the most important skill for him to master. His work away from the ball as a cutter has gotten less publicity but is no less important to the success he's had in Philadelphia's starting lineup.

The same basketball IQ that empowers Saric's passing aids him when he's working without the ball in his hands. Saric plays with purpose, taking off on a beeline for the basket and almost forcing his teammates to put the ball in his hands.

Saric's head never drops on this play, and when he sees Simmons making his move toward the basket, he kicks it into high gear and offers an outlet. He is a testament to the idea that the basketball finds energy because Saric is either working to get open or fighting for rebounds on both ends.

Philadelphia's offensive efficiency drops by about four points per 100 possessions when Saric is off the floor, which isn't a surprise when you see him making plays like this. His backup, Trevor Booker, is both a skill set mismatch for the team and still not really up to speed with the rest of his teammates. Saric's movement is timed well, only seizing space when it doesn't negatively impact drives and post-ups taking place.

Another thing that popped on rewatch was Saric's bounce coming out of the break. He looked like he could use some aloe vera after getting too much sun, but Saric had some pep in his step and used it to great effect when he got the ball on the move.

There are players on the roster whose erratic play would cause you to worry about their viability in a playoff series. Saric isn't one of them because his body of work suggests he'll find a way to impact games, come hell or high water.

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