December 11, 2017
When word came down that Joel Embiid would miss Saturday's game against Cleveland due to load management, it was a disappointing but understandable decision. The Sixers had already been blitzed by Cleveland a week prior, and if they were saving Embiid for the game they had a better chance to win, the New Orleans game was definitely the one to choose.
A (not so) funny thing happened along the way: Embiid was a late scratch from the Pelicans game due to a back tightness, and it was revealed in a conversation with reporters after the game that it was the result of a knock he picked up against the Lakers last Thursday. Courtesy of Philly.com's Keith Pompey, here's what Embiid had to say about the mystery back ailment.
I felt it during the game [Thursday], I got some treatment during the game, but after the game it was pretty sore, but I'm feeling much better... I tried to warm up earlier [on Sunday night] and I couldn't. If it was the Finals, I'm sure I could have gone, but we got 82 games and they don't want me to push if I'm not 100 percent so that's what I did.
While Embiid did his best to downplay the issue after the game — having a player who didn't suit up available to reporters is pretty unique for the Sixers — this is the sort of thing that sows distrust in the fanbase when it comes to the team's handling of injuries. They tend to err on the side of "don't say anything" if they believe a player will be back on the court before it can become an issue, and this has routinely backfired on them with different players on the roster. This is an issue that seems minor, but this information could have been shared on the injury update on Saturday, and instead was conveniently withheld.
Embiid stressed his only treatment was a series of massages and was non-committal when asked if he would play in the next game on Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, claiming he'd have to wait and see. He does sound like he wants to be out there for a fun matchup with fellow big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
"I'm going to work out tomorrow so we'll see how I feel, but I would expect to play on Tuesday," said Embiid.
You're not going to share every bump and bruise an NBA player deals with, and Embiid himself has stressed that people worry too much about his health and propensity to fall down. But the organization knows people care deeply about his well-being and should act accordingly (within reason).
So anyway, onto some of the good things from that game, which the Sixers ended up losing 131-124. Have to believe Embiid may have helped with that scoreline.
• The most important thing that happened in this game was the return of an attacking Ben Simmons. His last two buckets came with the game all but wrapped up and the Pelicans conceding his drives, but even if we take those away from him he ended the game with an impressive line: 23 points, five rebounds, and 10 assists on 8-14 shooting (7-9 from the free-throw line) in this "adjusted" box score.
This was always going to happen on some level with both Embiid and Robert Covington on the shelf, but the free-throw shooting was the most important subplot of the night. Simmons repeatedly took it to the heart of New Orleans' defense, taking advantage of having a smaller guard on him for a good deal of the evening.
The key to Simmons' game is tempo, regardless of whether he's in a halfcourt or transition setting. When he plays decisively, he's a significantly better and more effective player on the offensive end of the court. That doesn't necessarily mean playing at 1000 miles per hour. He brings the ball up rather normally here, and when he catches Jrue Holiday turning his eyes elsewhere, he blows by him and draws a foul on top of the made basket.
Regardless of who's in the lineup alongside him, we need to see more of that from Simmons.
• I'm not sure whether it's a credit to Trevor Booker or a dig at the rest of the guys on Philadelphia's bench to say Booker is one of the team's most impactful subs already. But there he was on Sunday night, doing the dirty work and helping spark a big third quarter run for the away squad.
Booker nearly put himself in the doghouse after a behind-the-back pass went out of bounds on a transition play, and Brett Brown dropped a pretty obvious f-bomb on the broadcast when it happened. But instead of dwelling on the bad play and compounding the issue, Booker came right back down on the next play and snatched an offensive rebound, earning free throws in the process.
Booker tied Richaun Holmes for the team lead in offensive rebounds with five, and those two were an absolute pain to deal with on missed shots. I actually like them as a duo coming off the bench as a general rule; hitting opposing teams with a wave of in-your-face energy is not a bad strategy.
They'll take their licks in the early going because Holmes' defensive lapses won't pair well with Booker's newness to the system. But I think there's potentially something there as they continue to get more reps together.
• Speaking of Holmes' defense, I thought he strung together some of his best sequences on that end since he entered the league. The big men did not have an easy task dealing with the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, but Holmes performed admirably in a larger role on Sunday night.
The blocked shots he picked up on Davis and Cousins were more indicative of solid defense than some of the others you'll see him pick up. His usual rejections often come because he's flying across the lane at a guard driving toward the rim. But Holmes was able to bother the opposing big men by maintaining solid position, then contesting their attempts without getting too far into the body.
This is one of the most important steps for Holmes to make as a player. He has the length and quick-twitch athleticism that should allow him to contest just about any shot, and he simply needs to figure out how and when to contest those shots. Sitting back and waiting for Cousins to go up with the ball may seem like a simple thing, but it hasn't been for him through his first few years in the league.
• Furkan Korkmaz got his first taste of extended action with Covington out of the lineup, and he didn't look half bad! The defensive toughness and awareness aren't there yet, but you could say that about a good chunk of Philadelphia's roster. There is some offensive talent waiting to be unleashed, and Korkmaz showed us the first sign of what he can do with real minutes.
The three-point shot is why you'd expect him to stick around long-term, but Korkmaz's best play of the night came on the lone assist he picked up toward the end of the third quarter. After using the threat of his outside shot to get a defender in the air, Korkmaz sucked in the defense just enough to free up Holmes, and then let his teammate do the rest.
He should be able to make a lot of these plays whenever he's a permanent figure in the rotation. While on assignment with the Delaware 87ers, Korkmaz has been playing some of his minutes at point guard to build out his skill set. It's unlikely he'll be much more than a functional playmaker at the NBA level, but if he can leverage his shot and athleticism to create gaps in defenses, his offensive utility will only get better.