November 29, 2022
The Sixers looked dead in the water when they went down by 16 to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, desperate for a jumper that would touch the rim let alone a chance to win the game. It's the sort of game we've seen get away from them in previous seasons, Philadelphia ultimately packing it in and choosing to save their fight for another day.
It was a different story on Monday night. Here's a closer look at Sixers-Hawks, and what ended up working for Philadelphia in a tight win over Atlanta.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the Sixers showed the fatigue of an undermanned team just trying to plow through this stretch without their stars. When Philadelphia's shooters missed in the first half, they often missed short, and they needed something or someone to pull them through in this one.
Enter Embiid, fresh off of a week on the shelf. The Sixers' franchise center has remarked that staying in shape is a constant struggle when he can't play games, but he gave the Sixers a rip-roaring performance in his return to the floor — 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals, two blocks, and the game-clinching plays in the game's closing moments. Doc Rivers was thrilled with how much energy Embiid had to give, calling him the freshest guy on both teams.
The winning shot tends to get the headlines, but it was Embiid's steal on a Trae Young entry pass that truly put this one to bed, and the subject he elaborated on the most in the postgame session with reporters.
"From the start of the play, you could tell he thought we were going to trap him. They were going to try to set a screen on him and try to get me on him, and we were going to [switch] one through five anyway," Embiid told reporters Monday. "The way I positioned myself, I acted like we were going to trap him and try to take the ball out of his hands. And as the best player on the team, you want the last shot, you want to be able to make the last play to make sure that your team wins."
"I just tried to play a cat and mouse game, where I felt like I had him thinking he had a wide-open lob, while at the same time, I knew I was giving that space for a reason. I watch a lot of games, he's not selfish, he can make that type of play if someone is open. So I was just trying to bait him and it did work. In some instances, it didn't work or it could have been a bad play or bad read by me. But in that situation, it did work, so I was happy."
OH MY GOODNESS JOEL pic.twitter.com/fxbZ7UF8TF— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 29, 2022
This was far from the cleanest Embiid performance of the season. Integrating the big man took some time, with some botched entry passes messing up their flow early and a tough midrange night holding back Embiid from an even more dominant performance. His night from midrange frustrated Embiid enough that the big man raised his arms and head to the sky when he got a jumper to drop in the second half, an almost sarcastic celebration after clanging so many off of the rim.
Perhaps because he'd only had an ordinary night by his standards entering the home stretch, Atlanta opted mostly to single-cover Embiid and paid for that decision dearly. Though he committed four turnovers on the night, Embiid is of the belief these days that doubling him is not the remedy it once was for opposing teams. He'll fire off a bad pass from time-to-time, but with the Sixers getting him to good spots on the floor and Embiid becoming a more decisive playmaker, he thinks doubling is not catch-all solution it used to be.
"It's almost impossible to double from the elbow," Embiid said. "There's a reason why I don't post up as much as I used to post up in the past, there's a reason for that. In the post, it's easy to double. At the elbow, at the nail, if you want to double, good luck. Someone is going to be wide open and I have a better vision of the whole floor."
Devil's advocate: it's still probably better to let the rest of the team beat you rather than die on the single-coverage hill with this guy. That being said, the proof of his belief is in the approach. Placing him around the elbow has Embiid firing passes to cutters with regularity, even when those plays don't end with assists/made shots.
(One comical moment that came from this — Embiid tried to wave Furkan Korkmaz to cut toward the basket out of the corner, only for Danuel House Jr. to cut at the exact same time through the same spot, thinking the direction was for him. The additional traffic created a turnover and some exasperation from the big man, but that faded quickly.)
Without getting too charged up about regular season results, a trend to keep an eye on is Philadelphia's improved play in the clutch this year, most of which is a reflection of Embiid. He's tied for fifth in the league in clutch scoring this year, with solid efficiency (53.8 percent from the field) to match the volume. Seeing games out with Embiid as the fulcrum has been a trouble spot for Philly historically, but it's not out of the question that he is finally approaching his apex, able to be the source of calm they need when it really matters.
One of the funniest moments of Philadelphia's victory press conference was the contrast in evaluations between Tobias Harris and Doc Rivers when it comes to their zone defense. Take it away, you two, on what you liked about the zone:
Rivers: "We loved it, they were killing our man early, and you just need to go to that to get them out of rhythm."
Harris: "Not that much. We honestly, we haven't practiced zone that much."
In this matter, I tend to side with the coach and not the player. Yes, the Sixers had some zone possessions where they let the Hawks get some clean looks, and backup center Paul Reed was a lot more comfortable in their normal coverages compared to the zone. But when it was all said and done, they had succeeded in throwing off Atlanta's rhythm, holding the talented Atlanta backcourt to a combined 12-for-27 performance from the field.
Playing more zone with the group they have available makes a lot of sense on paper — the defensive toughness of a Melton/Milton/Korkmaz/Thybulle group varies from player to player, but each of those guys offers considerable length at the top of the zone, the Sixers able to mix-and-match within that group without dropping much (if any) wingspan. Embiid's presence has helped boost their defense to new heights in recent weeks, but the rest of the group has played their part, communicating and competing at a higher level.
As Rivers explained after the game, Philadelphia's decision to lean more on zone was also a reflection of their fatigue as much as anything else. Knowing his guys only had so much to give on the second night of a back-to-back, Rivers said a zone approach allowed guys to effectively "rest" some on defense while still getting stops as a group. It's as close as you'll probably get to a coach saying, "Zone is for cowards," but the utility there is obvious to anyone who has played in a pickup game while out of shape.
Rivers went on to say, however, that the scout on Atlanta was a driving force behind the move. The head coach estimated that Miami had played zone on 80 percent of their possessions against Atlanta on Sunday, giving the Sixers a long, hard look at what Atlanta's zone offense looked like. Philadelphia might not be the Heat, longstanding practitioners of the dark zone arts, but they've worked on zone more this year and thought there was an opportunity to capitalize on what the recent Hawks tape showed them.
"It's funny when you look at it," Rivers said, "teams have one or two zone offenses, right? They have 15, 30, 40 man plays, so we just felt like it was easier to scout their zone offense than it was trying to guard them in man."
Within this framework, you can find what has led Rivers and his team to success lately. Saying Rivers is a man of simplicity isn't an insult — his greatest strength as a coach may well be that his teams will absolutely hammer you if they find something that works and feel you can't cope with it. Embiid is now quick to twirl his finger in the air to say, "Run it again" if he scores with ease on a given possession, a product of Rivers' instruction over the last few years. Rivers has gotten into trouble when sticking to an initial belief that doesn't pan out, but there are plenty of coaches in all sports who would be 10 percent better at their jobs if they simply played the hits, so to speak. And the Sixers made beautiful music by making some slight adjustments on the fly when things looked dire.
Matisse Thybulle has had health concerns and looks a mess on offense still this year, but Rivers picked the exact right time to introduce him against Atlanta, staring at their poor shooting and deciding if they weren't going to make shots that he could at least throw an active defender into the mix. With Thybulle in the mix for some zone possessions and flying around for some important closeouts late in the first half, the Sixers chipped away at Atlanta's lead and cut it to four points by halftime.
Just because it's successful doesn't mean I have to like it!
Nobody expected Philadelphia to feel sorry for themselves when James Harden went down, because they still had Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid. Nobody thought it was an excuse for the Sixers to go off of the rails when Maxey got hurt, because a back-to-back MVP runner-up was leading the team. Then Embiid left the lineup again, and you got to the point where potential wins were viewed as blessings and small victories were going to be Philadelphia's focus.
Only the Sixers ended up going 3-1 without their top stars, and immediately beat a good team the second they got Embiid back. Now? They're just rolling, and they have reason to believe this could keep going into the future.
One of the silver linings of their time without the stars is the rhythm it has allowed the rest of the group to build, with the sidelined heroes able to look on and see that they do indeed have some help on the roster. Rivers even went a step further and said he thought Embiid was too deferential at times, wanting to playmake and blend in after seeing their success with the undermanned group. That in itself is a good thing — Embiid ended up being the crunch-time hero, but trusting in the team around him allowed them to get back into this game by doing the things they managed without him. They dug out offensive rebounds, fought for territory on defense, and kept a positive attitude in team huddles, confident in their ability to turn the game around.
"We just kept saying, we got to grind this one out, we got to keep sticking with it because it was a little ugly. We didn't come out as much energy as we would hope to, but we just kept with it. Stuck with our gameplan offensively and defensively, and ultimately we were able to pull it off."
It has been easy to focus on Milton's scoring, for example, but that has overshadowed his willingness to do the extra work to pull these wins out. Milton came up with three offensive rebounds in Monday night's game, and watching him dig out an extra possession at a critical moment has become common during this recent run of play. Few of these plays have been about Milton's big wingspan, either, many of them coming down to Milton wanting it more and beating opponents to the floor to extend a possession.
The Sixers have long talked up the spirit of their low-minute games, which once featured Tyrese Maxey before he made his leap to high-level starter, and Rivers said Monday those games continue to show the spirit and collective mindset of the group. It has been a battle for minutes for a bunch of long-time Sixers this year, and the fight to get on the floor in the first place left them prepared when they finally got this recent chance to play.
"Guys like Shake, there's Furk, guys coming in that haven't gotten minutes all season, they're just coming in and I'm proud of them because they're ready," Embiid said Monday. "You could tell they were waiting for this moment, for their name to be called."
"It's hard," Rivers added. "You're sitting there and you see three guys in front of you, and you're like, how am I going to break through with these guys in front of me? And yet, they stayed ready. I think that says a lot about them, and it says a lot about our other coaches."
This could all unravel in the weeks to come, but we might look back at this stretch and think it was the moment Philadelphia's season turned for the better. They are building a defense-first identity, winning games of different sorts, and buying in for one another, competing and yelling and shrugging off tough starts. They look like a tougher team, mentally and physically. And most importantly, they are starting to pile up wins. Belief is a powerful thing.
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