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October 19, 2018

Sixers blowout Bulls in home opener, electric crowd lifts Markelle Fultz

Normally, with Ben Simmons dropping a triple-double in three quarters and Joel Embiid scoring 30 points in a blowout win, the focus of all postgame commentary would have been on Philadelphia's stars righting the ship against a bad Bulls team. Maybe those two guys doing those two things against that team qualifies as business as usual.

No, the chatter after the game was about Markelle Fultz, the 20-year-old whose every shot is scrutinized. It was a roller coaster evening for the Washington product, who began the game ignoring the three-point line and ended it hearing loud cheers after a strong closing period.

So that's where we'll begin, with Fultz and with a coach who admitted he has never quite seen anything like this before.

What do you focus on with Fultz — and this Sixers team?

We sat in the interview room after the game as a gallery of irregular reporters peppered Brown with questions about the crowd response to Fultz, what it means to him to close strong, what Brown wants from him moving forward, etc. So I thought it was appropriate to ask Brown a follow-up: What do you make of all this?

"It is such a hot topic, it is so discussed," said Brown. "When you open on national television and you're the opening night show... and we don't play well, and I don't play him in the second half, and we lose and we're playing the Celtics, it's human nature I guess, sadly, in some ways. It just moves, everybody — to me — puts it in too great a light, and at times an inappropriate drama...I've said what I've said about how I want to play him, and I hope I'm able to do that."

The Sixers need that growth in the worst way, and early on it looked like things were taking a turn for the worst. Presented with an opportunity in the corner, Fultz stared at a group of defenders in the corner and decided to dribble directly into them.

To the credit of the people in attendance, they were not deterred. Sixers fans yelled, "SHOOT!" like we were watching a Flyers power play as if trying to will him into taking the open looks Chicago was giving him. They cheered him for simply taking shots, even when they rimmed out, standing behind Fultz and showing him some brotherly love.

That made it feel really good for everybody involved when he finally came through from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter, hitting a pull-up three and blowing the roof off of the Wells Fargo Center.

"Man, for me it makes me feel better, [for the] home crowd to feel as good as I want to, to play out there," said Fultz when I asked him about the constant cheers, "it makes me want to play harder for them."

That part is a universal truth. Seeing and hearing the fans rallying behind him was a reminder of why Philly fans are special, national noise be about some bad apples be damned.

The rest of the Fultz story? That's where it gets complicated

The Sixers need a lot more of the quick-twitch shooting

As we discussed after the Boston game, it's not necessarily Fultz who gets punished the hardest when he decides he's not going to shoot. There were other opportunities like the clip above where Fultz passed on the corner three, and they were similarly turned down by the young guard.

This was not exactly ignored by the Bulls or their coaching staff. As Fultz would come up the floor, they audibly and visibly motioned to their players to continue sagging further off him, in most cases until they fell back into the paint. Even when he was off-ball, it made for quite a crowded painted area, and the Sixers struggled to post either of Embiid or Simmons. This was true even when obvious mismatches — like Zach LaVine on Simmons down low — presented themselves. 

It took several exceptional plays from Embiid to make it all work.

That theme continued late in the first, when Fultz took the reins and Simmons got to rest a bit. Usually when the oversized guard is on the bench, the Sixers run a lot of their offense through Embiid.

They continued to do so on Thursday night, and one thing jumped out: the Bulls basically straight up ignored Fultz on defense, using the guy who theoretically was supposed to be guarding him (Antonio Blakeney) to double Embiid when he got the ball on the block. Two consecutive possessions showed both sides of the story — Embiid is talented enough to score anyway, but he can also get twisted up and turn the ball over.

This isn't the sort of thing a team like the Chicago Bulls can punish — they are comically bad on the defensive end — but it's not going to work against good teams, and maybe not even against average teams. For Fultz's sake and the sake of the team, they need to get him at least thinking about shooting more, because teams are already starting to react to his habits and punish his teammates for them.

His teammates have showered him with praise and affection so far, and that's a great thing. We'll see how long the love affair lasts with the fans and his teammates if he can't turn the mini flashes into tangible progress over time.

(One note worth mentioning: Fultz was an obviously subpar 5/15 from the field against Chicago, and those shots mostly came from the foul-line area as they conceded space. He led the team in attempts Thursday, which is a good thing on its own as it relates to his confidence. They key to all of this, though, is the shot distribution.)

Landry Shamet makes his impact felt

It was a rough start for Shamet on Thursday night, with the rookie guard taking his first opportunity, a wide-open three from the corner, and airmailing it in comical fashion. His night very easily could have spiraled out of control from there.

But it didn't, and Shamet turned in a nice effort with 12 points and four rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench, all 12 of those points coming on makes from downtown. The way his teammates see it, there should be a minimal learning curve for Shamet this season.

"He's fine, I told him before he went out there — I think he missed his first three — I told him just shoot the ball," said Simmons. "Don't worry about anything else, just shoot the ball. No matter if you miss it, you're out there to shoot the ball and make shots."

The light looked neon green for Shamet on Thursday night, and he helped his own cause by creating a pair of Bulls turnovers to spring the Sixers on the break. He was the beneficiary on both of those plays, sprinting down the floor to knock down a pair of transition threes.

Shamet is not a high-level athlete, but he fits an immediate need for the Sixers as a bench shooter and he is a competitor on the defensive end of the floor. That is something to work with, and the ability to put another guy on the floor the Sixers feel confident can knock down shots is huge for this team. Hard to miss Marco Belinelli when you have a younger, better version.

"He can play," said Brown. "When we scouted him, he had the ball a lot, but we knew, or we felt like he can just play. I can play him off the ball, I can play him off the ball easily because he moves, he can play. He's a basketball player. I think what we've seen is confirming some of our opinions on him, and as we all know there's nothing like opportunity...and he sure has grabbed it by the throat, and been very impressive for a rookie."

There was a lot of hemming and hawing by fans and media alike about having Brown run the show this offseason. Shamet, at the very least, looks like a nice find late in the first round.

Oh yeah, those two stars that played well

No one should take for granted what Embiid and Simmons tend to do on a nightly basis. And the thing that should excite Sixers fans the most is they are still hungry to improve, even when they go out and kick the shit out of a bad team like Chicago.

"I wouldn't read too much into this game, we were bad defensively, especially at the start of this game," said Embiid. "We gave up too many points at the start of the game...we got to learn from it and keep doing it."

That level of passion shows on the court, too. Embiid was directing traffic late in the first quarter when a bit of hesitation from Fultz allowed Blakeney to get off a mid-range shot, and when it went down Embiid let out a popular four-letter word that TNT's Reggie Miller appeared to giggle about immediately afterward.

And really, that level of pride should be enough to drive the Sixers to another top-five finish on the defensive end of the floor when combined with their talent. Between Embiid, Simmons, and Robert Covington, the Sixers have an elite defense without considering pretty much anyone else on the roster. You're not going to find many stronger foundations than that.

Setting aside Embiid's brilliance for a second, the combination of Covington and Simmons together is devastating when they're at full go. The recovery speed turns shots that look open into blocks fairly quickly, and if not for a foul by Wendell Carter Jr. the Sixers would have had their play of the season so far midway through the second.

After a listless start in Boston, the Sixers assessed themselves like a team that is serious about their Finals goal on Thursday night. "Just good enough" is not going to cut it from this group, and they have another opportunity to keep building on Saturday night at home against the Magic.

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