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November 04, 2021

Five likes and dislikes from Sixers' hard-fought win over the Bulls

The Sixers nearly became the latest victim in the Chicago Bulls' fourth-quarter comeback spree, but the Sixers held on Wednesday night, pushing their record to 6-2 overall and 4-0 during their most recent homestand despite injuries, COVID-19, and Ben Simmons' continued absence impacting the lineup. Philadelphia has preached team above all else dating back to the start of the preseason, and they are living up to that idea in the early stages of the season, sacrificing for one another to make up for whatever they lack.

Let's go through some of the highlights of the win over the Bulls. 

Like: Seth Curry, shooting the lights out

What trade in recent Philly sports history has a local team won more handily than the Seth Curry for Josh Richardson swap? Daryl Morey's draft-day move has paid off far beyond any expectations you could have had at the time of the deal, providing the Sixers with one of the very best shooters in the league for a guy who was a mess in Dallas and hasn't exactly endeared himself to a new fanbase in Boston early this season.

MORE: Instant observations: Sixers hang on for tough win vs. Bulls

Reluctant to pull the trigger for a lot of last season, Curry has been gunning since the second round of the playoffs began in June. And the Sixers absolutely can't get enough of it, especially at the rate Curry is canning jumpers of any kind — Curry is hitting 53.7 percent of his threes and a mind-bending 61.2 percent of his shots so far this season, video game numbers from a guy whose brother basically gamified the sport. And with a front-row seat, even his teammates and coaches are blown away by him.

"Everyone knows who he is now," Doc Rivers said Wednesday night. "Last year, I thought they got physical with him, they could take him off the ball and deny the catches. Now he's being relentless in getting open. And once he gets open with Joel [Embiid] coming, he's a tough cover for anyone. So we put them in that coverage."

"He's been incredible," Joel Embiid added. "His shotmaking ability, especially with me struggling all over the court with shooting the ball and making normal shots that I usually make, he's been amazing. You go back since the season started and especially the last game and obviously this one. He's making big shot after big shot, that's what we're going to need, especially with the way they're defending me. They're sending doubles every single time I have the ball, so, you know, we're all stepping up."

Curry is the sort of player they have been in search of from the beginning of Joel Embiid's tenure, a guy they can put in any sort of action and get a bucket out of. He is a human bailout machine right now, and he was on the most important possession of the game for the Sixers against Chicago. Catching this pass on the move and squeezing between two defenders is hard enough, and then Curry tops it off by stroking two off-the-dribble:

"Just keeping it simple, man," Curry said Wednesday. "Trying to attack when I have the ball and I've got an open shot, if not, if I draw two, just move it on to the next person. Playing simple basketball. Joel's doing a good job of commanding double teams, setting good screens, playmaking, he led our team in assists tonight. He's moving the ball, and everybody's helping each other create good offense. We're down Tobias, and obviously [him and] Jo are the two guys that create more one-on-one, but everybody else is just helping each other get good shots."

The only concern at the moment has been figuring out what this Sixers offense looks like once he finally cools down. But even a colder Curry is going to shoot in the low 40s from deep, perhaps high 30s at worst, and on the volume and shot quality he's getting right now, the Sixers will likely be happy with the outcome.

Like: This possession right here 

For my money, this is the best defensive possession we've seen from the Sixers this season.

Georges Niang gets fired up at the end here, and rightfully so. This rules!

There are so many little details to celebrate on this one. Seth Curry has taken a lot of grief for Kevin Huerter going off against Philly in Game 7 vs. Atlanta, but this possession does a good job of showing how much he cares. He's in position to tag the roller and still recover to Ayo Dosunmu in the corner, and he is running hard for every bit of this possession. Guys are passing off switches effortlessly, moving as a unit rather than five individuals reacting separately. And with the help of Joel Embiid, they show size and congestion in the paint, forcing the Bulls to second guess.

Playing good defense can be as simple as having good defensive building blocks, but it is mostly about commitment, intelligence, and understanding of self and scheme. The Sixers needed all five guys on this one, and they executed at an insanely high level. Well done. 

Dislike: Joel Embiid's shooting woes

Embiid was not likely to replicate last year's success from midrange, where he had one of the all-time runs as a jump-shooter for most of the year. Putting him on the left block and letting him face up was borderline automatic, and the Sixers had a lot of success operating out of "Delay," where Embiid would get the ball in the middle of the floor and go to work. But he has fallen far from his perch as a shooter, and it is putting a damper on what has otherwise been an encouraging start to the year for Embiid outside of knee issues.

Dropping 10 full percentage points from the field would be a big deal for anybody, but it's especially noticeable for a big man like Embiid. His offensive value lies in the versatility he offers Philadelphia, stretching defenses out to the perimeter while banging in the post and willing himself to the rim and the free-throw line at a moment's notice. Embiid is plenty dangerous when he is strictly a post player, but his shot distribution tells a story — he's shooting a lower percantage of shots from 10 feet and in than at any other point in his career. So far, his jump-shooting numbers aren't justifying that change, with Embiid posting career-worst numbers from 16 feet to the three-point line and fading back toward below-average from three.

MORE: Report: Sixers frustrated by lack of communication as Ben Simmons works on mental readiness

Is there an actual explanation for Embiid's issues on the offensive end? Immediately after noting he wasn't in search of an excuse, Embiid brought up a topic that is increasingly being discussed in NBA circles.

"I’m always not looking for excuses, but the ball is different," Embiid said Wednesday. "Still not totally feel comfortable with it. It’s a process. But you know, every single day I work hard and I make those shots in practice. Last year I was probably the best midrange jumper in the league, so at some point it’s going to come back. I’m not worried about it. Every single day I’m going to keep working at it. Once it goes in and once it comes back, it makes the offensive ability that I had last year, with the defensive presence that I’ve had this year, I think we’re going to be much better, too."

"Obviously, [Seth Curry] is not struggling with it, so there's only a few of us. But for me, it's a huge difference, I can't explain it."

If blaming the ball sounds silly, consider that Embiid and his peers have likely put in hundreds of thousands of reps using a different brand of basketball. He is not the first guy to bring up the possibility of the ball having an impact on his play, nor will he be the last, and it's fine so long as he doesn't use it as an excuse, or force shots to chase the game when he's in a funk.

It didn't end up mattering on Wednesday night, but there were contrasting examples of how Embiid can work through this slump when the Sixers turn to him in big moments. The first was an ill-advised stepback that he would have been better off kicking to Seth Curry in the corner (or swinging the other way to take advantage of Vucevic falling down), the second was a great pass to a cutting Matisse Thybulle, a critical basket that helped them earn this win.

On the whole, Embiid has taken obvious pride in passing improvement this season, using the constant double teams he still faces in order to make life easier for his guys. He has to keep his eyes on that goal in the biggest moments, especially when he's ice cold. Hero ball will have its place.

Like: Joel Embiid's defensive contributions 

The reason it is hard to point to Embiid's knee as a factor in his offensive woes? He has looked at his absolute best on defense, bringing violence at the rim and tracking opponents well in pick-and-rolls.

Curry ultimately earned the shot of the night with his game-winner, but it was Embiid who ultimately slammed the door shut, meeting a scorching DeMar DeRozan at the summit and triggering a replay review after the officials initially ruled this play a foul:

"I love when bigs go after dunks," Rivers said. "Half these guys in the league won't go after it because they're worried if they get dunked on. I love the Alonzo Mourning approach. And I thought Joel—I mean going after DeRozan, that's a big play. It's a game-saving play."

Indeed it is. The clash at the peak is ultimately what everyone focuses on when you see this play, rightfully so, but getting into a position to even have a chance at a block is the bigger feat on a play like this. Embiid is at the elbow and lurking in case the ball is kicked out to Vucevic, and he explodes through that space the moment he sees DeRozan turn the corner, getting across the lane in time to rise up and get his hand on the ball.

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Georges Niang, who had the misfortune of being the guy blown by on the play, played with perennial DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert in Utah. And while Niang has focused predominantly on Embiid's offensive prowess when talking his franchise player up, he said Wednesday evening that Embiid is probably underrated on the other end.

"He does a better job than what he gets credit for down there anchoring the defense," Niang said. "He does it at an elite level, and I don't think he gets enough credit for it because his offense is so good. But he does a great job when he's in there of really anchoring our defense and making sure guys are in the right places as a leader. I think that's a huge step for him, and I think that's the reason why, one of the reasons why we've been winning games."

I'm not sure a yearly All-Defense contender is being undersold nationally as a defender, but as the guy who wrote that Embiid's work in pick-and-rolls had as much to do with Trae Young's drop-off as matchup switching in the second round, Niang and I are ultimately on the same island. 

Like: Matisse Thybulle digging in against Zach LaVine 

Giving a perimeter defender lots of credit on a night where DeMar DeRozan dropped an efficient 37 points seems slightly counterintuitive, but Matisse Thybulle was a big reason it was only DeRozan dropping an efficient 30-plus. Bulls star Zach LaVine wasn't exactly terrible with 27 points of his own, but he had to work damn hard to get those, shooting just 3/11 with Thybulle as the primary defender. What's more: Thybulle played a brand of disciplined defense that his head coach applauded him for.

"He was great. Defensively, he was absolutely wonderful. We tried to keep the matchup with him on LaVine, and I thought he did just a terrific job," Rivers said. "He's been overall really good. Tonight I thought he was very solid. You have to be solid on LaVine because if you make a mistake and don't get it, it's a three. And I think Matisse knew that."

Any skepticism of Thybulle as a top-assignment defender rests on his propensity to foul and gamble too often, and while he picked up three fouls across 38 minutes on Wednesday, he was never in any danger throughout the night, sliding his feet and causing trouble without needing to gamble. In the early stages of the game, Thybulle blew up a bunch of plays the Bulls tried to run on his side of the floor, and they seemed to realize they'd need to rethink that philosophy.

The plays that get Thybulle on the highlight reel are the feats of athleticism, where you see him dart across the lane for a steal or come from outside of the picture to volleyball spike somebody's shot into the eighth row. But when he combines that quick-twitch athleticism with the discipline and footwork to stay on a guy's hip through the full possession, you see what a special lockdown guy he can be when it all comes together.

(To drive the previous point home on Embiid's defensive importance, he hangs in space just long enough to give Thybulle a recovery chance here. It's not an especially high-effort or energy play, but positioning is about 25 percent of the battle on defense.)

The best of Thybulle on defense is as good as it gets. And when he hits a couple of threes, as he did on Wednesday night, it provides the belief that he may one day be a consistent crunch-time player for this team.

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