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November 02, 2018

Sixers show signs of turning the corner in win over Los Angeles Clippers

On Thursday night against the Clippers, it felt for the first time like last year's Sixers decided to show up. They were comfortably the better team for the first 24 minutes, and then slowly let their opponent claw back into the game, making a blowout closer than it should have been. The Sixers are back, baby.

In all seriousness, Philadelphia's 122-113 win over the Los Angeles Clippers felt like a return to the form most expected and a potential turning point for the team, with encouraging performances coming all over the court. The Sixers have a pair of winnable games this weekend – a home matinee against Detroit on Saturday, and a Sunday evening date with the Brooklyn Nets — which can serve as a potential launching pad for their season if they carry over the positives from Thursday's win.

But let's focus on that game before we start looking too far ahead. It all starts with the star of the show.

Joel Embiid forces a personnel change all by himself

The Clippers had absolutely nothing for Embiid in the first half, despite the big man dealing with a hint of foul trouble after picking up a cheapie just over a minute into the game. He took Marcin Gortat and Montrezl Harrell and turned them into souflee, going over, around, and through them en route to 24 points before intermission.

It was a classic Embiid performance, combining post moves with outside shooting and some uncontested dunks on looks from his partner-in-crime, Ben Simmons. Up 15 at the break, the Sixers were cruising.

In stepped Boban Marjanovic, who Doc Rivers started in the second half to counteract Philadelphia's big man. And not only did it work for long stretches on Embiid, it ground Philadelphia's offense to a halt.

"Boban is a big dude," said Embiid after the game.

But the Sixers played into the hands of Rivers and his 7'3" center in the second half, in part because the switch exposed their own limitations on the personnel front. The key to limiting Boban's impact is to force him to run and defend in space. Most teams would just pick-and-roll him to death until Rivers was forced to remove him, and that's why he's still just a role player despite his obvious strengths.

The Sixers, unfortunately, don't really have credible threats in the pick-and-roll game, and they bailed the Clippers out by allowing Boban to camp at the free-throw line for about the first seven minutes of the second half. They conceded the three-point line to Embiid, and he was happy to launch away unsuccessfully, going 1/6 after starting the game 2/2 from deep.

When all was said and done, it was Embiid's brilliance that outweighed LA's curveball in the end, and the big man had yet another monster night: 41 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks, and just a pair of turnovers in 33 minutes. His defense, combined with the efforts of Robert Covington, was enough to stem the tide and ensure the Sixers didn't give the game back altogether.

(Covington won't get his own section for this game, but pay that man his respect for what he has done so far this season. He's shooting almost 45 percent from three on 6+ attempts per game and serving as the team's defensive Swiss army knife.)

Beyond Embiid, it was the reinforcements who proved critical to the win, with one young man, in particular, stealing the show in the second half.

Markelle Fultz is the spark that lifts Philadelphia

The box score isn't overwhelming when you just look at the numbers on a page — 12 points, nine rebounds, five assists on 5/10 from the field — but you'd have to be blind not to notice how Fultz tilted the game in the second half. Serving in his usual role off the bench, Fultz came in and brought energy on both ends of the floor, turning up the tempo just when the team needed it.

"You just felt the building change, you felt our team’s mood change, we needed that injection of energy," said Brown. "We are all going to see him push the ball and find people, but I thought his defense was excellent as well. He really deserves a lot of credit for injecting that type of momentum leading into the fourth."

When Fultz plays with purpose — and that tends to be when he has the ball in his hands — he looks like a wildly different player. The fearlessness you saw him play with at Washington is in short supply these days, but it's reemerging in fits and starts.

The best sequence of his night, for my money, came with just over a minute left in the third quarter. Fultz fought hard to get through traffic and cause Lou Williams problems on defense, then snatched the rebound and went coast-to-coast for the layup in transition, only disappointing in that he didn't throw down a dunk in the process.

It's the sort of flash that makes his moments of timidness all the more confusing. The talent is clearly there, and it's a matter of stringing together plays and building toward something real. He did that on Thursday, attacking Boban at the rim to close out the third quarter and continuing to get downhill as the fourth quarter began.

While he looks young in a lot of other areas, Fultz has done an excellent job so far of remaining in control when pushing the pace on the break. You can see the handle craft shine through when he's navigating through dangerous waters, and it's easy work from there.

Fultz continues to do his best work on the ball, without Simmons on the floor. But we did see a look midway through the fourth quarter that could change that.

Small-ball Sixers get a chance for the first time this season

Yes, the Sixers have technically "played small" a bunch already this season, rolling out three-guard lineups that were doomed to fail from the start. But we got our first look at a grouping of Fultz-Shamet-Covington-Simmons-Saric on Thursday, and that sort of configuration is one to watch moving forward.

Admittedly, the results were a bit lacking. The Sixers were up four when Simmons came in to replace Embiid, and that group ended up a -1 thanks to Lou Williams catching a heater in the fourth quarter. But they generated plenty of wide-open looks from three, and one defensive sequence saw them turn a Covington deflection into a Simmons dunk using just one dribble between them.

Odd as it is to say about a basketball team in 2018, the Sixers don't always get to run a lot of sets with multiple shooters at the time. If you watch the second clip in that video closely, you'll see the difference it makes — the Clippers have a brief moment of confusion as Williams and Avery Bradley attempt to switch underneath the rim, and once Saric sets the pick on top of that there's no chance for the Clippers to contest Shamet.

It's a group that's switchable, and one that can take advantage when defenses collapse on Simmons or Fultz in the paint. Brown didn't sound all that committed to giving this group extended minutes after the game, but he left the door open to trying more things like it in the future.

"It's kind of the way the league is going," said Brown. "The short answer is yes, I'm curious about that. Usually, it's done more out of a reactive mode for foul trouble or you're losing and you got to just change the game. I think going forward it does interest me as more of a proactive lineup instead of a reactive adjustment that's probably not going your way."

The fast-break sequence is one we should be seeing a lot more of with a team that possesses guys like Fultz and Simmons. The more athletes and shooters you can put on the floor with them, the easier life gets.

With the team's franchise player at center, it's tough to justify going small too often. But that lineup is proof of concept for a bunch of other looks the Sixers can run out, and there's one they're going to have to consider sooner rather than later.

Dario Saric needs a break, because he has nothing right now

The lineup a lot of people would probably like to see at this point is a leaner version of the starting group. With JJ Redick in the lineup instead of Saric, the Sixers would have a more versatile (and productive) shooting threat on the floor, and a lineup that probably looks more like what they'd want long-term if Fultz pans out.

Brown almost has to try that at this point, because Saric has been absolutely brutal to start the year. The three-point struggles are one thing, but he missed some bunnies against the Clippers, leaving layups short without a contesting arm in sight.

Saric is a prideful guy, and one of the reasons I think Redick was the man to hit the bench instead of him is because the veteran is at a place in his career where he is better equipped to handle that shakeup. Redick knows what he's here to do, and that doesn't change regardless of his starter's designation. Saric has a lot more to figure out as his first extension looms on the horizon, here or elsewhere.

But Saric needs a break, if not to rest his legs then at least his mind. Putting him on the shelf would allow the Sixers to toy with some more experimental looks, and perhaps play the starting lineup that will clear up the team's foggy future.

Failing that, Brown has shown Saric's place as a closer on this team is not etched in stone. He turned to Mike Muscala in crunch time against the Clippers, and though his shot wasn't dropping Thursday, Muscala has looked like a good get for the Sixers so far, shifting in and out of frontcourt roles as the game dictates.

With the Sixers going through this Fultz experiment and still needing to add Wilson Chandler and eventually Zhaire Smith to the mix, Brown should be trying out as many looks as he can in the season's early months. Swap out Saric for Muscala in that small-ball lineup we discussed and you have someone who can play legit center minutes while still spacing the floor for the team's ballhandlers.

(Muscala should be getting the bulk of the backup center minutes anyway. Amir Johnson has largely been terrible, and with Embiid on the shelf the Sixers should be trying to get as much shooting on the floor as possible to aid Simmons and Fultz.)

Whatever Brown decides to do, Saric is showing you without telling you that he needs to take a step back right now. It will allow him to recharge, and it will allow the team to explore different options without serving Saric a formal demotion.

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