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December 04, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid powers Sixers' second-half comeback vs. Hawks

Joel Embiid rebounded with a big second half against Atlanta on Friday night, leading the Sixers to a 98-96 win with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists at the pivot. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• When Joel Embiid is getting to the free-throw line, good things are usually happening for the Sixers. Although his touch continued to evade him in the early stages of Friday night's game, Embiid took Clint Capela down to the low block and went to work, putting the Hawks in the penalty early and starting a free-throw parade that would continue throughout the night.

As always, life is about balance for the big fella. The post dominance is special because it also comes with Embiid's face-up game. Embiid's ability to take and make jumpers (maybe not this season) matters because the finesse is not the only thing, with Embiid possessing as much power as anyone in the league. But right now, he simply he has to focus on the play around the basket while he works on rediscovering his shooting touch, and all of his best offense came when he did that on Friday night.

The third quarter was a showcase of how his approach can change the calculus for Philly, with Embiid running the floor and establishing early position to get easy looks around the rim. The Sixers didn't have to run anything extra or different to get him those deep touches, Embiid simply had to put in the work to seal off Clint Capela or any number of smaller Hawks defenders, who are simply not in his weight class.

Even with Embiid struggling to find his range on offense, his defensive efforts have been tremendous recently, making up for a lineup filled with questionable perimeter defenders. Since Doc Rivers and Dan Burke came to town, Embiid has embraced the challenge of playing higher in pick-and-roll coverage while still making special plays around the basket, transforming how teams are able to attack Philadelphia. That approach was not without warts on Friday, with the Hawks coming up with offensive rebounds against smaller Sixers player with Embiid pulled out of position to contest shots, but he was a majorly-positive force overall, junking up what Atlanta wanted to do. The guy is one of the absolute best defensive players in the league, full stop.

The second half showed a blueprint for how the Sixers can string together wins with this group — Embiid played unselfish basketball, locked in on defense, and yes, he made a few jumpers to go along with his dominance around the basket. He is the rising tide that can lift all ships, and he did so on Friday night.

• The Sixers have to have Seth Curry more involved in the offense, which is something I feel like I say every other game. He was surface-of-the-sun hot to open this game, 5/5 in the first quarter to lead the Sixers out of a tough start of the game, and then he slowly lost his way as the game went on, fading from view and missing the odd shot here or there.

When they needed him in crunch time, however, Mr. Curry was front and center in Philadelphia's offense, hitting several huge shots in the final five minutes of the game to bring the Sixers within striking distance and eventually take the lead. Shooting seems to run in the family, but there are other Curry family traits you can see shine through, with his balance allowing him to lean one way and then quickly explode in another direction, finding a sliver of daylight he needs to get a clean look.

And hey, he came up with a huge defensive play late in this one, jumping into a passing lane after Embiid did the hard work to funnel the Hawks toward the baseline.

• Tyrese Maxey felt snakebitten in this game, given the quality of looks he was able to get and the many insane ways those shots seemed to roll or bounce off of the rim. Mid-range jumpers, runners, layups, all of them looked good coming out of his hands, only for the shots to take odd hops or spin out when they looked to be going down. I guess you could argue this wasn't just a Maxey problem, with both teams getting unfriendly bounces throughout the night.

The other end of the floor was also ugly at times, with a couple of nice plays against Young not making up for the misreads and missteps he made against a variety of players in space. There are still stretches where Maxey is a little too jumpy on defense, hopping to one side right as a guy hits a crossover and blows by him with ease, leaving Maxey in no position to recover and make a play on the ball after an opposing player leaves him in the dust.

But as always, Maxey did not let a tough start to the game keep him down, coming on some in the second half by finding spots where he could use his pace. Whether it's because he is empowered by all the work he puts in or just a self-confident kid at a base level, Maxey has found ways to contribute in a lot of games this year where it felt like he looked totally cooked heading into halftime. Even the little things were there for Maxey in the second half — he made a nice skip pass that took advantage of Atlanta doubling Embiid off-ball on one possession, leading to a corner three for Danny Green on the weakside.

Maxey has to figure out a way to synergize his talents with Embiid, and it has been a struggle since the big guy returned to the lineup. But there are still signs of promise, or at least signs that they drown without him on the floor if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person.

• Having Danny Green on the floor is good for Philadelphia, if for no other reason than Embiid being willing to look for him when he's doubled in the post. Trust is everything in pressure moments, and if the big man is willing to make the right basketball play because Green is the guy getting the ball on a cross-court pass, you have to play him as much as possible, even when the shots don't drop.

The Bad

• The Sixers looked positively crisp on offense at the start of this season, with their No. 1 ranked unit carrying them to an 8-2 start to the season despite middling-to-bad performances on defense. That has come to a crashing halt in recent weeks, and it has looked even worse with the full lineup basically in place over the last few games, which is cause for real concern moving forward.

There is simply no rhythm or flow to this group right now, with possessions often breaking down midstream before they can get any momentum going toward the basket. Joel Embiid will try to direct traffic as the screen setter, Philadelphia's ballhandlers will hesitate to make a move, and the Sixers will end up stuck in neutral until eight seconds or less are left on the clock, the possession ending in a forced jumper or wild attempt at the basket.

You could understand some rust for this team, given how uncertain the lineup has been night after night, but that's not an excuse to look this hapless. The Sixers were outscored 30-13 in the second quarter on Friday night, and even those 13 points feel generous, with Furkan Korkmaz hitting a last-second shot to add a couple more to the total. It's fair to say they weren't as good as their top-rated offense made them look early, but there's no excuse for them being this bad.

The coaching staff is going to have to do something to get them out of this funk, starting with more movement away from the play and reconsideration of the free-flowing style they wanted to encourage coming out of the preseason. This looks like a rudderless ship, and though they aren't going to get much practice time to figure things out, the shootarounds Doc Rivers claims have been more intense this season likely have to go up a few more levels. 

• A couple of faces have changed in Philadelphia, but the Sixers' bench-heavy units are still getting killed by the Hawks' bench-heavy units. They did try to do some slightly different things with their backups on Friday night, but the game tilted in Atlanta's favor as soon as the game was turned over to the second units, and most people probably could have seen that coming.

There are plenty of things you can pin on Andre Drummond this season, but struggling to buoy the Sixers when an opponent busts out a small, floor-spacing lineup is not really one of them. While he may be able to come up with offensive rebounds on one end, asking him to defend out to the three-point line on every single possession is just asking for trouble. Whether he was a step late to close out or sucked too far out to properly defend the rim, Drummond could not seem to find the balance on Friday night.

(I'm not sure who would actually help the problems here, honestly. Paul Reed is not really a trustworthy option as a small-ball center yet, and while Charles Bassey has shown promise, his strengths are basically all in drop coverage and around the rim, putting him in a tough spot if teams stick a John Collins type at center.)

Part of the problem is roster construction, part of the problem is how the pieces are being deployed. Neither is good.

• Matisse Thybulle has been giving the Sixers less than nothing recently. His lack of discipline has led to him taking some absolutely obnoxious fouls when the Sixers have already done the hard work to get a stop, and his offensive "contributions" have been downright miserable, destroying their spacing independent of the other pieces of the lineup. It's not like Thybulle has other offensive abilities to offer this group, like the ability to attack someone off the dribble, so unless he's scoring on wide-open dunks and layups or in transition, they have to live and die with the success of his jumper.

As you've seen recently, not exactly a favorable proposition for the Sixers.

The Ugly

• The Sixers were in a groove for the back half of the first quarter so I can understand trying to pad the lead while you could, but having Embiid play basically the entire quarter fresh off of the COVID layoff doesn't seem like the smartest idea in the world. That's not the only time over the last four games Rivers has left Embiid on the floor for an extended stretch, and this time seemed to have immediate on-court ramifications, with Embiid slowing down considerably in the second quarter.

• Exploiting Trae Young's defensive weaknesses is something I advocated for relentlessly during last year's playoff series, and the Sixers certainly tried to pick on the smaller guard at times on Friday night. If you are so focused on doing that you end up in place where Danny Green is trying to post-up Young to start a possession, you have lost the plot entirely as a team. At that point, you're not exploiting a weakness, you're throwing something at the wall and hoping it might stick.

This Sixers team has far too many dumb, head-scratching plays every night for a team with guys that are (mostly) not dumb basketball players. Georges Niang picking up a foul 30+ feet from the basket to press up on Danilo Galinari, for example, is dumb basketball in the same vein as the Green post-up. 

• When both guys are healthy and not in foul trouble, I don't care how poorly they're playing, one of Tyrese Maxey or Shake Milton needs to be on the floor right now. The Sixers do not have the creative juice to make do without them, and they made an effort to for a brief stretch in the second quarter with predictable results.

Staggering Maxey with Embiid is something Doc Rivers should probably consider at this point, given Maxey's success during the non-Embiid stretch of this season and their desperate need for a spark with the backups. They can still work on the chemistry of those two in the rest of the minutes they share together, though I imagine Rivers sees it differently, given his insistence on anchoring Embiid and Ben Simmons' minutes together last season.

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