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January 15, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers dig deep for big road win vs. Heat

Sixers NBA
Embiid-Sixers_011522_usat Jim Rassol/USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat guard Max Strus (31) defends Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) in the first half at FTX Arena.

Joel Embiid rallied after a tough start to lift the Sixers to a huge road win in Miami, with a brilliant collective effort earning Philadelphia a 109-98 victory on Saturday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers badly needed someone to step up and carry the offense on Saturday night, with Joel Embiid leaving his touch in South Philadelphia for the entire first half. Last year, it would have been no surprise to see Tobias Harris buoy this group, but Harris playing leading man has rarely happened this year, and he came up with a tremendous performance when they needed it. 

To some extent, this felt like what Harris deserved for an improved approach on the offensive end over the last week and a half. Catch-and-shoot threes have been getting launched quicker and more frequently, and Harris was able to get off to a hot start from outside in this one, going 3/3 from downtown in the first half on shots that barely hit his hands before he loaded up to fire. That's the version of Harris the Sixers have wanted to see since the day they acquired him, and though it has been rare for that side of him to make an appearance, it typically coincides with success from other spots on the floor.

That was the case on Saturday night, with Harris' made threes leading to success from the areas where he typically prefers operating (e.g. the mid-post). His first half wasn't perfect, but Harris wasted fewer possessions and played decisively, either looking to score or moving the basketball quickly so that they didn't waste opportunities elsewhere.

On top of the shooting success, Harris came up with some big effort plays in high-leverage moments, pursuing plays until they were over and hitting the jackpot on at least a couple of them. Harris' putback through contact early in the first quarter helped a bench-heavy group stay in front of the Heat while Embiid and Curry rested, a huge deal for a team that often goes to hell with those guys on the bench.

Big-time performance from Harris, simple as that.

• Expecting a whole lot out of Joel Embiid in an ideal back-to-back scenario is probably foolish, and with Embiid questionable coming into this game due to an elbow issue, that was doubly true. This was a rough watch on the offensive end in the first half, as Embiid's touch evaded him and he tried (and often failed) to keep pace with Heat big men Omer Yurtseven.

Comparing them directly isn't really fair to Embiid's contribution to the game even before he got going. Yurtseven's offensive production frequently came on plays where Sixers perimeter defenders were beaten, pulling Embiid away from the rim and his assignment to put out a different fire. A night after he flattered his teammates and said they had everything they needed in Philly, Embiid showed bits of anger at the predicament in the Miami game, enraged that nobody was in place to help the helper as he tried to assist everyone else. And at times, he seemed mad at himself for his own mistakes, misreading how far away from the rim he could safely move up.

But after halftime hit, something changed for Embiid, perhaps because he simply started making his shots. The baseline jumpers and fades from the post turned from bricks to makes, and the Sixers began whittling down the lead, moving out in front by the time the third quarter ended. He began absolutely cooking Yurtseven with the face-up jumper, leaving him helpless to stop Philadelphia's best player as he turned a brutal start into a rock-solid performance with shots like these:

Even when the big guy wasn't at his best, he was still engaged in this one. When he missed a tough jumper, he would make it a point to get back and make sure he didn't let the frustration bleed into the other end. He opened the second half with a sense of purpose, drawing an early foul on Yurtseven by going hard at him in early offense. And through it all, he was a world-destroying force on the defensive end, giving the Sixers extra chances on possessions where they almost certainly should have been scored on. Heat players got through to the paint and then turned to stone in the face of Philadelphia's seven-foot Medusa, as they refused to challenge the Cameroonian waiting to reject them.

Mental toughness and focus is one of the big points of separation between the old Embiid and the MVP-level player he has been the last two years. The big guy has gotten much better at keeping his head in the game and contributing in other ways until his offense can catch up, and it caught up in a major way in the second half of this one. This is as MVP worthy as any performance he has turned in all season.

• Seth Curry's non-shooting performance in this game was the stuff of nightmares at times, but as it turns out, being one of the best shooters in the history of the sport is decent enough cover for the rest of your flaws. Laying dormant for the first half of this game, Curry got on a roll in the third quarter, and between him and Embiid coming to life in that frame, the Sixers finally had life again, even a freaking lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Not all of it felt "deserved" in the sense that Curry was able to shoot them out of some downright terrible possessions, canning jumpers late in the clock with a hand (or hands, plural) in his face trying to stop him. It never seems to matter how much pressure is on him and how close the nearest defender is, with Curry exuding calmness from basically every area of the floor. Sometimes it's even too much — he lets shot opportunities go that a guy of his caliber should be getting up every single time.

In any case, he helped shoot them back into this one, and he continues to be at the heart of a lot of their best/most successful offensive sets.

• After starting poorly on the defensive end and going through a long offensive drought to close the first quarter, it would have been easy for this group to lay down and get smoked on the second half of a back-to-back. Their bench may have been horrific on offense, scoring just a single point in the first half collectively, but they held onto the rope at the other end, trying their best to not totally lose the plot before halftime.

On the second half of a back-to-back, you mostly just want to see the group bought in, and I thought there was enough of that to provide hope early. Seeing Andre Drummond flash to the perimeter for a closeout to set up Georges Niang to contest Dewayne Dedmon at the rim, successfully drawing an offensive foul in the process, was the sort of thing you needed to see early in order to care about this game at all.

These are the games that justify caring about sports at all. Athletes stare down suboptimal circumstances and refuse to let their lives be defined by the things out of their control.

• Charlie Brown Jr. was called upon to offer a bit of energy and athleticism for a group lacking both of those early in the game, and once again, the St. Joe's product made a difference with his limited opportunities. He continues to impress when he gets on the floor for the Sixers, perhaps because he offers something different from everyone else on their bench.

As soon as Brown checked into the game in the second quarter, the Sixers began slowly creeping back into this game, with his ability to switch across different assignments and beat guys to spots showing up right away. He hung tough against a guy like Jimmy Butler, a rugged ballhandler Sixers fans got to watch up close, and stripped numerous Heat ballhandlers on their way to the rim, forcing turnovers to change the complexion of this game.

What was more encouraging was Brown's ability to serve as a connector in Philadelphia's offense. From various spots on the floor, Brown flashed into space to give Joel Embiid an outlet, and he was quick to fire on-the-money passes to Sixers players spread around the floor, thinking on the move like an established veteran. He's going to have to make shots at some point, but it's hard not to like how this kid plays.

• I don't always love Georges Niang's early-clock threes, but I would 100 percent rather see those than another shooter refusing to let it go when they have an opening. He hit some monster shots throughout the second half, and Doc Rivers understandably rolled with him deep into the game, rewarding the bench forward for getting and staying hot. 

(A nice bonus: while Niang is drawing dead in certain perimeter-focused matchups, he's a pretty smart team defender, which they needed several different times on Saturday. 

• Tyrese Maxey did not have a very good game on Saturday night, but watching him come up with a come-from-behind block on Kyle Lowry while the veteran shot a three was pretty sweet. The kid battles, good shooting night or not.

The Bad

• The Sixers are not exactly brimming with passing talent even when they're at their best on offense, but they had one of their worst passing stretches of the season in the first half. There were some plays where I think you can make a case that mental and physical fatigue loomed large — guys turned to throw a pass and you could see the regret enter their body language almost immediately, shoulders slumping as Heat players grabbed the passes and went streaking down the floor for transition buckets.

Seth Curry has been one of the worst offenders on this front all week, with Wednesday's loss to Charlotte featuring one of his worst ball-security performances since he joined the team. I'm not sure Saturday night's game was much better, with Curry making some absolutely mind-numbing turnovers in spots where he easily could have just shot the ball or used his handle to capitalize on space in front of him. 

But it feels wrong to pick on Curry alone, considering the state of the offense through the first 24 minutes of this game. The Sixers simply could not get much going, with everyone not named Tobias Harris struggling to score regardless of the shot quality they were afforded. Open transition threes didn't drop, runners went in and out of the cylinder, and pace continues to be a problem for this group, with Philadelphia taking far too long to get into their offense most of the game.

You can't be slow and careless with the ball. That's a recipe for disaster, and Miami's stars going cold (and poor outside shooting overall) was the only thing that really kept this game close.

• Here's where I will pick on Curry alone — his defensive decision-making is astoundingly bad a lot of the time. I think people see his size and chalk his problems up to what he lacks in the physical battle, when the mental battle and positioning is much more problematic. He'll abandon shooters for no real reason, take the wrong path around screens, it's hard to figure out what he's going to do and when.

It's a good thing this guy is an all-world shooter, so you just mostly ignore this stuff and hope he makes up for it on the other end.

The Ugly

• There have been a lot of bad moments this season for the Sixers, but a play from the first quarter might rank at the top of the list. Joel Embiid dove to the floor for a loose ball, showing spirited effort to open the back-to-back, and while everyone else just stood around waiting for possession of the ball to drop out of the sky, the Heat swarmed to Embiid, eventually wrestling the ball away from him so that Jimmy Butler could draw a foul near the basket. Embiid was visibly frustrated after the play, and who could blame him? The video says it all:

Come on, man.

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