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December 07, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers squeak by Hornets thanks to Joel Embiid's dominance

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The Sixers got 43 points out of Joel Embiid, and the big man's post dominance turned out to be enough to score a 127-124 victory over the undermanned Hornets in overtime.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• After the first lifeless stretch of this game, Joel Embiid apparently decided he was going to make sure everybody on the floor knew he was the best player in the building. The Hornets weren't exactly brimming with guys who could deal with him on the low block, and Embiid put on an absolute clinic in the post, crushing smaller defenders and playing mistake-free basketball as the hub of Philly's offense.

Last week, Embiid had a night in Boston that ranks with the worst performances we've seen from him over the past year, tentative and slow against a Celtics team focused on sending extra bodies at him. Over the last two games, Embiid has done a good job of either ignoring or rolling off of that pressure, and the Hornets couldn't figure out what in the world to do with him on Monday. Poor PJ Washington spent long stretches of this game guarding the big man in the post, and Embiid sealed him off with ease roughly 90 percent of the time, getting clean looks at the rim almost whenever he wanted.

One of the keys to Embiid's excellent first half, a 17-7-3 effort with no turnovers from the big guy, was minimizing his dribbling. Embiid made purposeful moves when he got the ball and did a lot of his work before it ever got there, and when he didn't have immediate opportunities to score, he'd often keep the ball in his hands and wait for something to develop around him, finding clean assist opportunities instead of trying to break people down or shoot face-up jumpers. 

Just because Embiid can beat players with his handle doesn't mean that he should, or that it should be a huge component of his game, and he used it just enough to mix things up on Monday night. With one and two-dribble moves, Embiid got exactly where he needed to go and scored at will, marching to the free-throw line even when he couldn't get a clean look.

And as the game wore on, those early layups and made free throws gave Embiid confidence to expand the range and unleash the midrange assault that has been missing from his game most of this season. The feeling of inevitability you had watching him last year returned on Monday night, with Embiid cashing out over and over again when they went his way late. 

For me, this is a blueprint game for Embiid, the sort of hyper-efficient dominance he can offer all the time if he does the early work and expands his range throughout the game, rather than trying to force-feed jumpers right out the chute. Build the confidence around the hoop, and then crush their spirits late. Without him, Philly would have had zero chance in this game, and look out if he can recapture his form after the long bout with COVID.

(As a footnote, I find it hard to get too excited about his defense on a night where the team's performance was so bad on that front. On the other hand, Embiid did a ton of great work around the rim and isn't at fault because he's playing with a team full of ambivalent or outright bad defensive players. Give the guy just a bit of help and they'll be cooking with gas on that end.)

• We could try to look for strategic angles to explain Philadelphia's monster 44-point quarter to pull in front before halftime, but the truth is they simply started making shots. The snowball started rolling downhill, and by stringing together a few stops and playing unselfish basketball in transition, the Sixers were able to find their groove.

The three-man combo of Shake Milton, Danny Green, and Isaiah Joe all got busy from downtown, with Joe the "unlikeliest" guy to emerge in that group only because you never know if he's going to get on the floor for Philadelphia. It's hard to miss Joe when he's out there because the Sixers are so low on guys with quick triggers from deep, and Joe made a difference by sticking to what he does best, getting a few up when they swung his way on the weakside.

It was up and down otherwise, but Joe was able to string together some nice defensive possessions during his limited run to help the Sixers turn it around after a brutal start for the second unit. Joe's defense has flashed a bunch early in his career, it's just hard to know how that's going to hold up in a bigger role. He managed to get bodied on a possession or two by bigger Hornets players on Monday, but he has the agility and competitive juice to hang in there in space, which bodes well for him.

This will shock you, but when role players make threes, the game gets easier.

• To that end, I think you saw a clear difference (in a bad way) between Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton being in that fifth starting spot. The Sixers put little-to-no downhill pressure on the Hornets, with Milton hovering around the perimeter for basically the entire game. But as long as he shoots the hell out of the ball from deep, as he did Monday, that's easy enough to look past for parts of the game.

The Bad

• As dominant as Embiid was at times in this one, there were still opportunities the Sixers left on the table. Embiid used his body to create good, deep position on the block against a number of smaller defenders, and the Sixers struggled to find the passing angle to take advantage of it. Worse yet, they'd occasionally swing the ball side-to-side and lose even the faintest hope of finding him, those passes allowing the possession to crumble into dust.

Tobias Harris tends to be the worst offender on this front, partially because hesitation is his biggest problem as an offensive player generally speaking. Just like we see when he gets open looks from three and passes them up, Harris is the guy who ends up with a lot of entry opportunities and refuses to make the play, or at least refuses to try to create his own bit of separation so he can make the play. The stall-outs often pull him into duty as the late-clock shooter, and that went poorly against Charlotte, with Harris tossing up some real junk from midrange in the process.

Broadly speaking, Harris was outright bad for a lot of this game, and the Sixers offense sputtered when they made it a huge point of emphasis to run plays through him. Watching him dawdle in the mid-post feels like a waste of time, but it's also a waste of his skills, because he can offer plenty when he gets rolling.

That's exactly what happened in the third quarter when Harris used the attention being sent at Embiid to finally drop a couple of buckets. With Embiid battling double-teams in the post and drawing attention any time he moved toward the basket, Harris was able to can a pair of open catch-and-shoot threes midway through the third, earning three free throws immediately afterward on a good possession vs. zone defense. 

For some reason, that version of Harris was short-lived, and that's the infuriating part about how he goes about his business some nights. He lets himself fall victim to bad habits and mitigates any positive impact he makes.

Anyway, circling back to the initial point — just because it was a good Embiid post-game doesn't mean it couldn't have been a great one. And it's up to the supporting cast to feed the big dog as early and often as possible. 

• Somebody is going to have to sit down with Matisse Thybulle in the film room and point out to him how often he is getting burned for no reason other than taking silly gambles. Thybulle picked up three fouls in nine minutes during the first half against the Hornets, and two of them were on absolute bonehead plays. The first was a lazy reach on a driver, with the second coming when he overcommitted in one direction and allowed Gordon Hayward to beat him backdoor, compounding the problem by fouling Hayward as he made a layup for an and-one.

Thybulle has had some legitimately sensational efforts on defense this year, but he has had far more games where he looks miscast as the guy who needs to take top assignments on other teams, too jumpy and too mistake-prone to be trusted in that spot. And if he can't do that, his offense has been bad enough that you begin to question why he's playing at all. Teams are not even pretending to guard him right now.

• On second thought, I know exactly why Thybulle has to continue playing right now — the Sixers are comically low on guys with NBA-level size and athleticism, which leaves them prone to getting absolutely toasted when playing, I don't know, basically any normal NBA team, even a team down five guys like Charlotte was.

• We have reached the point where Joe basically has to get a shot to play in place of Furkan Korkmaz, rather than alongside him. Korkmaz's complete inability to make threes lately has made him a difficult watch, and that was true on Monday in spite of a decent game from midrange for the Korkster. Get some younger blood in there.

• Despite it being a homecoming game, this was a night to forget for Seth Curry, who never seemed to find his place in this game without the steady diet of Embiid DHOs he usually gets during a normal game. If the cost of Embiid dominating in and around the paint is fewer of those plays, I think that's probably a worthwhile trade-off, though Curry also could have simply made a few of the open threes he had a look at against Charlotte.

The Ugly

• A bit of important reporting we will try not to bury in a recap — a source familiar with the situation spoke to PhillyVoice on Monday evening and said the Sixers have had no recent discussions with Portland regarding a CJ McCollum trade, and a package centered around the Blazers' guard is not currently of interest to the Sixers.

The Sixers are expected to continue dialogue with teams across the league about potential opportunities as December 15th nears closer and more trade scenarios become available league-wide.

Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

RELATED: NBA Trade Rumors: Damian Lillard is interested in Ben Simmons. Does CJ McCollum help Sixers?

• In an 82-game season, there are going to be parts of the schedule that are defined almost exclusively by effort. Philadelphia's first-quarter performance against Charlotte was one of those, and they did not come close to the winning side of that battle, getting their asses kicked up and down the floor by a team just ready to play harder than they were.

There were complaints to be made about individual players and lineup choices from Doc Rivers, who still refuses to stagger his lineups in spite of how essential it is to the plans of good teams around the league, but the baseline effort sucked. Up against a team on the second half of a back-to-back with half of the rotation in COVID protocol, they got beat on every effort play and were down double digits in the first quarter as a result. That simply cannot happen.

But about the context — Rivers' insistence on playing all-bench groups, let alone all bench groups without a clear lead ballhandler, is absolutely insane. With Tyrese Maxey out of the lineup, Rivers needed to do his best to make sure the backups were supported more than ever. Instead, he let Furkan Korkmaz take over ball-handling duties, leaving them in disarray for a good chunk of the first half. It's an easily avoidable problem, but you'd have to actually try to avoid it.

This Sixers team is not a star-laden team that can simply out-talent people, and they need to win along the margins. That requires the coach thinking about ways to succeed on the margins, and Rivers has done that far too infrequently this season. Every single bench player ended up in the negative on Monday, and you shouldn't expect much more out of this group when they are put in a position to fail.

Worse yet, the competitive fire they seemed to have in spades early in the year has dissipated, with the Sixers fading in and out of games far more lately. If Rivers is going to get credit when they show up and fight hard for him, it has to be pointed out when they offer half-assed efforts.

• Danny Green needs to dribble less. The half-court adventures are just insane. If he wants to make a one or two dribble move to get around a close-out, give him the green light, but he is far too deep into his career to go off script and improvise as a ballhandler.

On top of that, he made some uncharacteristic meathead mistakes throughout the game, including on a terrible post entry pass to Embiid late with Gordon Hayward standing there waiting to double before the ball even got close. Green also gifted the Hornets a final shot and three extra points on the final play of the first half, swinging the game in a matter of seconds after the Sixers worked hard to build a comfy halftime lead.

He simply has to be better and smarter than he was. You play vets so you don't have to deal with downside like this. 

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