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February 10, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers lock down Kings in second half, open road trip with win

The Sixers turned up the intensity on defense in the second half against Sacramento, and it allowed them to shake off an erratic first half to pick up a 119-111 win over the Kings. Joel Embiid managed to lead the way with 25 points despite a poor game by his standards. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Most questions about Seth Curry in recent weeks have centered around his health and well-being, so seeing him carry the offense for portions of Tuesday's game was great to see. And without Curry coming out ready to roll, the Sixers would have likely lost this game by a lot, with Curry serving as their entire offense for small spurts throughout the game.

If there was one positive about Joel Embiid's night on Tuesday, it was found in the synergy he continues to build with Curry in dribble handoffs. Even when Embiid isn't setting a rock solid screen, he has such a big body that Curry can get free for a clear look at the basket, and he's a comfortable pull-up shooter from basically any spot on the floor.

Even by Curry's standards, this was a terrific game off-the-dribble, and if they're lucky this will be the start of his return to normalcy. You're not going to get 20+ out of him every night, but if he has his lungs back and comfort within the offense, he'll provide value to this team no matter what.

• The Sixers were awful on defense for most of this game, but credit where it's due for their performance in the fourth quarter when it mattered most. Their two most important players – who were unusually bad by their standards for the first three quarters — reached back and found the extra gear they needed to close this game out.

A lot of that can be attributed to Embiid alone. There was a visible change in his approach when he checked into the game for the final time early in the fourth quarter. Plays that he had coasted through earlier in the game suddenly became difficult attempts around the basket, and the Kings were forced to try to beat Philly from the perimeter down the stretch because of how impactful he was around the rim.

Frankly, once Embiid started to give a shit, the mistakes and frustrating sequences we'll get to below all but disappeared. He made it impossible for the Sixers to do anything other than get him the ball, and as he did most of the night, he controlled the glass for Philly, making sure possessions were killed off after they got stops.

It was an off night for Embiid and he still managed to stuff the box score after he meandered through three-quarters of the game. He showed up for winning time and I suppose that's what counts.

• Speaking of the fourth quarter, stop me if you've heard this before — Tobias Harris' offense and Matissse Thybulle's defense in the final frame were both integral to Philadelphia's win over the Kings. Harris had a mostly anonymous night up until the fourth quarter, but he once again came through with a burst of scoring when Philadelphia needed it. 

It's hard to say enough about Thybulle's performance in the second half, specifically the job he did slowing down De'Aaron Fox. After watching Fox blow by Philadelphia defenders for the first 24 minutes and change, Thybulle brought him back down to Earth in a big way, beating him to spots and coming up with some absolutely remarkable contests. 

One thing I have enjoyed about Doc Rivers' approach to the season so far is his willingness to mix up the closing lineup depending on how things were going. Thybulle far outplayed Green on Tuesday night and was their ticket to slowing down Fox, so Rivers rolled with him in closing time. The big three are mostly static, but it has a positive short term effect (helping the Sixers win a game) and long term effect (getting a mix of players crunch-time reps/experience ahead of the playoffs).

• The other guy providing an offensive spark outside of Curry was Furkan Korkmaz, who finally seems to be getting his legs under him over the last week or two. Korkmaz still isn't a bruiser, but the bit of additional strength he has picked up over the years has helped him take advantage of the skills he already had on offense. 

Korkmaz's ability to take guys off of the dribble pairs nicely with his shooting ability so long as he's keeping it simple. On multiple occasions Tuesday night, Korkmaz used a brief hesitation to freeze defenders in their tracks, opening up paths to the rim, including on this hammer he threw down in the first half:

On the other hand, this was one of his worst defensive performances in a while, with his positioning letting him down on several possessions that allowed Kings players free paths to the rim. Oh well, hard to complain about him on a night like this.

• You are not going to see many battles of speed like the one we got to watch together on Tuesday night. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox are two of the league's fastest players in the open floor, and they made it known in the opening quarter that they'd both be putting their tools to work throughout the night.

Even though some of his trips toward the rim were fruitless, and even though he picked up an offensive foul or two by putting his head down and attacking the rim, most of the battle with Simmons was just committing to getting to the rim. He is beginning to turn flashes into attack patterns over the last few weeks, using short jump hooks to great effect, and he can create way more open jumpers when the opponent has to respect him as a threat going toward the basket.

One area where I thought Simmons was good when nobody else on the Sixers was — reacting to the Kings fronting Embiid in the post. By positioning himself in the high post area, Simmons was able to catch a few passes with space in front of him, and he used those opportunities to score or hit Embiid once the Kings overreacted to the catch.

The Bad

• Joel Embiid hasn't been perfect as a playmaker out of the post this year, but he has played with considerably more control and patience on the block, aided by the improved floor spacing around him. That did not carry over to Tuesday's game in Sacramento, where it felt like Embiid fell victim to the overall pace of the game.

As the Sixers and Kings traded blows in transition, Embiid seemed intent on playing as fast as everybody else was, which is not how he put himself in the MVP conversation in the first place. He dribbled himself into traffic, picked up his dribble before he needed to, and tried a little too hard to bait fouls against a Kings group that shouldn't be able to guard him. Instead of imposing his will, he made it easier to defend him.

The quicker the game became, the more it felt like Embiid was just drifting around the floor. With due respect to Marvin Bagley, there's no reason Embiid should have any problem sealing him off, but there were post-up attempts throughout the night where he let Bagley and other Kings defenders bother his setup and force him to reestablish position, nuking whatever good work he had done previously.

(On the other hand, the Sixers' perimeter players did a piss-poor job of reacting to the Kings fronting the post, squandering opportunities that Embiid created early in the clock. When they actually attempted to counter it, e.g. when they had Simmons move to the high post, they made easy work of Sacramento’s defense.)

• As excellent as Simmons was attacking the rim and keeping the offense afloat during an off night for Embiid, he was almost as bad on the defensive end. Maybe that's being a little harsh because De'Aaron Fox was really good, but the Sixers rely on him to win important matchups on the perimeter. Fox had him in the torture chamber all night, using an electric first step and great pace-changing ability to leave Simmons grasping at air throughout the evening.

The rest of Philadelphia's roster didn't do much better containing their matchups on the perimeter. A lot of that was due to poor initial positioning, sitting too far back to crowd their airspace and too far to the side to avoid rolling out a red carpet to the rim. Sacramento is already dangerous enough with Fox and Tyrese Haliburton at the controls, but if you concede dribble penetration on every other possession, it's going to be remarkably difficult to keep them from scoring (or at least finding an open shooter).

• Transition defense has been an issue for Philadelphia throughout the season, but the Kings made an absolute mockery of the Sixers' ability to get back on defense. The most aggravating part of the night was watching Sacramento push the pace after made shots for Philadelphia — the time when your defense is supposed to be strongest — and getting clean look after clean look for their troubles.

Having that happen a couple of times is understandable against a team that employs Fox. But it wasn't just a matter of Fox getting downhill and racing past people — their bigs ran the floor, their shooters got set up to launch early threes, and they exploited every moment of weakness they were offered.

They are not the first vet team that has been reluctant to run hard on defense while playing a younger, hungrier team in the middle of the regular season. But this was a particularly bad effort in a category they already struggle in.

The Ugly

• Whatever it is Danny Green was doing most of the night, he should come out for the next game and do the exact opposite. Felt like he could not do a thing right for basically the entire game. 

• Physically, Embiid did not look at his best on Tuesday night. Whether that's because he just wasn't in the flow of the game or is due to something more troublesome is impossible for me to say. 

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