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March 22, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers demolish Bulls with Joel Embiid absent for second half

After falling to the Bulls in double overtime on Monday, the Sixers roared back and blew out Chicago on the road despite Joel Embiid missing the second half.

The Sixers beat the Bulls up bad enough that Joel Embiid sat the entire second half, coasting to a 116-91 victory in Chicago.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers got out to a 23-1 to one lead to start this game, which is almost as ridiculous/hilarious as getting out to a 17-0 lead to open the game. They are certainly not a better team with James Harden on the bench, but they are a different one, and they got a chance to show everyone what they had without him on Wednesday night.

Ball movement and defense were at the center of Philadelphia's early dominance. Mixing up their coverages a bit, the Sixers were able to keep the Bulls off-kilter for much of the first quarter, leading to some tough shots and late-clock situations for Chicago. With the Bulls in scramble mode, Philadelphia got to play against a defense in transition for most of the first quarter, neutralizing the physicality they'd played with two nights prior.

But even when the Bulls set up shop, the Sixers had a much better approach as a group. Chicago continued to flood Joel Embiid in the paint and at the elbows, so the Sixers' MVP candidate took it upon himself to set the rest of the group up. And really, this goes back to a point we talked about following the win over the Pacers last Saturday. Embiid has evolved as a player, and if you're going to give him open shooters around the floor, he is going to bury you.

It has sort of been forgotten about now, but the games Philadelphia has played without Harden recently have reminded you of the pre-Harden Sixers, with Embiid needing to do it all in the midst of Ben Simmons' holdout. But Embiid's move to the elbows from the block has made him even more potent as an all-around force, allowing him to spend more time facing the basket instead of having to pick apart the gym with his back to the hoop and most of the opponent's defenders.

For the second time in a week, Embiid spent the game looking more like Nikola Jokic than Joel Embiid. He bit off more than he could chew on a couple of occasions — he doesn't need to be leading many fast breaks even with Harden on the bench — but he was the driving force of Philadelphia's free-flowing offense against Chicago, prompting his teammates to follow his lead.

We only got a half of this, thanks to the weirdness after halftime, which we'll get to below. 

• I have really come to appreciate the versatility of Tyrese Maxey and De'Anthony Melton, who earn that label in a couple of different ways. Maxey is the offensive weapon who can destroy off of movement,  kill you in transition, make something happen late in the clock, and hit tough runners in the face of bigger defenders. Melton is, as his moniker suggests, the guy who can do everything, from stealing to blocking to rebounding to shooting to whatever it is you might need at a given moment.

These two had tremendous outings on the road in Chicago, shining as pieces playing off of Embiid and later as two of their leaders with Embiid sitting the entire second half. Their overall efficiency was nothing special, but both guys made a killing from beyond the arc, and when they were involved in a play, it was more likely than not that something good was going to happen.

Philadelphia's sharing of the ball benefitted everybody on the floor, but these two were a couple of the best examples, waiting in the right spots to rise and fire while still making the right choices on swing passes if a teammate had a better look. Add on Melton's defensive contributions — he continued to dig and work and dash deep into the second half — and it was an all-encompassing night for these two, one that started with a Tyrese Maxey backcourt steal after Philadelphia's first score of the game. Relentless effort. 

• Doc Rivers made some interesting decisions with the rotation for this game in light of Harden being out and the Sixers, well, beating up on the Bulls. Rather than asking Embiid to play the entire first and third quarters, Rivers bought Embiid a bit of extra rest. And during those minutes without him, they were able to get Tobias Harris rolling, leaning heavily on him as a self-creator in the mid-post.

Whether the Bulls should have been this fearful of him or not doesn't really matter, I suppose, as they kept trying to load up to stop Harris from bulling poor Coby White. The Sixers exploited that tendency, sliding good shooters into the space vacated by double teams in an effort to get a quick three out of any additional pressure on Harris. If not, Harris got to attack a much smaller player on the block, and he had a reasonable amount of success there.

With Harris in a better rhythm thanks to the increased touches, we saw him in full form as a shooter, launching threes as quick as he has in months. Hit or miss, it was good to see him stepping into shots confidently, and working off Embiid in a variety of different actions. Those two have been teammates for quite some time now, and the Sixers found different ways to capitalize on that time spent together. They used Horns sets with Embiid and Harris stationed at the elbows, hi-lo actions with Embiid finding a cutting Harris, and put Harris in more pick-and-rolls thanks to Harden's absence. Basically all of it worked.

• A good day for anybody on Bball Paul island. Let's start with this — Paul Reed got screwed on a goaltending call in the second quarter, with Reed having done everything right on a Coby White drive to the basket. The officials apparently thought it had hit the backboard, but history will be kinder to Reed than that.

In any case, the real story was Chicago trying to play small against the Sixers with Embiid offf the floor and suffering for it. While the Bulls had some success spreading it out and running during that stretch, they had absolutely no answer for Reed on the offensive glass, with Reed extending multiple possessions by tipping the ball up to himself and playing above the smaller Chicago frontline. They couldn't do much aside from hanging on him around the basket to prevent easy buckets. How often do you see Reed getting to the free-throw line at all, let alone four times in a single quarter? 

While he nearly got burned for overaggression a time or two, Reed is slowly but surely learning how to toe the line on defense, even when he has to defend tough perimeter players (à la DeMar DeRozan) in space. The length and athleticism arguably serves him better there than it does at the rim, and you can see the vision for a switch-heavy lineup in the playoffs with Reed at the five.

• P.J. Tucker made DeRozan mad enough to commit a flagrant foul on Paul Reed in the first half. This has been your #JustPJTuckerThings moment of the night. 

• Danuel House Jr. continues to look decent in a small role. Important subplot of the stretch run.

The Bad

• This is a good thing for the moment but a problem over the long term — the Sixers are a better, sharper defensive team with James Harden in street clothes.

The Ugly

• The Sixers using the second half to get Joel Embiid more rest would have been a perfectly reasonable and acceptable thing to do for a team with a lot of tough games left on the schedule. But the Sixers sent most of the fanbase into a panic by leaving Embiid in the locker room at halftime with no real explanation, pushing deep into the second half before word finally started to get around that he wouldn't return...probably.

While you'd be free to make fun of me for getting a half explanation here... was the same vague explanation everyone else appeared to get, from the folks on the broadcast to other people on the beat. There was no admittance, denial, or acknowledgment of any sort of physical issue, but the absence of anything beyond that felt strange from my perspective and is outside the norm in this situation. It also is sort of ridiculous on its face — you're really confident enough in a Sixers team without Embiid and Harden that Embiid didn't so much as show his face on the sideline in the second half? 

(Also, and this is not a dig, but do you think Embiid is giving up a quarter or a half's worth of stats in the midst of an MVP race if he's 100 percent healthy? Doesn't pass the smell test.)

We saw Embiid rest up in the fourth quarter of a blowout in Charlotte last week, but that was a pretty standard situation compared to this, as resting a player for an entire half is a bolder move (especially when you don't have the second star to pick up the slack). People around the team were much more evasive than usual, and that is going to invite further scrutiny, fair or not. 

And in the final minute of Wednesday's game, the Sixers finally delivered at least some sort of update:

So the (slightly reckless) informed speculation ended up being on to something. Imagine that.

• Georges Niang might be the worst rebounder in the league. It looks physically painful for him to try to chase boards.

• The Sixers definitely would have beaten the Bulls on Monday if they had simply sat Harden in the second half. 

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