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February 01, 2021

Instant observations: Fourth-quarter rally earns Sixers big road win vs. Pacers

The Sixers were bad on the road for most of three quarters on Sunday night, but a furious rally in the fourth quarter, sparked by a switch to zone defense, allowed Philly to escape with a 119-110 win over the Pacers, their first of the year without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Ben Simmons is not normally a "force the issue" guy on offense, but with Joel Embiid sitting on the sideline in a hoodie, I thought he did a good job of picking his spots and attacking Indiana at the rim. Myles Turner is the NBA's leader in blocks this season, so Simmons' willingness to attack the basket on Sunday was more noteworthy than it would be in an average game.

The most encouraging part about it for me is that it was rough for Simmons at the very beginning of the game, something that can prompt him to retreat to his shell and focus on playmaking the rest of the night, rather than trying to break out of a funk. He shot his way through it on Sunday night, something I would love to see him do more often because it can open up passing lanes for him.

This was also a game where his tendency to pass/playmake in the second halves of games was the right choice, with Furkan Korkmaz and Co. cooking as they came down the stretch. He got the ball in the hands of the guys who needed it, and that's ultimately his job.

• I thought Matisse Thybulle was absolutely brutal for most of this game, but the Sixers intermittently switching in and out of zone defense at the start of the fourth quarter sure seemed to breathe life into him. After spending most of the night getting roasted on defense and ignored on offense, Thybulle was part of the bench group that pushed Philly back into the game.

Success in zone is what put Thybulle on the map as a prospect at Washington, and he was no less effective there on Sunday night, seemingly getting his hands on every driver who got within arm's length of him. It's weird to say a bench defender controlled the game in the fourth quarter, but that's absolutely what happened. The result of the game absolutely pivoted because of Thybulle's impact as an off-ball defender.

In turn, the Sixers had one last chance to make a push. The zone wrinkle is something we have seen completely unravel the Sixers when it has been unleashed on them in past seasons, and it absolutely had the same impact on the Pacers. Turnovers became more frequent, threes stopped falling for Indiana, and the Sixers kept chipping away and chipping away, eventually pulling back into a game that looked basically over at the end of the third.

Pulling out in front required them to turn those turnovers and stops into buckets on the other end, and a collective effort from the bench did the trick. Nobody loomed larger there than Furkan Korkmaz, who caught fire in the fourth quarter and kept getting fed the ball accordingly, knocking down huge shot after huge shot in a situation where Philly basically didn't have room for error. He has had a tough go of it this season, so it had to feel especially sweet to catch fire and effectively win the game for your team.

Credit where it's due to the coaching staff for making this call and having the team ready to execute in their time of need. It had to feel especially good for defensive coordinator and former Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who gets a sweet bit of revenge on his old team.

• Once again, Tobias Harris came up with some huge buckets for Philly down the stretch when they absolutely needed to put points on the board. There were stretches of this game where he had quite a difficult time at both ends, especially as he was asked to cope with Domantas Sabonis in the post, a tough assignment for any player.

He has frequently shrugged off those moments of adversity to deliver for Philadelphia in the biggest moments. Harris' mental toughness has been hard to miss this season. 

• We can quibble with how bad they looked on defense for a lot of this game, talk about holes in the roster, and make sure we don't throw out lessons from this game just because they happened to win it. But you are ultimately going to have to win a few games in weird fashion if you are going to be a top seed in the conference by the end of the season.

This was a huge win for Philly — on the road, against a good team, and without their best player, an MVP candidate who happens to be their best weapon against a couple of the opponent's best players. Enjoy the win and worry about the rest later.

The Bad

• The Sixers have tried for years to make small looks work with Ben Simmons at the base, and they just don't seem to come together defensively the way they need to. It's really a shame because there's obviously something to the concept on offense, where you can spread the floor out around a drive-and-kick guy who will find anyone who gets free.

Doc Rivers tried to experiment more with this look against Indiana, and the encouraging offensive returns were offset by the Pacers getting to the rim and either scoring or using the collapse of Philly's defense to set up an open shooter. Even as the Sixers got on a roll on offense in the second quarter, they didn't quite make the gains they would have with average-ish defense.

It's not a problem I think is necessarily fair to blame Simmons for. The guy consistently (and capably) guards top assignments on other teams all over the map, which moves him up and down the lineup and requires schematic knowledge, not just physical gifts. Expecting him to be able to be a good rim protector on top of that would be a big ask.

The issue is that there's not really a way around that with any reasonable roster construction. Role players and shooters that fill out your roster are not going to be high-level defenders, generally speaking, so they're going to allow a fair amount of penetration in the average NBA game. 

Simmons does impact that from a structural perspective — you have to be more considerate about putting other questionable shooters on the floor with him than you must be with any other star-level player in the league. An ideal small-ball look with Simmons would feature a bunch of guys who could switch everything, but in order to have the requisite shooting on the floor, they put a group of guys out there who would get skewered in a switching defense. And their current choice of more traditional drop coverage certainly isn't cutting it.

We wouldn't be talking about this at all if Dwight Howard was playing better, but he has been in a rut for weeks. Howard is attacking the offensive glass hard but it's about the only thing he's doing well right now, with his propensity to pick up fouls putting a cap on his effectiveness. It's hurting them at both ends, killing possessions before they start on offense and allowing teams to get to the line more as he fights for positioning on the defensive glass.

All this adds up to Philadelphia's defense falling apart when Joel Embiid isn't available. That means the Sixers have to keep toying with alternative looks that have flaws and can't be practiced that often, with their reps coming predominantly during games where teams can and will punish your inexperience.

• For all the justified praise Matisse Thybulle has earned with his defense in recent weeks, you could make a credible argument that he often hurts them on offense more than he helps them on the other end. It's not always going to show up in the box score, but teams are actively ignoring him when the Sixers are trying to score, and that stresses just about any lineup he plays in.

Teams are mostly able to leave him open in the corner or from the elbow extended without fear of being punished for it. It hasn't impacted his willingness to shoot yet, which I suppose you could spin as a good thing, but that doesn't really matter when the percentages are what they are. Something they have to keep an eye on throughout the year.

• The Sixers have a roster full of players who struggle to create space when they're asked to do it themselves. That is not an especially big concern when Joel Embiid is available to play — the big guy draws so much attention in the post that other players mostly have to swing the ball, make open shots, and attack closeouts.

It leads to comical results in these non-Embiid games. Danny Green shooting runners in traffic, Seth Curry crossing over again and again and still having to throw up a looping, off-angle layup off glass, and the Milton-Maxey combo needing to rely on lots of in-between looks to sustain the offense. Unless they all manage to shoot at an unsustainable level for a game, wins are going to be difficult to come by.

Maybe you believe they're only going as far as Embiid takes them, so it's not a relevant concern because of that. But teams will absolutely make life tougher on the big guy when it matters, and they need alternative paths to score. A high-level creator is a need for this team, if you're asking me.

The Ugly

• The Sixers simply don't have an offensive identity when Joel Embiid doesn't play. This has been the case for a long time but it doesn't make it any less disappointing, and in fact, it feels more infuriating this year because the offense is much better overall.

There are flashes of wrinkles that we might see on a grander scale with more time to work on them. Philly has incorporated Simmons more into off-ball actions, going back to using him as a screener who can get downhill quickly and attack the rim. They have the handlers to increase their pick-and-roll usage, and there's already decent chemistry between their bench guards and Dwight Howard, which they can use to put pressure on the rim and open gaps for their catch-and-shoot guys.

All works in progress, though. 

• Myles Turner fouling out against Philly even with Embiid sitting on the bench is hilarious. This team just tortures him.

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