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March 02, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Pacers with strong bench and more Joel Embiid

The Sixers earned one of their most comprehensive victories of the season in a 130-114 drubbing of the Indiana Pacers, with Shake Milton leading the way in a great night for the second unit.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• On the one-year anniversary of his NBA coming-out party against the L.A. Clippers, Shake Milton was the star of the show for most of a great win over the Pacers. He could have timed it a little bit better — no worse time to get hot than right before the layoff of the All-Star break — but seeing him back in this form is a great sign for a team desperate for any sort of bench production right now.

It is a real bummer there were no fans in the arena for this game, because this is the sort of moment that really pops off when the crowd is there to add their reaction:

It was still a terrific move, of course, and it was a great reflection of the confidence Milton had going in the first half. All-bench units are usually where offense goes to die for the Sixers, and they were so good against Indiana that they not only extended the lead, they were given a bit of additional burn. Rivers rode Milton until the first half closed, getting everything he possibly could out of his sixth man.

I would not discount the impact of the lineup around Milton. Yes, Milton did a lot of the ballhandling himself, but with Tyrese Maxey back on the floor and Furkan Korkmaz offering at least some ballhandling on the wing, Milton was able to get a few clean catch-and-shoot looks, shots that have been in short supply for him this season. Knocking those down early in the run got him rolling downhill in a hurry.

They could use this version of Milton more often.

• If not for the vicious Milton crossover that happened moments prior, Joel Embiid may have been the victim of the social media clip of the night after Malcolm Brogdon punched one on him as hard as I think I've ever seen someone attack the big guy. The best thing you could say about Embiid's performance, however, is that he was able to get immediate revenge for that moment without losing sight of the excellent, unselfish style he played out of the post.

Indiana tried to single cover Embiid with Myles Turner at the start of the game, and that went as poorly as it always does, with Embiid blowing by his counterpart on several early possessions. The doubles came quickly once that started, and Embiid had some of his best passing of the season during a first-half barrage for Philadelphia — Embiid found Furkan Korkmaz in the weakside corner for back-to-back threes in the second quarter, and he consistently hit shooters over-the-top. That part of his game continues to get better as the season rolls along, adding to what is already a dominant season.

When the Sixers reward him for passing out of the post, he seems to grow in stature as a passer and makes better, sharper reads out of double teams. It's understandable that he can get locked into hero mode a lot of the time, because his offense is a lot more reliable than their role players, but you can see the potential this group has when he uses the attention paid to his scoring to become a dominant playmaker.

As an added bonus, the yearly tradition of Embiid absolutely torturing Myles Turner continued on Monday night, and that layer of familiarity feels nice during a period of uncertainty for the world. I like Turner well enough as a player, but it's gotta get old to continually improve as a player and still get your lunch money taken with ease by the same guy.

• Let's give Furkan Korkmaz his own section of love for his performance because he certainly gets piled on when things go the other way. I think I/we probably don't give him enough credit for simply being where he's supposed to at all times — his efficiency absolutely comes and goes, but Embiid and Simmons can basically always count on him to be where the offense says he should be when they look for their perimeter outlets.

He's in a good run of form right now, and though I think he gets forced into a bit too much self-creation with the second unit, there's value to being right on time even when he has a bad shooting night or two. Someone remind me of that the next time he goes 1/6 from three.

• Ben Simmons' offensive approach has been altered (in a good way) independent of Embiid, but I also think you see the value of improved chemistry for that duo in some of Simmons' trips to the basket. Embiid's willingness to get out and set screens for Simmons on and off the ball helps Simmons get a head of steam going with no one who can immediately slow him down, and that often leads to him committing to attacking the rim instead of peeling off at the free-throw line.

The Sixers have leaned into Simmons' utility far more as Rivers has had more time around this group. There are sets with Simmons as the screener/roller with Seth Curry handling, cuts off of Embiid in the post after he feeds the big guy on the strong side, and his tempo has been excellent regardless of the look.

Indecision is where Simmons hurts himself, and there has been far less of it on offense over the last month or so. Will they have to live with some nights where his layup attempts and free throws don't fall? Sure. But so what? More often than not, Philly is going to get the better end of the bargain if he attacks without fear of failure.

• Mike Scott continued an excellent run of form with another solid effort in Tobias Harris' place on Monday night, building on solid two-way play over the last week or so with probably his best offensive performance of the year (though that's not saying much). Scott has always had the aura of a grinder vet because of how tough he is, but he has actually put that to life over the last few games, buying in on defense and making the extra effort to impact plays away from the ball.

As a starter, Scott was asked to cover the much bigger Myles Turner for a lot of Monday night, and I thought he was excellent, using his body to bump Turner without crossing the line as Dwight Howard often does in the post. His head is up and scanning the floor more than I can ever remember on defense, and that's making the simple (but critical) help rotations crisper for Scott. The Sixers will have to hope he can keep this up.

• Generally speaking, this is the exact sort of performance you want to see from a team after the coach (and the players, in fairness) claims effort was your biggest problem in the most recent loss. This was a comprehensive beatdown of a rock-solid team.

The Bad

• Honestly, I don't think there's anything bad I can say about a performance like this one. Maybe Ben Simmons' first-half decision-making was shoddy (he had four turnovers at intermission), but you have to be a real spoilsport to nitpick a game like this. That was a drubbing.

The Ugly

• I am a man who appreciates the little things in sorts — defensive coverages, playbook tweaks, hustle plays — so the importance of winning a 50/50 play is not lost on me when it comes to winning basketball games. So many of the guys who outperform draft expectations do so by separating themselves through how smart and how hard they work compared to guys with similar talent.

That being said, there is no chance in hell there is ever a regular-season play that is worth losing my tooth over.  Credit to Doug McDermott for taking one for the team, nobody doubts his commitment to winning, but save that for the hockey players, my man.

(I'm mostly messing around, but really, the bar for losing a tooth is much higher for me than an early-March blowout. We gotta talk crunch time before I'm even giving a second thought to a dentist trip for the squad.)

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