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December 29, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers ride Embiid and Harris to tight win over Toronto

The Sixers could not buy a bucket for long stretches of Tuesday's game vs. Toronto, but big efforts from Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid carried Philly to a 100-93 victory over a tough opponent.

Here's what I saw.

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The Good

• Joel Embiid is the only guy on the roster who has earned unquestionable high marks for his play so far this season. There was a bit of skepticism about his fitness claims heading into the year, especially when he had to sit out the second half of a back-to-back against Cleveland, but he has come out of the gate like Roddy Piper in They Live, and he's all out of bubblegum.

The Sixers had absolutely nothing going in the first half against Toronto, and it wasn't for lack of trying from the big guy. Toronto sent constant doubles at Embiid, and outside of a couple sloppy possessions, he dealt with them quickly and instinctively, starting chains of passes that would eventually lead to open threes for Philly. When they didn't send doubles at him, Embiid pummeled Toronto on the block, scoring 18 first-half points with a whopping 11 free-throw attempts, living at the line with nothing dropping elsewhere.

(His work against doubles, it should be noted, was a bit spottier in the second half. I'll give him a bit of a pass with how bad the rest of the team was on offense.)

Defensively, Embiid also came up with some standout plays to save points. One sequence in the second half certainly qualifies — Embiid lined up to take a charge with a Raptors player barreling down the lane, and when the dump-off was made to big man Aron Baynes, he was still able to recover to the weakside and block Baynes' attempt at the rim, eventually tipping a rebound out to a teammate and sparking a fast break.

He was getting down the floor for early post-ups, he's using his body, he's seeing plays ahead of time, and perhaps most importantly, he's proven willing to get involved as an off-ball player. He even shook off a brief injury scare, returning from the locker room after missing just a few minutes in the third quarter.

Last season, there were a lot of reasons things went south, but a big reason is that the team followed the example set by their best player. There were nights he just didn't feel like playing hard, or wasn't thrilled with the lineup around him, or didn't think the matchup was worth his attention. That has not been the case so far this year, and he's setting a high bar for the group.

• As long as Embiid and Ben Simmons are suiting up for this team, they have the chance to be a special defense. Contrary to what some people seem to believe after last season, however, the vast majority of that comes down to the big fella, even if I think Simmons has a better chance to be first-team All-Defense for positional reasons.

As versatile and as good as Simmons is as a defender, Embiid is still the tone-setter and the anchor for this group, the guy who is capable of dissuading teams from the paint so drastically that they settle for tough jumper after tough jumper. For long stretches of Tuesday night's game, the Raptors didn't go anywhere near the paint, because they knew No. 21 was waiting for them at the summit.

The Sixers were able to hang around for a long time in this game despite it seeming like they had a lid on the rim, and you can chalk a lot of that up to the way Embiid protected the paint.

• This is the Tobias Harris the Sixers need to see each and every night. His outside shot went missing for a bit, and he was turned away at the rim by Raptors players quite a few times in the first half, but he just kept coming, and he didn't allow those moments of failure to slow down his decisionmaking. 

Doc Rivers has spoken about Harris needing to be more decisive to get back to the level he was at in L.A., and this game featured the quickest Harris we've seen all season. Even his misses were encouraging in that sense, with Harris taking the open looks instead of stepping into long twos, something that's been a big problem for him this season.

For the first time in a long time — and one of the first times ever, really — we got to see what Philadelphia's offense might look like built around Harris and Embiid in crunch time. It was not half bad, with the two starters working well together in handoffs and pick-and-rolls that seemed to flow from one action to the next. With Harris shouldering a big load on offense, it allowed the Sixers to do something other than just dump the ball to Embiid on the block in winning time, a luxury they haven't often been afforded.

While we're on that subject — Embiid and Curry showed off some excellent combination play late in the game against Toronto. They don't have the reps and time spent together of the Embiid-Redick combo that killed in crunch time for a two-year stretch, but they might turn into an even more dangerous pair over time. Curry is a more dangerous player with the ball in his hands, after all.

Anyway, back to Harris, whose quick decision-making was not limited to the offensive end. He benefitted from playing next to Embiid on a night where he swallowed up just about every driver who came his way, but Harris timed help well and didn't overextend outside of a few occasions, helping to turn the game around in the second half when it looked to be slipping away.

• Shake Milton has been better on defense than I think anyone could have reasonably expected coming into this season. He picked up a couple of cheap fouls late in the first half, but he's beating guys to spots, using his length better, and he even drew an offensive foul in the post in the second half. Guard defense is a bit overrated, but so long as he's a passable playoff defender, that's a big deal for Philly.

• It sure is nice when the kick-out pass from Embiid in a late-game situation ends up in the hands of a guy like Seth Curry, an absolutely elite shooter, instead of one of the many iffy perimeter players who have suited up for the team in years past. I get a feeling he will get a lot of clean looks at the bucket in crunch time, and that should certainly be to the team's benefit.

Curry has already started to settle in nicely, outside of a trend I'll get to below. Between his outside shot, his ability to hit pull-up jumpers when teams close on him, and the growing chemistry with Embiid, he looks like a great fit. 

The Bad

• This can't be who Ben Simmons is this year if the Sixers have real aspirations to contend. Maybe they don't, and this season is viewed as a bridge to a brighter tomorrow as they get better personnel around their top two, but that would clash with everything they've said publicly, not to mention it would be a slap in the face to Embiid, who has come out this season ready to roll.

It's early in the season, but these are performances we've seen before. Simmons tossing up errant floaters, Simmons throwing 180 passes instead of challenging smaller players at the rim, Simmons serving absolutely no purpose when he isn't on the ball in the halfcourt, you get the idea. His halfcourt scoring ability hasn't changed in four years.

The Raptors do not have the same personnel they used to torture Simmons in years past, and it doesn't seem to matter. That's the biggest indictment of his lack of progress. Toronto can continue making his life miserable, forcing bad shots and turnovers, even as they've lost big pieces and retooled around Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.

Say what you will about Tobias Harris, who had his ups and downs on Tuesday night, but he's at least willing to step up to the plate and take a swing, and he continued doing so even when the Raptors turned away his shot at the rim several different times in the first half alone. Maybe you could argue Simmons was unfortunate not to get a couple more whistles on Tuesday night, and Tony Brothers was certainly up to his usual shenanigans, but that's also a big flaw in Simmons' approach to the game. If his touch is off around the rim and he can't buy a call, what is he supposed to do? Shoot himself out of the problem?

• As my colleague Rich Hofmann has pointed out already, perhaps the game one comparisons to the "Night Shift" were a bit premature for this group. A preseason win over the Pacers and a nice effort against the Wizards are not the end-all, be all of basketball, and they have a long way to go before they prove they can keep the team afloat with no starters in their midst.

That's not a criticism of any individual player on that second unit. I like Dwight Howard as the backup five, Shake Milton has shown real flashes as a combo guard, Tyrese Maxey is super crafty, so on and so forth. But Rivers betting on that group to be able to tread water feels like a mistake, and it's honestly unnecessary in any case. 

Staggering Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons so that one is on the floor at all times is easy enough to manage, and it benefits both players and the team to get some featured time on their own. It doesn't seem like either guy is getting enough time on their own, and as we saw when Embiid was featured with shooters around him on opening night, he can lay waste to the competition out of those looks.

• Seth Curry's hesitation on open threes this season has been a bit bewildering for a guy with his track record as a shooter. I wasn't expecting him to walk in like he's J.R. Smith, letting it fly at any and every opportunity, but he has been a lot more reluctant than I'd expect on open looks for no real reason.

The Sixers and their staffers appear to agree. When Curry hesitated on an open three in the first quarter, Doc Rivers and the majority of his coaching staff reacted in disgust on the sideline, as did President Daryl Morey on the other side of the floor. He's one of the best shooters in the league, and they need to make sure he's carrying himself like one. Let that thing fly.

• Speaking of shooters, I don't know what it is about this team, but it is pretty mystifying watching good shooters come to Philadelphia and almost all of them get worse. Danny Green has been a bit up and down over the course of his career, and he is coming off of a long playoff run with the Lakers, but the Sixers have to hope he returns to form at some point during this season.

If not, Rivers might have to get Shake Milton into the closing lineup on a regular basis sooner rather than later. Green has not been especially good on defense to start the year, and while I expect that will improve over time as he gets his legs underneath him, he's not getting any younger. His decisionmaking also has not been the greatest through the first four games — there's no world in which he should be passing up a three to dribble-drive in crunch time.

The Ugly

• That was a Tony Brothers game if I've ever seen one. How he remains one of the league's top-rated officials is beyond me.

However, Embiid picking up a technical foul in the fourth quarter was completely unavoidable and he has to be smarter than that. Mouth off a bit, sure, but slamming the ball with two hands is going to get you punished every time.

• Philadelphia's shooting in the first half qualifies, right? They generated open look after open look and couldn't get them to go down. 

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