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January 04, 2022

Five likes and dislikes from Sixers' blowout win vs. Rockets

Don't look now, but the Sixers have built themselves a nice little win streak, their win over Houston on Monday representing the fourth straight victory for Philly. Their competition has been a little underwhelming save for their statement win over the Brooklyn Nets last week, but this is the soft period of the schedule they've been waiting for, and the Sixers are doing their part to take care of business and climb the Eastern Conference ladder.

In the wake of one of Joel Embiid's best games, a triple-double effort that put this game out of reach, let's run through some of the good stuff.

Like: Joel Embiid, expanding and dominating

Stop me if you've heard this before — when Joel Embiid is on the floor and healthy, the Sixers win a lot of basketball games. To be precise, they are 17-8 this season when Embiid plays, a pace that would have them winning about 56 games out of the full 82. Though the Sixers pretty obviously feel Ben Simmons' absence in a multitude of ways, the franchise center has done a good job of picking up the slack all season.

Making up for Simmons' absence has meant Embiid simply offering more of what we already know he can do, but it has also led to some unexpected steps forward this season. The Sixers have been a much slower team this season, and rather than simply kicking the ball to Simmons and expecting him to figure out the transition game, they have had to get the ball up the floor by committee. Embiid has taken on the responsibility quite a bit, serving as the jumbo floor general more than you'd expect.

For Dan Burke, who once had to gameplan against Embiid as an opposing assistant, one of the biggest differences between this version of Embiid and younger Embiid is the physical condition he's in now. That manifests in Embiid's pace-pushing, certainly, but also in the work he does early in the shot clock to seal off a defender and either score or draw a quick foul.

"In Indiana, we never felt like we had to double, he's going to wear down in the fourth quarter," Burke said. "He's in much better shape now than I remember him being, as far as just the early work to get the post. You see him just hitting guys and sealing, and maybe it's because they're smaller so he feels more confident, but it looked like they didn't want any part of him. He's got to savor that and just abuse it."

Even when teams want to, it has become a lot harder to just load up on Embiid and dare him to beat you as a passer this season. Embiid is averaging more assists per game than he has in any season during his career with his turnovers lower than ever as well. Spraying the ball around the floor out of the post has become commonplace, with Embiid able to hit guys in the opposite corner with little work left to do except to rise and fire:

It wasn't his best night of ball security — Embiid turned the ball over six times in just under 30 minutes — but those nights are going to happen to any player who dominates the ball and commands the attention of the opponent. The important thing is that Embiid scored or assisted on a lot more points than he left on the table, and he isn't satisfied with what he produced in spite of the monster 31-15-10 line.

"I thought tonight I was fine, I turned the ball over too much," Embiid said. "The whole season that's been one of the points of emphasis. Going into the season, I really wanted to—I've been doing a great job just protecting the ball. But I thought tonight that was also a result of me kind of being passive instead of being aggressive and trying to score."

Let's ask someone with fewer reasons to be modest for their thoughts on the Embiid performance.

"I don't even know how to describe his game because he can do everything right now. It's not just post-ups, it's not just face-ups," Korkmaz said. "And also this year, he started to read the game much better. I can tell from his eyes when I'm on the court with him. Like he knows where's the guys, where's the defenders coming from, where is open. Actually, if we make more shots he is going to get more assists, you know? He's going to get more triple-doubles." 

That's more like it. This guy is in some sort of groove right now, and the Sixers have needed every last bit of his production.

Like: Furkan Korkmaz, pseudo point

Korkmaz has taken a slow, methodical journey to assimilate after leaping from Europe to the NBA, growing a ton as a basketball player and a person. As Korkmaz communicated in a second language early on, there were times where he'd say something funny without seeming to realize it (like referring to his now missing teammate as "The Ben"), one of the natural products of working through a funky language like English*. He has long since reached the point of being able to make people laugh on purpose in his second language, as he did when he was asked whether he was aware that he'd recorded his first career double-double in the win over Houston.

"I knew that, yeah," Korkmaz deadpanned, refusing to crack a smile until several reporters laughed.

Scoring barrages are one thing, and Korkmaz delivered a 24-point body blow to the Rockets on Monday, but rarely do we see Korkmaz filling up the stat sheet anywhere else. It's rare to see him even get the opportunity, with Korkmaz playing a small role when everybody is healthy. But with 36 minutes to work with against Houston, Korkmaz was one of the stars of the game, the sidekick Embiid needed to turn a close game into a laugher.

Out of halftime, the Sixers made an important change schematically — after letting Seth Curry run point for a lot of the first half, they turned the keys over to Korkmaz to open the final 24 minutes, a move that Dan Burke claims made Korkmaz's eyes light up. Point Kork was a wrinkle the Sixers used early this season, mostly out of necessity, and it was oddly effective back then, too.

Six assists and a Sixers win later, Korkmaz explained to reporters how that role feels different from what he typically is asked to do on offense, relaying a message many players around the league (and former high school heroes at home) can sympathize with.

"Ball in your hands, you feel the game more," Korkmaz said. "When you dribble the ball down instead of just touching the ball every like three or four minutes, you have the ball every time even if you don't shoot it. You have the feeling sometimes as a scorer, sometimes it's hard to like get that feeling. But when you're a point guard, you feel like you have the control...I feel real confidence when I play point guard. I don't feel pressure when I bring the ball down. I know what I'm calling, I know where to go, either Joel, Tobias, or Seth we'll be running, I think it's important to know.

But Korkmaz's biggest contribution aside from his scoring wasn't his playmaking, it was his rebounding. The Sixers have had a gnarly time trying to secure rebounds and end possessions this season, putting their team effort on the glass under the microscope. Korkmaz, long and lanky as he is, has never been a guy you expect to help out much there, but he came up with 11 on Monday evening. 

*For the record, if this writer had to try to learn Turkish for a job overseas, I would be drawing dead. Being able to communicate functionally, let alone talk in front of cameras and a microphone, is an achievement I think gets taken for granted with a lot of overseas imports.

Like: Dan Burke's approach to fill-in duty

"I don't know anybody in the team who doesn't like him," Korkmaz said of Philadelphia's fill-in head coach on Monday. "It's hard to create it as a coach, because sometimes coaches are in our asses, to be honest. And he's a defensive coach, he is even more. It's hard to create that love and respect at the same time. We all respect each other, but also when you put love in there, as a player you want to play [with] more desire for him. I really believe in him, I really like him."

After Monday's win over Houston, Burke's career record is up to an even 2-2, which does not come close to doing justice to the long and respected career he has had as an assistant. If anything, we've gotten a glimpse of what the Burke experience is like in the lead chair, and credit to Burke for using the opportunity to do things his way instead of just copying the blueprint left by his boss, Doc Rivers.

Burke has made a concerted effort to stagger his starters during his two games in charge, avoiding the all-bench lineups that have vexed fans and journalists alike. He has asked his franchise player to carry bench-heavy groups, and once Embiid gives way to Andre Drummond, Burke has typically subbed multiple starters back into the game, a common move for coaches around the league but something relatively rare during the Rivers era in Philly.

Monday night, that meant playing Embiid for the entire first quarter, a decision Burke explained in the simplest possible terms afterward. 

"He was going, pure and simple," Burke said. "In Brooklyn, we took him out [when he was rolling], and he said something like, 'Hey, you know,' and I said well Andre just came back from an 11-day hiatus. I want him to get a three-minute run and then we have a timeout, and this is for Andre...[Tonight he was] rolling again, I don't know if I do that twice. You got to ride your horse."

Stagger your better players and make sure you ride them when they're hot. Not exactly reinventing the wheel from a coaching perspective, but you don't always have to be a bold, revolutionary thinker to be a good coach. 

Like: A breakthrough for Isaiah Joe

When Isaiah Joe tore it up in the preseason, there were quite a few people who were ready to boot entrenched rotation players from the lineup to make room for the second-year pro. Who could blame them? Joe looks the part of a deadeye shooter when he's on, showing off effortless range and no fear regardless of whether his defender is 10 inches or 10 feet away when the shot goes up.

Unfortunately, that beautiful-looking shot has not translated to in-game results for Joe. He is shooting just 32.8 percent from three this season, dampening expectations and providing Doc Rivers with a very bad set of options on most nights. When Korkmaz was in the midst of an extended cold spell earlier this season, bumping Joe up to give Korkmaz a break was rarely explored, which says as much about Joe's underwhelming year as it does his trust in Korkmaz.

It was nice, then, to see Joe come out on Monday night and hammer the Rockets from deep, going 5/8 from downtown to score 18 points before it was all said and done. Regardless of the opponent, it was a positive step for Joe, whose place in the rotation is far from guaranteed this year. Unlike classmate Tyrese Maxey, Joe does not have the luxury to simply try and fail in his role unless he wants to lose it altogether.

And then there's the layer of COVID-related confusion on top of that, with very few guys in the lineup sure of who they'll be playing with on a night-to-night basis. To Joe's credit, that's something he has tried to put in perspective that goes far beyond his team's predicament.

"It's hectic for everybody, it's not just me or any of my teammates, it's every other team. Everybody's going through the same thing," Joe said Monday. "You just have to be ready at all times, you have to expect the unexpected because it's gonna happen. You're gonna get minutes here and there. You never know when you're gonna get in, you just got to be ready, because when it's your time, you've got to take advantage of the opportunity...we just have to stay together as a team, as a unit and we'll be alright."

Will Joe still be in the lineup Wednesday, assuming Matisse Thybulle escapes a dreaded spot in the health and safety protocol? Too early to say. But the hope has to be that he'll use this as a runway to more success. 

Dislike: The direction Tobias Harris is headed in 

Tobias Harris has every right to be frustrated with the current state of his game. Shots aren't falling, the natives are restless, and he's an easy target for criticism because of his contract. Stuck in a rut for the entire first half, Harris managed to put together a respectable stat line by the time was night and over, largely due to his commitment to sharing the ball and attacking the glass. It doesn't excuse his horrific defensive effort in the first half, but as his coach pointed out after the game, finding ways to contribute to wins is the name of the game.

The problem for Harris is that this is no longer just a run of play, it's indicative of a bad season that appears to be weighing on him. Boos went from isolated incidents to a crescendo late in the first half, and Harris turned to the crowd and gestured to give him more, a move out of character for a guy who tends to be reserved both on and off of the court:

Embiid called the moment "nothing special" after the game, referring back to his own clash with the fans a couple of seasons back that he emerged unscathed from. But there are several notable differences between Embiid and Harris, and thus, their relationships with fans. One is the franchise player whose skill gives him the ability to endear himself with his play, while Harris is viewed in less charitable terms, the role player everyone likes well enough as a person whose contract doesn't match his output.

Frankly, Harris' relationship with the fans doesn't matter as much as Harris' confidence and how that impacts his game. Seeing him visibly react on multiple occasions on Monday night was out of character for him, and when Dan Burke was asked about it after the game, he acknowledged that Harris was one of his own toughest critics, something you can see when he is in the midst of a funk during a game.

"We talked about it at halftime, the only thing that matters is what's in that locker room, who's in that locker room," Burke said. "Part of where we have to grow from my experience last year is our focus. Shut out that noise. When we're between those lines, it can't be the officials, it can't be anything like that."

"I think he still presses so hard on himself, and he's got to understand Doc has so much confidence in him, and we all do. You know what was good, we pulled together. Joel was saying, call this play for Tobias, call that play for him. I saw teammates lifting him up, and if we have that every night no matter what's going on, we're gonna keep growing." 

Regardless of what he thinks about the booing — we didn't get a chance to discuss it with him following the game — Harris has not looked good in a while. His numbers are down, he looks a step slower, and any goodwill he earned with a strong season last year appears to have dissipated. Harris needs to find a way to get back on track. 

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