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January 11, 2022

Instant observations: Dominant Joel Embiid leads Sixers in blowout of Rockets

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The Sixers blew out the Houston Rockets behind another 30+ points from Joel Embiid, earning a 111-91 victory on the road to pick up their seventh straight victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There can't be more than 1,000 total people who watched this game with the college football national championship game on, and I certainly don't blame anybody for gravitating toward the title game. But you missed a doozy of a start for Joel Embiid if you opted for football on Monday, with Embiid taking a sledgehammer to Houston in the post and putting the Sixers comfortably out in front early.

When a certain type of fan was pissed at younger Embiid for drifting toward the perimeter too much, I would bet this version of Embiid is what they envisioned in their heads. Without guard play to speak of, Embiid consistently beat everybody else down the floor to get good position on the block, putting poor Daniel Theis in hell as he tried to keep up with him. It was even worse when he was able to get a switch and take on a smaller player, with Embiid dropping the hammer when that happened:

If Theis reached the wrong way, gave him space for a one-dribble move, or relaxed for even a moment, Embiid either drew a foul or went right by him, leaving Theis to simply plead with the officials to give him a friendlier whistle.

The problematic thing for Embiid opponents this season is they can't always hope to get him in a halfcourt setting. You now have to worry about running the floor with Embiid and trying to stop that large man as he barrels toward the rim, and his transition attacks were part of what put him on the line nine times in the first quarter alone, with Houston desperate to stop him from getting free layups and dunks on the break.

With Embiid in this sort of mood recently, the rest of his teammates have had no choice but to bring their A-game from the opening tip, playing with a level of intensity that has allowed them to get off to strong starts and put these underwhelming opponents in a hole they can't climb out of. Whether it's because he's further away from his COVID experience or simply exerting himself more lately, he is leading from the front, demanding excellence from those around him the way a superstar is supposed to.

Sure, these are some flimsy opponents they've been up against recently, and Embiid's run of dominance is sure to slow down at some point. But even when it does, his improved reads out of doubles, competitive juice, and defensive impact will allow him to keep this group afloat until they (presumably) get some reinforcements before or after the trade deadline. Embiid is lifting up this group right now, playing arguably the best basketball of his life.

31-8-6 in 26 minutes? That's as good as it gets. 

• No matter how crappy you think their recent opponents have been, Matisse Thybulle's step forward as an offensive player is one of the most important developments of the season. The made threes are going to come and go, but the trust and chemistry he is building playing next to Embiid is real, and it's something that will allow him to be useful enough on offense to play heavy minutes and tilt games defensively.

While Thybulle played in a much different setup for Team Australia, the cutting instincts he flashed there have shown up in Philadelphia recently, with Thybulle learning how to navigate around the dunker's spot and out of the weakside corner, bursting into space right at the moment Embiid looks up to fire a pass there. And as his coach has noted, Thybulle is a good target down there — he's got decent hands and great hops, allowing him to finish at the rim as long as he doesn't have to do much dribbling to get there.

Yes, the defensive disruption is still there, and that's still Thybulle's best bet to impact a game. But the further he comes along on offense, the bigger the role he can play when the games get tight in the playoffs. Very encouraging run of play from him recently. 

• We are probably at the point where you can stop being surprised when Furkan Korkmaz looks good as the de facto point guard for Philadelphia. He talked some recently about how bringing the ball up and running the offense allows him to get into rhythm easier than he could otherwise, and the results suggest that's not empty talk. Korkmaz was the second-best player for Philly in the first half on Monday, finding a groove on offense even if he didn't do a whole lot of creating for others.

The only real surprise early was Korkmaz's presence on the defensive end, where he was their most disruptive presence to open the game against Houston. Korkmaz straight up took Jalen Green's lunch money on a first-quarter possession, showing the difference between a rookie and a guy with years of NBA experience as he dipped his shoulder into him and created an easy layup for himself after the steal. And there were a couple more plays made away from the ball in the first half, with Korkmaz beating Rockets players to spots and helping to preserve their defensive integrity.

Watching him in the point role, it seems the Sixers need to give him more creative opportunities when they're fully healthy, perhaps moving Shake Milton into more of an off-guard role if that's what it takes to get this version of Korkmaz. Whatever they need to do to keep him from going ice cold again, they need to think long and hard about doing.

• This was not a good night for Tobias Harris individually, with Philly's starting power forward missing a number of easy looks and failing to sustain any momentum after the Spurs game last Friday. That being said, he set a positive example for the entire team with his approach to shooting the basketball, which is to say he took open jumpers almost every time they came to him, leading to crisper overall offense for the team.

When Embiid kicks the ball to the perimeter out of a double team, we see teammates of his passing out of open shots far too often, leading to late-clock settling and poor possessions overall. The Sixers, Harris especially, did a much better job of simply getting the open looks up while they still had them, and it led to makes for a number of guys on the roster. 

You would think this would be normal for a professional basketball team, but it's not for the Sixers, so enjoy it whenever you can.

•Andre Drummond continues to offer a lot as Philadelphia's backup center, putting memories of his roller-coaster run as the fill-in starter in the rearview mirror. There was a stretch of the first half where this game was a glorified one-on-one battle between Drummond and former Sixers player Christian Wood, and Drummond would ultimately emerge victorious on the night, dominating around the rim on offense without needing to have much of anything run for him.

We'll see if the narrative flips on him at some point — backup center play midseason isn't indicative of much in the playoffs — but he's chugging along for now.

• Charlie Brown Jr. didn't do anything spectacular against the Rockets, but he continued to look like a competent NBA rotation player in limited action. He's where he needs to be on defense, makes a couple of hustle plays per game to create extra possessions, and he really just needs to find his niche on offense if he wants a chance to stick here.

Honestly, it seems like he has a better case for a two-way deal than Aaron Henry does right now. If Rivers is going to him sooner than Henry to play a role they're essentially both competing for, why not have Brown available on a more permanent basis for the big club?

• To my eye, the Sixers have done a better job of gang rebounding in spurts recently, with Philadelphia's non-centers attacking the ball mid-flight better than they did to start the year. Thybulle and Korkmaz have been two of the guys leading that movement, and they're natural candidates to pick things up on defense, in possession of enough length and athleticism (understatement in Thybulle's case, obviously) to help the Sixers end possessions that come off of the rim.

When you clean it up after playing good defense, you're going to have a much better time.

The Bad

• Okay, so we do have to discuss just how bad Tobias Harris was on offense against the Rockets. This is not a team he should struggle against, given their inability to defend anybody and the shall we say questionable competitiveness on a moment-to-moment basis. But even though Harris was put in and pushed himself into good opportunities, he failed to capitalize on most of them, smoking a few layups and coughing up multiple turnovers that never should have been in jeopardy to begin with.

The fact that Harris has not been able to string together even three consecutive games of competent play should be a red flag for anybody watching this team. He is playing the same undermanned and light-on-talent teams the rest of his teammates have been, and though he has had momentary flashes of his old self, Harris has not looked much different from the underwhelming version of himself he has been most of this year. There’s very little explosiveness, the touch is failing him, and with Embiid playmaking more than ever, there are fewer secondary responsibilities for Harris to focus on to boot.

Down in a bad way while being booed by the home crowd recently, Harris responded to that moment with professionalism, keeping the focus on his play instead of lashing out during a low period of his Sixers tenure. But the Sixers can’t win games with nice things said during a press conference or even in the locker room. They need Harris to produce, and produce much more than he is right now.

• Danny Green has struggled to get right physically this year, so I don't necessarily blame him for struggling to get going this season, but there have been a lot more nights this year where he is either hard to watch or just not impacting the game at all. They didn't really need Green on Monday night, thankfully, but the Sixers will struggle to become the best version of themselves unless Green starts to either make shots or impact the game defensively on a more regular basis.

There will be pressure from the younger guys at some point, even with their warts. Isaiah Joe has struggled with his shot for most of this season, but the Arkansas product has looked better in spurts recently, knocking down more looks from deep while getting ever-so-slightly involved as a secondary playmaker, something Green is definitely not known for. The defensive gap between the pair still exists, with Green boasting a long resume of impactful off-ball defense and smarts, but the Sixers are going to win with offense until/unless they shake the roster up a bit.

I am a big Green booster, generally speaking, and I expect he will find himself at some point during this long season, hopefully in time for the playoffs. They need him to, because he's one of the few true two-way guys on the roster. 

• He was thrust into a bigger role than I assume the Sixers believed he would play when they brought him in on a two-way deal, but Myles Powell was just a disaster for most of Monday's game. Joel Embiid was visibly irritated with him for going off-script on a possession in the second half, and while pleasing the big man is not the only thing that matters, it's one of the only things that would have taken focus away from how bad he was everywhere else against the Rockets.

The Ugly

• Getting called for a 24-second violation out of a timeout is some truly disgusting stuff. Would prefer to never see that again.

• Joel Embiid has been a revelation in transition this season, showing off an improved handle and decision-making while on the move that we have commented on throughout the season. But he had a moment that will likely be a Shaqtin' a Fool candidate the next time the Inside the NBA crew assembles, with Embiid barely recovering a loose dribble before firing an over-the-head, no-look pass directly into the stands.

The good news is that so few people were in the arena that no one was in real danger of being hit in the head by the pass.

• I have kept my complaints about the broadcast this year to discuss the tech issues that have plagued NBC's feed, but allow me a moment to offer this gripe — local broadcast or not, there is too much time being spent complaining about calls against the Sixers right now. The franchises that historically have had the worst broadcast product all have one thing in common, and that's a crew that skews way too far toward complaining on the behalf of the team they cover. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but constant whining about the officiating is one of the quickest ways to get me to turn another team's broadcast on.

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