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March 14, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers rout Spurs in first home game of season with fans

The Sixers laid the smackdown on the Spurs, 134-99, on Sunday evening, giving their fans a nice welcome back present in their first game without Joel Embiid. All but one player on the active roster scored for Philadelphia in a dominant performance from the home team.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I have been ranting and raving a lot this year about how some moments just haven't felt as impactful without fans in the arena to give them juice. We don't all act like robots on press row, but a few "Oh!" yells after a big dunk don't hit the same as thousands of fans yelling at once.

There were a lot of nice moments throughout the game, but the one that really made me feel like things were back closer to normal was the Tobias Harris to Dwight Howard lob in transition in the first quarter. That drew the first loud and enthusiastic cheers of the night, and it felt like it popped the top on a game that had to feel unusual for a lot of people.

I'm not going to lie, I missed this pregame ritual as much as anything:

On the other side of it, there were even some enthusiastic Spurs fans near our seats in the media section, men who appeared to be there to root for Reading native Lonnie Walker, who had himself a heck of a first half. We got boos and even a, "Ref, you suck!" chant before the first half had come to a close, and that alone was worth being there to experience.

I'm not breaking any news here, but sporting events are considerably better with fans in the stands. 

• You could definitely get used to watching this brand of team basketball from the Sixers on offense. One guy is not going to replace the 30 points a night Joel Embiid was offering you, and the more realistic plan is to spread the responsibility and shots around instead of forcing anybody to play a role they're not built to play.

While Embiid is not anything close to the primary playmaker on this team, he is their primary operator in the halfcourt, the guy who sparks their ball swinging around the perimeter. It was encouraging to see the Sixers continue to move the ball even though they didn't have him there to draw bodies and minds to the paint.

We expect Ben Simmons to collapse defenses and find teammates, but Tobias Harris had an uncharacteristically great game as a playmaker on Sunday, moving the ball effectively in the halfcourt and in transition. The latter was a product of simply getting more opportunities to lead the break, which has helped spark him on big nights in the past and certainly paid dividends against San Antonio.

The other team-based effort these guys should all be proud of was their commitment to the glass. On both ends of the floor, the Sixers threw their weight around to collect loose balls and extend or end possessions. They don't have a behemoth at center for at least the next couple of weeks, so gang rebounding has to be constant.

• Tobias Harris has aired his grievances about not making the All-Star team in the midst of a great year, but the important part is he has backed up those words with his play instead of letting the snub take him out of his groove. This was yet another steady, impactful performance from the guy who could have been Philly's third All-Star.

There are so many things he's doing well right now that it's hard to list them all. The Sixers can ask him to toggle between bully ball player in the post and pick-and-roll handler at the top of the key from possession to possession and have relatively similar success. Harris also just looks stronger this season, shedding contact easier than I can remember in the past.

(One area where Harris benefits with the big guy out: he has the luxury to try to hunt switches if he really wants to, with their remaining bigs more willing screeners than Embiid. Harris and Seth Curry made quick work of guys like Jakob Poeltl in space, and I suspect they'll have far more of those opportunities over the next couple of weeks.)

• I would not have bet on Danny Green to be one of the guys who benefitted the most from crowds being back — he has been on the bad side of a lot of Sixers fans this year — but he came out firing from the opening quarter, and frankly Philly probably didn't go to him enough when he had the heater going, because it eventually faded as the game rolled on.

The good news? Green was as helpful and active as he has been on the defensive end all season, putting out fires and holding his own when tasked with checking some of San Antonio's quicker guards. 

• Matisse Thybulle is just in an unbelievable zone as a defender right now, the state of this Spurs team notwithstanding. He has come out of the All-Star break looking like an All-Defense level player, and he's creating havoc without exposing himself to fouls, which is ideal (but often unattainable) territory for most perimeter defenders.

I can't imagine what it's like to be a perimeter player going up against the Sixers. You deal with Ben Simmons for the opening stretch of the game, fighting through his physicality and eventually meeting Joel Embiid at the rim, and then you think you've earned a moment of rest only for Thybulle to come off of the bench like he has been shot out of a cannon.

Thybulle has flashed a little bit more than usual around the basket lately, a good sign as he tries to find his niche offensively. The Sixers should be able to make use of him as a cutter during this Embiid layoff, but even an uptick in rebounding can make a difference, and Thybulle has the physical tools to get involved there. 

In contrast to Green, Thybulle was a guy I absolutely expected to have a better time during Sixers home games with the fans behind him. He feeds off of the energy at home in a major way — his shooting splits last season would tell you that — and they likely won't need a major deadline addition if he can sustain this level of play.

(I don't expect him to do that, but it's fun to dream.)

• Ben Simmons started Sunday's game slow, clanging a few shots and losing sight of help defenders in the early going, but he grew into the game over time and eventually left his mark on it, even if it was a smaller imprint than we see from him on most nights. At the very least, it was great to see him punch a few dunks home to send the crowd into hysterics.

A lot of people are going to suggest Simmons needs to step up offensively over the next couple of weeks, and that's true to an extent, but the burden is even more significant on defense if you're asking me. The Spurs didn't offer much of a test for his shape-shifting style, he helped shut the door to open the second half, and that was all she wrote.

• This was the basketball equivalent of an "Everybody hits!" game at Citizens Bank Park. It felt like the Sixers could not go wrong no matter who was pulling the trigger from deep, with Philadelphia coming at the Spurs in waves throughout the night. Fans in the building got a gaggle of stepback jumpers from Seth Curry, a shooting barrage from Furkan Korkmaz to open the fourth, the continuation of Matisse Thybulle's hot streak, and beautiful ball movement throughout the game. 

• Thank you to Seth Curry for shooting the end of half lob despite the (minimal) impact it will have on his shooting percentage. You play to win the game!

The Bad

• There are a lot of things the Sixers will have to overcome if they want to survive Joel Embiid's absence, but generating points at the free-throw line might be near the top of the list. They've gone from having one of (if not the best) foul drawer in the game at the center of their lineup to having a team filled with players who simply don't force a lot of contact. When they make shots, they'll be able to get away with it, but someone is going to have to step up and fix this.

I would look primarily to Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, guys who have shown this year they can lean on physicality and will themselves to the line when they're in the mood. But three free-throws in a half is simply not going to get it done, especially because one of those came on a play where Simmons was fouled away from the ball with a shot in the air.

Alright, I'm being nitpicky, whatever. They broke San Antonio's will in this game and forced Popovich to turn it over to a completely different lineup of players, so it's hard to get on them too much.

The Ugly

• Take whoever settled on the design for the Sixers "Earned" edition jerseys and keep them far away from any stylistic choices moving forward. These suckers look like a the knock-off brand jersey your grandma would buy you off of a clearance rack at Marshall's that you would then have to pretend you liked because she was doing something nice for you.

A lot of people complained about the Boathouse Row jerseys, but at least they made an attempt at doing something new to spice it up. These bad boys just look like they took the "parchment" colored jerseys from years past and slapped a Liberty Bell on them. For shame. 

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