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November 04, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid, Kelly Oubre Jr. lead Sixers in win over Suns

The Sixers beat the short-handed Suns, 112-100, thanks to a well-rounded two-way showing.

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Suns-11.4.23-NBA.jpg Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid meets Phoenix's Jusuf Nurkic at the rim during the Sixers' win over the Suns on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers played host to the short-handed Phoenix Suns Saturday afternoon, with the Western Conference co-favorites missing Devin Booker (ankle) and Bradley Beal (back). But they still had Kevin Durant, and any game against Durant is a tough one. The Sixers, however, were able to come out on top, 112-100.

Here is what stood out from the Sixers' win over Phoenix:

First Quarter

• Joel Embiid was very sloppy early on in this one, committing two turnovers in the first quarter and generally looking out of sorts. It was an uncharacteristically slow start, yet he finished the quarter with nine points and three rebounds. De'Anthony Melton also had a sloppy start, committing three first-quarter turnovers.

• Nick Nurse indicated pregame that the plan was for the three available players recently acquired via trade – Robert Covington, KJ Martin and Marcus Morris Sr. – to not be part of the rotation on Saturday, as the group continues the process of being integrated into the team. But when Durant forced Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. into foul trouble early on, Covington was called upon to guard the future Hall of Famer. He and Patrick Beverley worked in tandem to defend Durant while the team's two primary options sat on the bench.

• Harris was assertive and effective on offense early on yet again, as he continues his habit of getting off to good starts. The theme of Harris' season has been scoring versatility. Today, he started hot by putting his head down, embracing contact and going towards the rim.

Second Quarter

• Paul Reed's typical stint to open the second quarter lasted just five minutes, as opposed to the usual seven or so. Reed was not in foul trouble, nor was his play particularly noteworthy in the positive or negative direction. He missed a bunny around the rim, but did grab four quick rebounds. Not necessarily something to worry about, but something worth noting.

• Kelly Oubre Jr. may cool off at some point, but he continues to give this team a massive spark. His energy alone gives the team the lift it needs without consistent perimeter creation. While he is supposedly starting just until the new players acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers are fully integrated, one has to wonder if he is making a credible case to be the fifth starter himself. However, his energy is the kind teams often do want off their bench. Either way, the team continues to get an excellent return on investment after signing Oubre Jr. to a veteran's minimum contract. He scored 17 points on 10 shots in the first half.

• It was a rough first half offensively for Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who entered intermission shooting just 3-9 and 4-12 from the field, including Maxey missing all three of his attempts from beyond the arc and being blocked a few times. Both of them thrive off their two-man game, but their timing seemed off for much of the first half. It led to quite a few turnovers or bungled possessions. 

Third Quarter

• Embiid got off to a much better start in the second half compared to the first, dominating the paint like he usually does. That includes a posterization of Drew Eubanks on an and-one dunk that got the crowd on its feet and a miraculous three to beat the shot clock at the end of the quarter. After looking sloppy and even clumsy early on, Embiid was able to get in a rhythm, play the game at a pace he liked, and get settled in nicely. He scored 17 points in the third quarter.

• Durant was able to get his, as he always does, and make some good runs at the Sixers. But the Sixers did a great job showing him different looks, often a key to slowing down a superstar of Durant's caliber. Harris, Oubre Jr., Covington and Beverley all took cracks at him, with Embiid and others often flashing to show him double-teams. Having the versatility to throw different coverages at elite players is critical.

Fourth Quarter

• Despite Harris and Oubre Jr. being out of foul trouble to open the fourth quarter, Covington was granted more playing time to open the final frame. While he is not the defensive stopper he once was, the Sixers will soon rely on Covington for sturdy wing defense and spot-up three-point shooting. His ability to defend the league's biggest wings – like Durant today – makes him a valuable piece.

• With the Sixers' lead down to five entering the fourth quarter and Embiid getting his customary rest to open the final period, the opening minutes of the fourth were paramount for the Sixers. They came through in a big way thanks to timely scoring from Harris and Furkan Korkmaz, as well as strong team defense. Just about every Sixers performance is powered by how they perform when Embiid is on the floor. But as Sixers fans know all too well by now, they must figure out how to sustain viable team play when the reigning NBA MVP hits the bench. They did that Saturday afternoon. Reed was pivotal in the Sixers' fourth-quarter run, finishing around the rim twice – an area where he has struggled to open the season. 

• After a brutal first 36 minutes, Maxey was finally able to emerge and leave his mark on the game in the fourth quarter. Maxey converted a tough finish at the rim through heavy contact and quickly followed it up with a triple and an assist to Reed that forced a Phoenix timeout. He then knocked down what might have been the dagger: a nasty step-back three over the long outstretched arms of Durant.