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January 18, 2018

Sixers use dominant Joel Embiid performance to overcome Boston Celtics

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011918-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bob DeChiara/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid controls the ball while Boston Celtics forward Daniel Theis defends during the first half at TD Garden.

With some players, you can tell when they're going to have a good game within the first few minutes of stepping on the court. They hit those first couple shots, settle into a groove and it's off to the races from there, or they'll put up a few bricks and never really get into the game.

You would think Joel Embiid would be especially prone to this phenomenon, given his shuttling in and out of the lineup and lack of practice time. Without a large base of reps to build from, Embiid is working through struggles in real time to a degree that perhaps no NBA star ever has. Yet even when he comes out cold as he did against Boston on Thursday night, Embiid's talent level is high enough that he can turn a game on its head in an instant.

The box score is your typically absurd night at the office for Embiid: 26 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal on 10/19 shooting and 35 minutes played. And while the efficiency and overall brilliance was great, it was the passing that set this game apart even when he was struggling to knock down shots.

Frankly, the assist count doesn't properly measure how devastating his passing made Embiid against Boston. The Sixers missed several clear opportunities fed to them by Embiid, who used Boston's attention on him to repeatedly hit his teammates in dangerous areas.

This is a glimpse of end-stage Embiid, an all-purpose monster who you can run an offense through. Passing is the key to jumping up into that top echelon of NBA players he is hovering below at the moment. It will reduce his turnovers and make the game easier for the more limited members of his team around him, and those are really the only two major hurdles left for him to clear on offense.

What was striking about Embiid's variety of passes against the Celtics was the variety. He has shown the ability to do damage as a passer when he's in face-up mode, with his height allowing him to see over waves of defenders. It's a different story when he's on the move and weaving through traffic, and that's one area where his inexperience tends to show.

Difficult as it is for a man his size to dip and dive between bodies and fire passes to open players, Embiid showed it is indeed possible for him to pull off.

His life will become much easier as scorer when Embiid is making these reads and plays consistently. Double teams are only effective when you stubbornly try to power through them on your own, and Embiid can take the sting out of them by just making sure he sees the court. If teams eventually become fearful of sending a second guy at him, it's over for the league.

The passes came from all angles and to all different players on Thursday. That spot at the top of the key he loves to shoot and pump fake from is where he ends up on a lot of possessions, and he is using the knowledge of hard closeouts against his opponents now, even splicing in some no-look fanciness to spice up the passes.

When I say he wasn't capable of this just over a year ago, it's almost underselling the situation. Embiid wasn't even thinking about passing when he played his first stretch of NBA games, with any assists almost coming by accident. The tunnel vision was (and sometimes still is) real, with the big man convinced he could eat, eat, eat, eat MC's anytime you put the ball in his hands.

That belief is still there, but it is connected to a smarter and more experienced Embiid. More time on the court and more time in the film room, working with Brett Brown to maximize his effectiveness, has turned him into an assassin.

I don't need to tell you how killer the rest of the offensive package is. At 7'2", Embiid is capable of dropping in one-legged fadeaways reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki, which is almost completely unblockable at his height. When he's hitting these, you better pray you can get something going on the offensive end of the court.

On a night where he was named an All-Star starter over Al Horford, you might have expected the latter to come out with a little more fire in his belly. But it was the young phenom who came out and left his imprint on the game, reminding a national audience why he was named an All-Star starter in the first place.

Who will be the guy to step up in Redick's absence?

We didn't get a great answer to this question on Thursday night, because I wouldn't count TJ McConnell's 15-point effort as something completely out of the ordinary. He has been the team's most reliable bench player all season, and I wouldn't expect that trend to stop now.

What is worth noting, however, was the reemergence of Justin Anderson as a real member of the rotation. After some downright horrendous early minutes from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it was Anderson who got a chance to grab onto some backup wing minutes. I wouldn't say he draped himself in glory, but he at least provided proof of concept for what they might get out of him.

There was a sequence in the second quarter that epitomizes the Anderson experience. He did a great job running down Jaylen Brown in transition, and ended up covering Horford on a late-clock switch. From there, Anderson looked like an absolute madman and forced Horford into a tough fadeaway that rimmed out.

I don't know if I would say that defense is necessarily "good," but the activity is definitely there. Anderson is big and athletic enough to handle various assignments on switches, something you can't say about a lot of the guys in Philadelphia's rotation. It's anyone's guess whether an Anderson play will end in success or dramatic, sometimes hilarious failure, because the waving and hopping can lead him to foul someone as easy as it can earn him a stop.

At this point, I think the Sixers will live with it. They know he'll give the team energy and stay engaged on the defensive end, which matters deeply to this coaching staff. That said, the Sixers will need him to do better than 1/5 from the field.

A window into the Tatum decision

The Celtics were without Kyrie Irving on Thursday night, which was a large part of the Sixers' ability to come away with a win. And with the way Boston played in his absence, I think you saw some of why the Sixers prioritized drafting the UW version of Markelle Fultz rather than going after Jayson Tatum (who I must say out of fairness, is having an excellent rookie season).

With Irving on the shelf, the Celtics lacked primary creation equity in a big way. They usually get away with having wing-heavy lineups because they have guys all over the floor who can shoot, which minimizes the impact of only having one real creator off-the-dribble. Add on plus-passing ability from a big man in Horford, and the Celtics get it done offensively with a less than ideal setup.

To be kind, their offense melted down entirely without Irving. Boston turned the ball over 19 times (they average just over 14), and it took a late surge just to cross the 80-point threshold. They looked quite similar to the Sixers at times, sailing passes into the stands after struggling to find a better path forward.

There's a difference between having a handle and scoring skills good enough to get buckets and having an offensive repertoire that allows you to translate that into playmaking. Tatum makes some gorgeous moves in isolation, but it's hard to repeat that success over and over, and more difficult still to use it to create offense for people other than yourself.

On the Sixers, that problem would be amplified, because the decreased floor spacing caused by Ben Simmons and the lack of creativity off-the-bounce elsewhere would put a much higher burden of creation on Tatum than he has in Boston. The Sixers need shooting, of course, but they need that combined with an ability to generate team offense and run the show on the perimeter.

If Fultz never reclaims his jumper, none of this matters at all and you would, of course, take Tatum. He would 100 percent add value to this team right now with scoring and defense, let alone in the future as he adds to his game. But from a bird's eye view, you can see the logic behind why the Sixers had a stylistic preference in last year's draft, and you can imagine how some of his current limitations would be amplified by the Sixers' roster construction. My guess is that still won't make many of you feel any better about how good he has looked compared to Fultz.

Robert Covington needs to shoot more

With JJ Redick out of the lineup, someone is going to have to step up and take more jumpers. Covington has to be the guy, though it will come against his current run of play.

If you talk to people around the Sixers, they're enthused about the way Covington and Redick have played this season, with only one caveat: they'd love for them both to shoot more threes when the opportunities are there. They haven't had to convince Redick to do so lately, but Covington cooling off from three has coincided with more hesitation to let it fly. I'm all for being smart about your shot selection, but they desperately need him to take and make more threes.

Shooters go through slumps, and Covington is definitely in one now. He's at 30.4 percent from three for the month of January, by far his lowest mark of the season.What he can't do is let that impact his willingness to shoot. The Sixers ended up turning the ball over in crunch time when Covington passed up an open look, something you'd almost never expect to happen.

When Covington is locked in, he doesn't pass up crunch-time shots just because a closeout is coming. He can be fearless to his own detriment at times, but letting the clock run out isn't a realistic possibility.

It has to come with improved efficiency, but Covington needs to increase the volume of his shooting, period. The best way to break through a cold streak is to just keep firing.