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November 08, 2022

Instant observations: Embiid lifts Sixers to win over Suns in return from illness

The Sixers rode Joel Embiid in his return game and got seven huge threes out of Georges Niang, outpacing the Suns in a 100-88 win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• All things considered, Joel Embiid's return to the floor went about as well as anybody reasonably could have hoped. He was Philadelphia's pace-setter on offense to start the game, getting to a lot of his points with nothing more than activity and size around the basket. And rather than trying to walk into the lineup and forcing everyone to play solely on his terms, Embiid made an effort to fit into Philadelphia's flow, lifting them up in the process.

Embiid would only finish the first half with a single assist, but there was a pointed effort on his part to spread the ball around, the big man often asking for the ball and then directing cutters and shooters where he wanted them to go. On one possession, Embiid commanded a double in the post, dropped the ball off to P.J. Tucker at the dunker spot, and then cut into space on the give-and-go, missing his first shot attempt but drawing a foul on the offensive rebound he pulled in.

That's the sort of "big man stuff" a lot of people want to see more of from Embiid. His ability to hit threes and stepbacks and touch shots of all sorts is great, but the foundation has to be dominating teams in and around the paint, even when there's a like-sized player there like DeAndre Ayton.

Defensively, Embiid was much more locked in to start the game than he has been in most appearances this year. The Suns are a team with multiple playmakers who can punish hesitation in your big man, and Embiid's activity (not to mention his movement) was better than expected after time on the shelf. There was also a moment in the first half where he kept Devin Booker from going anywhere near where he wanted to go, eventually forcing Booker to give the ball up late in the shot clock in search of a better route.

There was noticeable fatigue on his face and body at times, but the Sixers worked around it with short shifts to maximize his effectiveness. It was a great return effort, and a game he should use as a blueprint moving forward. 

• I genuinely cannot believe how often the Phoenix Suns allowed Georges Niang to get a clean look at the rim in the second half of this game. Niang has been, with no qualifications, one of Philadelphia's most consistently impactful role players this season. Put him in a 1-4 action with Harden, and he's killing you. Lose track of him in transition, and he's going to punish you.

There was no James Harden on Monday night, so Niang was left to work with Embiid, and Niang may be one of the few role players who has earned the big man's full trust on the offensive end. Embiid seems to be hyperaware when a defender helps off Niang to send pressure toward him inside the arc, and he's happier to make that pass than most others on the floor. If it required Embiid to drive down the middle and hit a backward jump pass to find an open Niang, then that's what happened.

This game was seriously in doubt entering the fourth quarter, Philadelphia up by just five, and No. 20 and 21 went about putting this game away all by themselves. When Embiid hit the bench to get his final rest around the eight-minute mark, everything seemed to be working against the Sixers. Reed was immediately called for a carry after nearly turning the ball over two more times, and Tyrese Maxey bricked a pair of free throws moments later, drawing groans from the arena. It wasn't until Niang hit a three in transition — again, somehow lost by the Suns — to send the arena into hysterics. 

Games like these show you the precise value of having great shooters. They offer so much more than the percentage they put up from deep — they can lift a team out of a miserable stretch and erase bad possessions with nothing more than the flick of the wrist, bringing the team and the crowd along with them. They are buried in this game without him. 

• While I understand the need to think about Tobias Harris' fit within the team and how his presence impacts roster decisions, at a certain point we're going to have to look at his volume shooting (and the efficiency that has come with it) and rethink that idea. He has never been a quicker, more willing shooter than he is right now, and on a team with guys still sort of grappling over how to balance the power, he is one of a few who have done exactly what is asked of them to try to make this project work.

In the month ahead without Harden, it stands to reason that Harris might help them stay afloat. Two games into the run without their lead guard, Harris has been more involved as an individual scorer, the Sixers giving him more opportunities to operate in the mid-post. He and Embiid showed some nice synergy on both sides of the floor, weaving off of one another on handoffs and turning post-up opportunities into clean looks for the other guy.

You've been able to ding Harris in the past for having a diverse skill set but not really going through the trouble to use it. That isn't the case so far this year. He's blending in when asked and stepping up now that there's a void to fill on offense. Now if they could just get him back in the defensive groove he was in to end last season...

• First quarter Paul Reed minutes qualify as a mild surprise, especially with Montrezl Harrell coming off of what Doc Rivers described as a good performance vs. New York. On paper, the right call, given Phoenix's heavy pick-and-roll attack, but that doesn't mean the decision was a given.

More importantly, Reed was good, and good in a way that wasn't surprising. His length and activity on defense allowed him to break up a few would-be buckets for the Suns out of pick-and-rolls, messing with Phoenix's flow in their staple play.

Look, sometimes it's as simple as playing the guy who fills more of a need for the unit. Reed may not be the most dynamic offensive player, but he can make up for some of the warts the other guys have on defense, and by getting stops and running, they don't have to worry about his offense as much in the first place.

The Bad

• If I were to look for a single reason the Sixers had to scrap and claw for the entire second half even as a couple of Phoenix's best players marched to the locker room, guard play is at the top of the list. Philly got little to nothing out of their guards, starting first and foremost with Tyrese Maxey, who has had a rough couple of games back-to-back.

Maxey's shot diet over the last two games has been no bueno. After a period where it felt like he could throw anything into the hoop from any angle he pleased, Maxey has come down to earth quite a bit. Stretches like these are why the coaching staff stressed to him that he needed to cut down on runners and get all the way to the glass when he was just a rookie — it's an inherently tough shot to make, and even if you're particularly good at them, that's still going to be the case.

Without James Harden to absorb a lot of the playmaking duties, Maxey's limitations running the show have become a bit more clear. After the opening read for a play has fallen apart, Maxey has struggled to make it to the next one, and rather than acting decisively, it has frequently led to him stopping the offense, re-gathering the team, and wasting precious seconds of the shot clock. Pressed to do something late in a possession, Maxey has been forced into the aforementioned low-quality shots, harming his efficiency and sending the opponent running the other way.

He hasn't exactly been aided by the guys who are supposed to help him in the backcourt. Shake Milton has been absolutely brutal the last couple of games, basically a total zero on both sides of the floor. While De'Anthony Melton has the chops to help in a secondary role, he spent a lot of Monday night's game in foul trouble, unable to leave the same impact he's made in a handful of games this season.

• For a guy who has made a living out of being a smart, rugged team defender, I was absolutely baffled by some of the decisions P.J. Tucker made there on Monday night. Watching him help off of a shooter in the strong-side corner is the sort of thing you'd expect the last man on the bench to do, not a guy who was brought here to bring savvy and toughness to the group.

The latter showed up at times in this game — it felt like every one of Tucker's rebounds was a tightly contested board, and Tucker hit the wood for loose balls to steal possessions. But I'm pretty bewildered by where his head is at right now. 

• Matisse Thybulle committing a dumb end-of-quarter foul on a top-of-the-line scorer? Why I never.

If it's any consolation for Thybulle, De'Anthony Melton arguably had the worst late-quarter foul of the game, hugging Booker while slapping at the ball late in the second. It was for Melton's third foul of the game to boot, which made the decision even more ridiculous. 

• The Sixers are somehow still pretty clueless against a zone defense, which has been the case for what feels like 1000 years. 

The Ugly

• P.J. Tucker is lucky Torrey Craig missed his three from the corner after dropping him because it would have taken him quite a while to escape that highlight. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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