The 13-11 Philadelphia 76ers were back in action on Wednesday, completing the second of a two-game stay in Charlotte against the 14-12 Hornets. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to three games. Charlotte wanted to right its wrongs from the Monday loss to the Sixers. Embiid, Curry, and Harris combined for 73 points in a 110-106 victory to sweep the two games in Charlotte.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the stage.
Ben Simmons, who is not mentally prepared to play, was unavailable for the Sixers.
Grant Riller was out with a sore right shoulder. Aaron Henry (Two-Way), Paul Reed, and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The following Hornets are currently in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable to play:
- LaMelo Ball
- Jalen McDaniels
- Terry Rozier
- Ish Smith
- Mason Plumlee
James Borrego started Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, and Nick Richards.
The Sixers’ offense looked sustainably good for the first time in weeks in the first few minutes of play. All five starters were very decisive. The ease and speed with which they read and reacted to Charlotte’s defense bred both improved pace and remarkable ball movement. Players were rotating well around Joel Embiid; Danny Green was making his strong-side baseline cuts, Harris was flashing to the post with Embiid on the perimeter, and Maxey was relocating to the weak-side corner to stretch the helpers.
When Harris had the ball, it was the D’Antoni offense on steroids. Instead of dribbling precious time off the clock, Harris was operating under a 3-seconds-or-less time constraint. It was effective, too. He registered 5 points on 2-of-2 shooting before the first timeout.
That offense is sustainable because of the pace and ball movement. The Sixers were getting up and down the floor quickly. That inherently makes it difficult for a defense to get set. When you mix the ball movement in with the pace, even the half-court defense is increasingly likely to make mistakes or experience fatigue because there’s no room for inactivity. The Sixers registered 6 assists on their first 7 made field goals. If Tobias Harris is going to be more of a number-3 than a number-2, a very good Sixers team around Embiid as the only featured star is going to have to maintain pace and stay committed to sharing the rock.
The interior defense was as bad as it was in the first meeting between the two teams on Monday. But, Embiid made up for it with another episode of total domination in the paint on the offensive end. He actively sought position in the post (and multiple teammates were able to complete entry passes!). Embiid maintained a healthy diet of jumpers. But, the big fella was aggressive in attacking the rim, too. He pushed the ball down the middle for a jam in transition. And while he didn’t convert the three-point play, Embiid drove to the cup and overwhelmed Charlotte’s interior enough to force a foul on a dunk attempt later in the first frame. Embiid’s aggressive, physical-based play over the last two games has been extremely encouraging. Now, will he continue with that style of play when Rudy Gobert comes to town on Thursday?
Andre Drummond and Shake Milton have developed a highly functional pick-and-roll game with the second unit. They put that two-man punch to the test on Wednesday. Drummond did a superb job of getting behind his rolling defender, and Milton delivered a pair of perfect passes that hung over the top of the basket where only the big man could retrieve and plunge them home.
The Sixers have done a very poor job of fouling at the rim in the last handful of games, and that continued in the second quarter on Wednesday. Some of it is instinctual. You’re trying to recover to defend the rim and you see the big going up for a dunk and you reflexively try to stop the easy score at the last possible second. But, that’s poor technique. If you’re going to foul at the rim, you restrict the whole body so that the shooter cannot get the ball high enough to touch the rim. The slap fouls do not affect the offensive player. So, it’s free points and you’re picking up a foul, yourself. Those soft and-1s are momentum killers, too. Charlotte is a deadly combination of quick, strong, and crafty. If you’re going to foul them, give a bear hug.
Drummond gets one of the worst whistles in the league. There was a play in the middle of the second quarter in which Drummond ran into Miles Bridges, causing the latter to lose the ball. The Sixers went the other way, and the ball found Curry for a triple. As Drummond was waiting for the ball to reach the rim, Bridges delivered a cheap shove to Drummond’s back and knocked him to the floor. Drummond reacted like anyone would, getting up and getting in his face. Of course, the officials didn’t call the blatant foul on Bridges. But, they were more than happy to assess a split technical foul on Bridges and Drummond for getting in each other’s faces. The very next play, Drummond was called for an offensive three-second violation that was more like one second.
The officials will never get it together because there’s no accountability for their poor performance. I understand compensating for a missed call on one end with an equaling call on the other. But, there are certainly some ludicrous calls against Philly’s reserve big. To not serve some justice with an obvious Flagrant 1 on that shove was preposterous.
There has been heavy criticism about Harris’ offensive game right now, but his defense is more startling in this writer’s eyes. He’s having difficulty squaring his hips with his assignment and his foot speed is not what it was last season. Right now, he’s getting blown by in one-on-one battle quite often. While there’s an obvious athletic disadvantage against the likes of Oubre Jr and Bridges, Harris is falling victim to isolation targeting on switches. I’m not convinced he’s entirely healthy at the moment, but he has no answer right now.
Perhaps the home-cooking before Monday’s game wasn’t as good as it was on Wednesday. After a brutal day at work in the first game, Curry broke the Hornets’ backs all night long on Wednesday. With Embiid operating at the level he is right now, his two-man game with Curry is going to have to assume its volume within the offense in order for the Sixers to be successful.
Part of what makes the pairing so successful is that Embiid makes life much easier for Curry. The veteran sniper’s activity on the court is taken down a notch with Embiid’s volume of touches. Part of that energy conservation is that Embiid lives at the line. With Embiid’s volume of free throws slowing down the game, Curry has the luxury of maintaining energy while playing. That’s a significant factor in why Curry’s play elevates as a function of Embiid’s availability.
Furkan Korkmaz did a very good job of keeping James Bouknight in check while his corresponding starter recharged to begin the fourth. Bouknight had opportunities to break Korkmaz down in isolation, but Furk wasn’t biting his hesitations. The discipline forced Bouknight to pass out of one-on-one opportunities and reset the possession.
Those are the spurts of positive play the Sixers need on the defensive end of the floor if Korkmaz is going to mostly struggle on offense. It’s not asking for a lot, either. The task is to keep his hips squared with his counterpart and keep his body out of the air when his assignment has the ball. That contained role is manageable for a player in Korkmaz’s role, and he was up to the task.
When he’s locked in, Drummond is a sneakily excellent help defender. That excellency comes almost exclusively within his role as the center behind Joel Embiid’s starter. Perhaps it was the shenanigans in the second quarter that ignited Drummond to be his best self. Whatever the root cause, he was sensational as a helper in the game’s final frame. He stepped out of the lane to reject a floater from Kelly Oubre Jr early in the fourth. To be fair, Thybulle deserves credit for dropping in and tagging Drummond’s man so that the big could lift away and be a helper, himself. A few possessions later, Drummond stretched out and deflected a low pass headed across the court. The deflection’s friction slowed the ball down and changed the flight path, compromising Charlotte’s play.
Tobias Harris stepped up in the fourth quarter, cashing in on a trio of buckets that stopped Charlotte’s momentum. He also cashed in on a pair of free throws late to give the Sixers some breathing room as they closed the game out. As I said above, Harris’ offense should be fine. But, it would be extremely easy for him to improve upon his gather as he goes at defenders. He often either pushes off his man or gets stripped as he gathers in the middle of drives. Instead of trying to out-muscle people or push through contact, he would likely be more successful just playing with better balance. If he has balance, he can stop in place to gather himself. The momentum will shed the defender for him, and he won’t have to risk committing an offensive foul or turnover to get his shot off. Harris will still have to act quickly as the defense recovers. But, he’s a strong enough midrange shooter that just planting and coming to a stop would be an effective means of creating space with body control.
On nights when Thybulle is getting back-cut out the wazzoo, there’s basically no reason for him to be on the floor. His offensive game is as limited as that of anyone on the team. If the defense isn’t there either, what’s the point? Thybulle struggled immensely on Wednesday. To that point, there was no reason for Doc Rivers to have him in the game over Isaiah Joe, who has had a nice stretch shooting the ball over the last few games. When it’s one of those nights for Thybulle, there’s no reason for him to be on the court in the fourth quarter over an actual shooter. That is especially the case when Embiid is on the floor. Boston crushed Rivers’ coaching last week by betting against Thybulle and fronting Embiid so that the Sixers couldn’t get the ball to him in crunch time. While that wasn’t a problem on Wednesday, Rivers electing to stay with Thybulle when he had a hot hand on the bench did not make much sense.
Speaking of Embiid, what more can you say. He had another clutch fourth quarter. The big man cashed in a contested triple to put the Sixers up 5 points with under three minutes to play. To cap off a night in which he was particularly physical around the rim, Embiid leveraged his absurd first step to burst around the smaller and more agile PJ Washington and push the middle of the floor before throwing down a nasty nuke.
The Sixers (14-11) will host the Utah Jazz (17-7) on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV.